Hats Off to Hotel Monaco Chicago: a Modern Boutique Hotel with a Fashionable Past

Enjoy this tantalizing tale that goes beyond the building to bring Chicago’s past to life. It’s one of the fifty landmarks featured in Living Landmarks of Chicago.

It’s not obvious the structure at Wabash Avenue and East Wacker Place has been there for more than a hundred years. Hotel Monaco Chicago looks like a mid-century creation, with a sheer, modern face that doesn’t have any of those flourishes and frills one expects from something built in the early 1900s.

But two things give it away. One, it’s a mere mite of a high rise by Chicago standards. The second indication is almost hidden: around the corner on the east side of the building, way up at the top of the exposed brick, is a ghost sign: D. B. Fisk & Co.

Founded by David Brainerd Fisk shortly after he moved to Chicago, D. B. Fisk & Co. would quickly become the milliner for the west.

That’s because it was the only milliner for the west.

David, who was a ripe old thirty-five years, brought his wife, Lydia, and their three children from Upton, Massachusetts to start fresh in 1853. He’d worked in his father’s general store and as the town postmaster before deciding to take his chances in the exploding town.

He would become one of Chicago’s wealthy, but he didn’t follow the route of many of his fellow entrepreneurs: instead of opening a dry goods store, joining the railroad boom, or investing in real estate, David opened a wholesale millinery.

Ladies, even in rough-and-tumble mercenary Chicago, needed hats. This was especially important during a time when hair-washing was a monthly activity. David filled that need, and within two years he’d added a partner and moved from Wells Street to the center of commerce on Lake Street.

When that partner retired four years later, David added his son, Daniel M., and John E. L. Frasher and they became D. B. Fisk & Co. Competitors popped up, including Gage Brothers, Webster Brothers, and Keith Brothers, but David’s company set the standard.

The March 27, 1871, issue of Harper’s Bazar (as it was spelled in 1871) praised the firm with an absolutely gushing article. A small portion of it said:

“Their great success has been achieved by their enterprise, sagacity, integrity, industry, good taste in the selection of their stock, promptness in procuring the latest and best styles, ample means and rare facilities for making the manufactures of their goods, both in the Old World and in the New, tributary to their wishes; thorough acquaintance with the wants of the trade, and constant attention to the interests of their customers; and by keeping only those in their employ who are efficient and trustworthy assistants, and who take a personal interest in the business of the firm.”

Picture of D. B. Fisk & Co. from Harper's Bazar. The company's later building would become Hotel Monaco Chicago

When the 1871 fire destroyed the Lake Street location, D. B. Fisk & Co. set up shop on West Washington before the embers had even cooled, despite suffering losses of nearly $300,000.

After a brief layover on Clinton near Randolph, in 1873 the firm moved into a huge building, designed by John M. Van Osdel, at the southwest corner of Wabash and Washington. Its five stories and basement were filled from top to bottom. There was a floor to display hats; another to showcase cloaks, wraps, and other fancy items; another for straw goods; and yet another for flowers.

At the very top sat the factory that created the “Fiskhats” that were in such demand from coast to coast. A report published about the leading members and businesses of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1885 – 86 marveled at the size of the workforce employed by the firm:

“The firm has brought its extended business into smooth working operation, with a thorough system of organization, and the large force of one hundred and fifty hands employed in the various departments, efficiently perform the duties required of them, while three hundred operatives find steady employment in the firm’s factory.”

After a bout with bronchitis, David died in 1891. He was known as a solid man, enthusiastic about Chicago, and devoted to his family. Despite membership in several clubs, “he found few pleasures so great as to draw him from his home,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune.

John E. L. Frasher took over as the acting head of the company, and with a steady hand, made it an even bigger success. When he retired in 1905, Millinery Trade Review said: “To Mr. Frasher, possibly more than any other man, has been due the policies that have made this house as solid as Gibraltar.”

For a couple of years John’s son, Edward, acted as Vice President, and Joseph J. O’Meara as President. In 1906, Robert H. Harvey, a doctor who’d married David Fisk’s granddaughter, joined the company as treasurer. The next year, he led the firm.

Robert’s middle name? Hatfield.

D. B. Fisk & Co. continued to grow. So, too, did its neighbor across the street, Marshall Field & Company.

Marshall had died in 1906, but he’d left his company in the more-than-capable hands of John Shedd, and by 1912 the department store needed more room. The big lot across the street looked pretty fine, and in 1912, Fisk and Field worked out a deal where Marshall Field & Company could have that corner lot for a new annex and D. B. Fisk & Co. would move a few blocks north and get a whole new building, two and a half times as tall as their current home. Win-win.

Postcard of the D.B. Fisk & Co. headquarters before its exterior decorations were stripped

D. B. Fisk & Co. moved into their new headquarters overlooking the Chicago River on January 1, 1913. Local architect George L. Harvey continued Van Osdel’s success and built another triumph of efficiency and design for the firm.

A 1915 article printed in American Angler said: “It is one of the most complete buildings, from sub-cellar to roof, that has ever been put up for mercantile purposes.”

Inside it contained a baker’s dozen of floors specifically designed for the country’s biggest wholesale milliners. Made from fireproof materials, there was a sprinkler system and a complete ventilation system. Modern elevators, powered by an in-house electrical plant, shuttled employees and customers. Steel frame construction for high rises was standard in 1912, which meant large windows allowed natural light into the many floors of showrooms.

Hotel Monaco Chicago today - a sheer building surrounded by taller skyscrapers

The company did swell during the roaring ‘20s with Dr. Robert Hatfield Harvey at the helm, but on November 3, 1931, a headline, followed by a one-paragraph article, in the Chicago Tribune said simply: “D. B. Fisk & Co. Plan to Quit Millinery Business.”

The company liquidated, but it wasn’t done yet. Vice President Joseph Beckman rounded up former employees, salespeople, and executives and bought the name. They moved out of their big building to a much smaller store and reduced their reach, but they still managed to survive for another couple of decades.

Other milliners moved into D. B. Fisk’s efficient building, and several businesses used the space that had previously been filled by one. But by the 1950s, buildings weren’t the only things losing their flourishes and frills. Fancy hats were out, too, and the high rise emptied entirely.

By the end of the decade, a series of investors planned on converting the building into hotels. Finally, one succeeded, and the Oxford House Motor Hotel opened in 1960, but not before completely changing the look and feel of the building, both inside and out.

They gutted it, turning the show rooms and factory floors into hotel rooms with kitchenettes. They opened a split-level restaurant and a cocktail lounge and added meeting and banquet rooms and a two-floor garage.

Outside, Oxford House stripped the cornice and everything else, hanging a new curtain wall over the steel frame and masonry. Before the hotel opened on March 7, they’d received six hundred letters of inquiry for reservations, and the top floors and the bar weren’t even done yet.

The restaurant initially served French cuisine, then it became a discotheque, and then an Italian café with live music. For thirty years, the hotel welcomed tourists to its riverfront location.

In 1996, Oxford House began negotiations to sell. Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group had already snagged the former Bismarck Hotel with the idea of restoring it to its 1920s grandeur.

Lobby of Hotel Monaco Chicago. Picture of red chairs, a gray couch, and two wingbacks next to a fireplace

The now unrecognizable D. B. Fisk & Co. would be a little more challenging, considering so many of its historical features had been removed. Instead of attempting to recreate a by-gone era, the renovation focused on developing a fashionable vibe, one that would be in keeping with the original tenant.

On November 10, 1998, the swanky, hip Hotel Monaco Chicago opened. Gone were the kitchenettes; added were window seats overlooking the river, and goldfish. With the Shedd Aquarium acting as consultants, the hotel offered guests a companion goldfish during their stay.

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Hotel Monaco Chicago Today

Hotel Monaco Chicago tips a hat to its past while planted firmly in the present.

In 2019, Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group remodeled the hotel again. Prior to this renovation, there’d been little reference to the building’s history.

This time around, they created allusions with things like hat hooks in the entrance to each room, hat boxes containing the honor bars, and large paintings of a chic woman in a fancy hat on each floor.

Hat box used as honor bar with water, chips, and other treats
Picture of woman with fancy hat is on each floor of Hotel Monaco Chicago

They also teamed up with a local milliner, enabling guests to purchase one of their own, and a custom wine table with glass top displays items from D. B. Fisk & Co.’s past. The frills may have been stripped, but David B. Fisk’s ghost, and the echoes of the successful firm he created, remains.

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Ghost sign for D.B. Fisk at top of building

Hotel Monaco Chicago, 225 N. Wabash Ave, Chicago.

Sources for D. B. Fisk & Company