In front of LondonHouse Chicago, on the south side of the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue, where Fort Dearborn used to be, is one of the most well-marked spots in the city.
There are brass rectangles that say “Site of Fort Dearborn.” On the northwest corner of the intersection, near the bridge tower, is a plaque letting you know the fort had been built in 1803, destroyed in 1812, rebuilt in 1816, and destroyed again in 1856.
A stone scroll on the bridge tower, titled Defense, tells the story of the 1812 Battle of Fort Dearborn, although decades of Chicago weather have made it barely legible. At the base of the building on the southwest corner of Michigan and Wacker there’s another plaque: “Here stood Old Fort Dearborn 1803 – 1812.”
And above tall doors on the same building, between Corinthian columns, there’s yet one more—a bronze engraving depicting the stronghold with the words “Fort Dearborn; Destroyed 1858” on the left and “Office Building; Erected 1922” on the right.
In case you missed it, THIS IS WHERE FORT DEARBORN STOOD.
What stands there today is a 1923 skyscraper that, according to the Chicago Landmark designation report, “is one of the few and best examples of Beaux-Arts style classicism.”
The former office building, now the LondonHouse Hotel, is one of four 1920s-era anchors of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River.
Noted for its irregular shape and its distinctive cupola, the London Guarantee and Accident Building is a piece of architectural eye candy that invites sightseers to stop and gawk at its “harmonious and refined designs” and “restrained classical detailing.”
This location, and the site of de Sable’s trading post across the river, mark the beginnings of Chicago.
The last vestiges of the old fort burned in 1871 and the next year wholesale grocer William Hoyt built a warehouse on the lot. He had to conform to the plot’s odd shape, dictated by the north-south direction of Michigan Avenue, the diagonal skew of River Street, and a narrower stretch along Front Street, which faced the river.
With easy access to ships plus the railroads east of Michigan Avenue, it was an ideal location for a grocer. However, history needed to be marked. The Chicago Historical Society suggested that need to Mr. Hoyt, and he commissioned a fifteen-foot high, six-foot wide marble tablet.
Its installation on May 21, 1881, was accompanied by all the pomp and circumstance one might expect from such an august commemoration.
State guards marched to the spot, forming up along Front Street and offering military salutes. The Chicago Historical Society opened with a call to order, W. M. Hoyt & Co presented the tablet, and Eugene J. Hall read his poem, “The Memorial of Fort Dearborn.” A band played and the Honorable John Wentworth delivered an address, and the entire assemblage concluded with a departing march.
In 1908, W. M. Hoyt announced plans to vacate the lot, which prompted calls for the space to be public property. There were talks of a municipal museum, an ornamental fountain, or both.
Those ideas may have been lost in the whole hubbub of the City Beautiful/Plan of Chicago movement; in 1917 a billboard covered the tablet, although the advertisement was quickly removed after William Hoyt, from his winter home in Florida, and the Chicago Historical Society, specifically its librarian Miss Caroline N. McIlvaine, made lots of noise about the desecration.
In his defense, Thomas Cusack, the owner of the company that erected the billboard, hadn’t even known a tablet existed. (This may not be the same marker, as the article mentions a bronze tablet and Hoyt’s was marble.)
Hoyt’s building was torn down to make way for the Boulevard Link, the bridge that would connect Michigan Avenue to the south with Pine Street to the north. In its place, architect Alfred S. Alschuler designed a showpiece.
London Guarantee and Accident Company, an English company that insured merchant ships, wanted an American headquarters, and this plot provided access and visibility.
Alfred, however, had his work cut out for him. It wasn’t just the odd shape of the lot itself. Hoyt had adapted to that fifty years earlier, and across the river, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White tailored the Wrigley Building to fit a lot with similar constraints.
Alfred’s biggest issue came from a stubborn resident.
This new building wasn’t merely a commercial interest; it was to be the forerunner of a cleaner, more beautiful riverfront and part of a broad new double-deckered boulevard.
That meant everything on the south banks had to go. There was only one problem: a two-story, 24-foot by 50-foot brick building squatted almost in the center of the Michigan Avenue frontage, and its owner refused to sell. Well, John W. Keogh, the owner, would sell, but he was going to get paid.
“Offers were made Mr. Keogh,” said an October 20, 1921, article in the Chicago Tribune, “which made even the real estate brokers gasp, but he asked a little more.”
John S. Miller, who owned the rest of the site and was building the skyscraper, said “Too high.” Alfred, the architect, said no problem, and that it would actually improve the $4,000,000 project:
“Keogh’s lot is so small he cannot possibly build higher than three or four stories and we will always have the benefit of the air and light over his roof.”
Alfred carved in a lightwell, and even when John decided that he would sell, two months before they broke ground, the architect drew in five stories where Keogh’s building had been and kept the air shaft.
The cornerstone ceremony for this multimillion-dollar skyscraper took place on December 3, 1922, and it was an even grander affair than Hoyt’s commemoration more than forty years before. Anywhere from a thousand to fifteen hundred people attended, and while it didn’t have the flying confetti or marching bands of the Michigan Avenue Bridge opening, it was still quite the event.
The Chicago Historical Society held court and created an agenda that left no doubt of the location’s significance. Fort Sheridan not only sent a military band, but also fifty-five soldiers, the same number who’d attempted to escape the fort in 1812.
Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, Alfred Alschuler, and members of the Chicago Historical Society spoke, and General George Van Horn Moseley gave the principal address.
Also in attendance were direct descendants of Captain John Whistler, the officer who designed and built Fort Dearborn and led its soldiers until 1810. Whistler’s great-grandson William Robert Wood laid the cornerstone.
Chicago Historical Society librarian Miss Caroline M. McIlvaine, who in 1907 had insisted the offending billboard covering Hoyt’s tablet be removed, interred a time capsule with the help of Whistler’s great-great-granddaughters Catherine and Margaret Joy. The copper box contained Whistler’s blueprint for Fort Dearborn, a letter he’d written to his boss Col. Jacob Kingsbury, and a piece of timber from the second iteration of the fort.
London Guarantee and Accident moved into their new building in 1923, and the next year the Lake Shore Trust and Savings Bank awarded Alschuler the Gold Medal for excellence in design. Charles E. Fox, president of the Illinois Society of Architects and partner of Benjamin Marshall, sat on the jury.
For 23 years, London Guarantee and Accident occupied their marquee, but in 1946 they sold it to the Michigan Wacker Building Corporation. Future tenants included Stone Container Corporation and Crain Communications.
In the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, jazz greats, like Ramsey Lewis, Marian McPartland, and Sarah Vaughan, filled up The London House on the first floor. The WLS studios occupied the fourth floor from 1960 into the 1980s, and for a time that’s where Paul Harvey told listeners The Rest of the Story.
At one point, executives installed a basketball court on the 21st floor.
In 1987, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks submitted Alschuler’s skyscraper for designation. The owner of the building was letting it go to seed and didn’t want the historic status. He lost, and on April 16, 1996, the London Guarantee and Accident Building became an official Chicago Landmark.
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LondonHouse Chicago Today
My stay at LondonHouse was comped. However, all opinions are my own and not influenced at all by the swanky robe and awesome view. Also, there are affiliate links in this post, which means I may get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Today this magnificent building is a 452-room luxury lifestyle hotel.
Oxford Capital Group, the same investors that converted Marshall and Fox’s 168 North Michigan into Hotel Julian, purchased the property in 2013 and renamed it LondonHouse Chicago. The name is a nod to the original owners and to the jazz club, and “house” is a synonym of hotel.
LondonHouse is a blend of old and new. The official entrance is on the west side of the building, but if you come through the original lobby, you’ll enter a foyer with travertine marble walls and a vaulted rotunda.
High up, murals to the left and right depict scenes from the past, as if you were standing on the banks of the Chicago River when swing bridges were still a thing. Above the doorway to the elevator banks is the Businessman’s Credo.
As you pass through to the lobby, notice the ornate ceiling above you. That, and the dome in the entrance, had been completely covered in 1957.
The elevator exteriors are original, but the mechanism has been upgraded. To get to your floor, you touch the destination on the pad; there are no buttons inside the carriages.
Registration is in the second-floor lobby in a 22-story glass tower that Oxford built next to the historic skyscraper. There’s plentiful seating in the lobby bar, named Bridges in reference to the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
TLTrivia: Spanning the first and second floors of the lobby is a giant mural of General William Hull. He seems an odd, somber choice. In 1812 he ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn, followed quickly by his surrender of Fort Detroit.
Two years later, General Henry Dearborn, for whom the Chicago fort was named, presided over Hull’s court-martial. Hull was convicted of cowardice and treason and sentenced to death, but President Madison commuted the sentence.
The design throughout the hotel hearkens back to the 1920s. Simeone Deary Design Group used angular elements to allude to Chicago’s industrial era, and curves and pearls to evoke flapper glamour.
Dining at LondonHouse Chicago
There are six places to eat and drink in LondonHouse Chicago.
On the first floor, Corner Bakery serves salads and paninis where Sarah Vaughan used to sing. Land & Lake Kitchen occupies the ground floor level of the Vista Tower and serves comfort food with a twist. It’s also where Hilton Honors members eat their free breakfast.
Bridges Lobby Bar has a full menu, daily drink specials, and afternoon tea. Ocean Prime offers upscale seafood and a fantastic happy hour (get the Prime Manhattan!).
The most popular places to eat and drink are at the top of the historic tower.
LH on 21 offers indoor dining, a fireplace, and one of the longest bars in the city. Above the middle of the bar is the picture of a woman; behind her face is the basketball net from the former occupant’s court.
The piece de resistance is LondonHouse Rooftop. The views are epic; so is the demand. During the warmer months, it’s first come, first served, although some tables can be reserved. I
f you want to dine in the cupola, you can, but expect to pay a hefty price for that exclusivity. While food and drink are served seasonally, the rooftop is open year-round for anyone who wants to gander at the city from high above.
LondonHouse Chicago Rooms
Because the hotel spans an historic skyscraper and new construction, their 452 rooms come in multiple configurations.
All of them are equipped with stone-lined bathrooms, Nespresso coffee makers, Tivoli alarm clocks, and some of the softest hotel robes I’ve ever donned. There’s also a smart refrigerator, slippers, a work desk, and free WiFi.
Vista Suites have a separate seating area and floor-to-ceiling views.
Staying in LondonHouse Chicago is a luxurious treat at surprisingly affordable rates. With its prime access to both the Loop and the Magnificent Mile and the historical significance of its location, “It starts here” is an appropriate tagline.
Fair warning, though: once you slip into that robe, you may never want to leave.
LondonHouse Chicago, Curio Collection by Hilton is located at 85 E. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL 60601 (312) 357-1200 londonhousechicago.com
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