blackstone hotel chicago

This is the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, formerly just the Blackstone Hotel, on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. It’s one of America’s truly famous hotels and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986. It was originally built in 1908 during one of Chicago’s many economic booms which resulted from the convergence of railroad lines with agricultural and livestock industries, and the subsequent rise of Chicago as a financial center. But for all its ostentation the Blackstone was mostly about politics. It was built with U.S. Presidents specifically in mind–there’s a special wing that was designed to facilitate access by the Secret Service. Most Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter stayed here at one time or another.

The Blackstone’s claim to fame, at least today, is that it was the site of the original “smoke-filled room.” Ninety-five years ago today, on June 11, 1920, a group of Republican politicians gathered in a room on the ninth floor of this hotel to discuss the way out of a political thicket that had developed at the Republican National Convention, which was being held at the Chicago Coliseum not far away. The convention deadlocked between two strong candidates, Spanish-American War hero Leonard Wood and Frank Lowden, Governor of Illinois. Ballot after ballot was taken with no conclusive victory for any candidate. To resolve the situation, the Republican bosses met on the ninth floor–with their cigars, of course–and decided that they could all agree on a compromise candidate. That candidate was Warren G. Harding, Senator from Ohio, and some say the choice came about as an unsurprising result of a suggestion by Harry Daugherty, a party boss who happened to be Harding’s political patron. A newspaper reporter coined the term “smoke-filled room,” which given how much gentlemen tended to smoke in 1920 was probably literally accurate in this case. The term has stuck ever since.

The Blackstone almost did not survive the change that swept Chicago in the late 20th century. After years of neglect and rumors it would be wrecked, investors lured by tax credits began pumping cash into the property, and the Blackstone rose from its own ashes to reopen in 2008. The “smoke-filled room” has been preserved much as it was in 1920.

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