Earth: Blackstone Hotel, Chicago, site of the original “smoke-filled room.”

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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2 Comments

  1. The deadlock was between Lowden, a moderate Republican reformer who was Governor of Illinois, General Wood, who had been TR’s friend and superior in Cuba, and at the “Charge up San Juan Hill”, and Senator Hiram Johnson of California, a “Progressive” Republican, who had been the “Bull Moose” Party’s Vice Presidential Candidate in 1912 with TR. Harding was one of a number of “favorite son” candidates (he from as Senator from Ohio). Another was Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts.

    The candidates were a ragtail bunch actually. Wood had been a friend of Roosevelt, who did not try to steal any of the latter’s thunder and publicity in the wake of the Spanish American War. As a result Wood was rewarded with high military offices under Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson was the first to start cutting Wood down to size a bit – he happened to be a belligerent nationalist and war lover like TR, but had none of the latter’s real leadership gifts. Proof of this did not come about until after the convention, when Harding got elected and appointed Wood Governor of the Philippines . Wood was a racist and disliked the people he was governing, and treated the territory like a prison camp. Given this reaction from him in a “governing position”, it was probably a blessing he never was President.

    Senator Johnson is something of an historical enigma today. He had been a key reformer in California in the first decade of the 20th Century fighting the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad and it’s banking and business allies. He won…but he proved to be a model of sorts for Huey Long in the future. He changed the primary system so that it was relatively easy for him to dominate who got chosen for state wide offices. One innovation of his – a recall referendum vote for elected public officials that the public lost confidence in – was finally used against a governor of California about twelve years back. Nobody ever thought of using it on Johnson. He did run with TR in 1912, and it has been said to show that TR was his favorite President. Well yes, except that TR died in 1919 (actually he would have been the Republican Candidate in 1920 had he lived), Had TR lived one suspects sooner or later the power-hungry Johnson would have found flaws in TR. He dismissed William Howard Taft as “the most pitiful figure of the 20th Century”, presumably because Taft had not been a success as President as the head of the Republican Party, and had come in third in the 1912 election behind Wilson and Roosevelt (with Johnson). However, Taft ran not to get re-elected but to prevent Roosevelt from winning – and thus succeeded. Moreover Taft ended up being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the 1920s. Although conservative, Taft was an admirable Chief Justice, and his Judiciary Act of 1925 is the basis of our current Federal Court System. Taft is accredited today as a “near-great” Chief Justice. When he died in 1930 he had a pretty good record. He also was pretty happy he got his real heart’s desire at last. On the other hand, Senator Johnson left little that really mattered. His biggest achievement was getting the Federal bill through for the construction of the Hoover Dam. Otherwise, he was an extreme isolationist, who helped destroy Wilson’s League of Nations treaty in 1919. He also helped construct those restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s that prevented Jews and Slavs and Italians from coming in above the “quotas” that it set. This, of course, helped prevent Jews from fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and early 1940s, so many were murdered (something the anti-Semitic Johnson would not have cared about). Every President from Taft onward to FDR Johnson found serious flaws in. Harding (whom Johnson might have run with in 1920, but rejected because he did not think highly of the Vice Presidency) once approached Johnson on Capitol Hill and said (as a joke) “Now Hiram, you be good.” Nasty, Johnson shot back, “I’m making sure you’re good!!”. Coolidge (who took the Vice Presidential nomination, and then became President when Harding died – Johnson must have had a fit about that mistake of his!!) was too week to last (Coolidge got elected to his own term). Hoover was a fool (Hoover actually did try to figure out how to solve the Depression, and made some preliminary stabs that FDR copied later on in the “New Deal”). FDR was a phony and an internationalist like his former boss Wilson (Johnson from his deathbed in 1945 was one of the few who voted against the United Nations). In retrospect Johnson was just after the Presidency, and tried to bulldoze his way in. Remembering his comment about Taft, I’d shake my head and think the most pitiful figure of the 20th Century was the idiotic Senator from California who died in 1945. However, pitiable seems to nice a term for Johnson, who I wish had been recalled by his referendum.

    Lowden was a good governor, but not well known enough nationally (actually Coolidge was better known nationally for his so-called handling of the 1919 Boston Police Strike). It is interesting to note that in 1924 Lowden got the Vice Presidential nomination when Coolidge was nominated as President. Lowden decided to reject the offer (a braver action than Johnson’s sneering one in 1920, as Lowden saw that Coolidge’s rise to the Presidency did show that a Vice President could end up in the White House). The Republicans than nominated General Charles G. Dawes, a banker and politician who had handled several agencies in World War I and after (including the Office of the Budget), and would win the 1924 Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to help Germany pay it’s reparations to Britain and France.

    Harding actually had not gone to the convention determined to become the nominee of the party. A conservative Republican politician from Marion, Ohio, where he ran the town newspaper, he had been Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, and then was elected (in 1914) as Senator. He really hoped to use the publicity of his “favorite son” appearance at the convention to push his re-election campaign of 1920. Circumstances in that smoke-filled room just worked in Warren’s favor.

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