LondonHouse Chicago is a luxurious lifestyle hotel in an historic skyscraper. Learn the story behind this beaux-arts beauty and why the hotel’s motto is “It starts here.”
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If you’ve been on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive – any corner – you’ve trod across brass rectangles embedded in the sidewalk.
They mark the site of Fort Dearborn, the successor to de Sable’s trading post and the precursor to a new city. Stand on the northwest corner and you’ll see a plaque from 1971 letting you know the fort had been built in 1803, destroyed in 1812, rebuilt in 1816, and destroyed again in 1856.
Nearby, a stone scroll in the bridge tower tells the story of the 1812 battle, although the relief has been there since 1928 and the weather hasn’t been kind. Cross Michigan, then Wacker, then Michigan again and you’ll get an idea of Fort Dearborn’s boundaries, but once you reach the southwest corner you’ll have to stop.
You’ll want to, anyway. At eye level, there’s another historic marker dedicated to the old fort. Look up and you’ll see yet one more plaque, this one with a depiction of the stronghold and the words “Fort Dearborn; Destroyed 1858” on the left and “Office Building; Erected 1922” on the right.
In other words, in case you missed it, THIS IS WHERE FORT DEARBORN STOOD.
What stands there now is a Beaux-Arts skyscraper, one of the four 1920s-era anchors of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River.
This particular showpiece came about because London Guarantee and Accident Company, an English company that insured merchant ships, wanted an American headquarters. They found a spot on the Chicago River with a complement of history.
It was a perfect location, but architect Alfred S. Alschuler had his work cut out for him. Instead of your normal square or rectangular plot, this location had angles and curves and a stubborn resident.
John W. Keogh owned a section fronting Michigan Avenue and he was not about to sell it. So, Alschuler sketched an air shaft around the two-story building. But then Keogh decided to sell two months before they broke ground.
Instead of completely adjusting that side of the building and making one solid wall from base to top, Alschuler kept the air shaft and drew in five-stories, creating an elevated courtyard.
The result of all this finagling is an odd-shaped building, kind of like a trapezoid with a slight concave bend on one side and a divot in another that looks like someone cut a sliver of deep dish and left the bottom crust.
London Guarantee and Accident’s new headquarters was an integral part of the growth along the riverfront.
In 1922, the innovative double-bascule bridge that connected Michigan Avenue had only been open for a couple of years. Construction crews had completed the south tower of the gleaming white Wrigley Building the year before. The Chicago Tribune was still accepting entries in the design contest for its new tower, and Wacker Drive wouldn’t open for four years, but plans were underway.
All of that bustle meant the groundbreaking ceremony for Alschuler’s skyscraper was an Event.
On December 3, 1,500 people, including Mayor Big Bill Thompson and Clarence Burley, the president of the Chicago Historical Society, gathered to celebrate the birth of this new tower. Fort Sheridan sent 55 soldiers, the exact number of soldiers who’d lived in the fortress in 1812.
Also among the attendees 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, a resident of Omaha, Nebraska, and great-great-granddaughters Catherine and Margaret Joy of Marshall, Michigan, joined the ceremonies.
The pioneer’s family members witnessed the internment of a copper box containing 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.
That time capsule is still there.
London Guarantee and Accident moved into their new Beaux-Arts building in 1923, and that same year Alschuler won a Gold Medal for excellence in design by the Lake Shore Trust and Savings Bank for the high-rise. Charles E. Fox, president of the Illinois Society of Architects and partner of Benjamin Marshall, sat on the jury that awarded the medal.
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. Paul Harvey told us the way it was from the WLS studios on the fourth floor. Jazz greats, like Ramsey Lewis, Marian McPartland, and Sarah Vaughan, filled up the first floor London House from 1946 until the early ‘70s.
At one point, executives installed a basketball court on the 21st floor.
360 North Michigan may have been an office building, but it was more than a simple stoic dedicated to commerce.
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. If 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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