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Following a $128 million Renovation The Blackstone, A Renaissance Hotel Reopens;
An Important Enhancement to Chicago's Historical Quality Architecture Reputation

By Brett Marlow, Columbia Chronicle, ChicagoMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 10, 2008 --A new hotel is ready for check-in in the South Loop.

The Blackstone, a historical hotel that shut its doors in the late '90s, reopened last week under the Renaissance Marriot brand.

The 332-room hotel, known for hosting such celebrities as Katherine Hepburn, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote and dubbed the "hotel of presidents," was unveiled last week at 636 S. Michigan Ave. after a $128 million historical renovation.

The 23-story hotel originally opened in the 1920s and was deemed a Chicago historical landmark in 1998. It was then owned by the Beatles' former spiritual adviser Maharishi Malesh Yogi. In 2005, Sage Hospitality, a Denver-based hotel hospitality group known for acquiring historical properties and turning them into hotels, took over the property and has been working on renovating it since, said Susi Voeltz, spokeswoman for the project.

The hotel will feature more than 330 guest rooms, 12 suites, 13,000 square feet of meeting space, a health club and fitness center. There will also be a Starbucks Coffee shop and a restaurant, Mercut a la Planza, which will serve Catalina cuisine.

The hotel's renovation was a certified rehabilitation under guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Illustrated Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. It is listed on the National Register's List of Historical Places, and has preserved some of its historical rooms and elements. The hotel's renovation is being funded by historic tax preservation credits from the federal government, Voeltz said.

"Chicago has a long hotel history. Many people talk about The Blackstone as the first modern 20th century hotel in Chicago," said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

Samuelson said the hotel closed down because the building had maintenance issues related to aging and was seeing more competition from other, modern hotels.

"The historic features, which were among its best assets--the beautiful lobbies and public spaces--had been let go to a number of years. They had lost their luster," Samuelson said. "The rooms were not considered to be the most modern or attractive for present day travelers or visitors. The current restoration is actually enhancing the historic features, which are what really sets the building apart."

Voeltz said wherever possible, the rehabilitators tried to preserve the historical elements and the older rooms have been enlarged, offering more space and an updated, but historical feel.

The elements remaining preserved include the main lobby's fireplace, plaster, ornamentation, and registration desk and mahogany adornments. The original Crystal Ballroom's plaster is staying intact. The Presidential Suite and a suite on the ninth floor known as the "smoke-filled room," are among other features of the hotel that were restored and preserved for the reopening.

Samuelson said one of the historical elements of the hotel was that during the convention of 1920, the "smoke-filled room" was where U.S leaders gathered, talked and smoked while discussing Warren G. Harding as the presidential candidate.

Samuelson said the hotel was called the "hotel of presidents" because it was the choice hotel for United States leaders when they were in town.

Those tied to the renovation and rehabilitation of The Blackstone hope it will be a nice addition to the already growing South Loop neighborhood.

Dennis Beninato, president of the Greater South Loop Association, said he is excited that renowned architect Lucien Lagrange is working on the project.

"I think having something done by him in the South Loop is significant in and of itself," Beninato said.

As a resident in the South Loop, Beninato said he feels it speaks to the growing community and vitality of the area.

"Certainly giving tourists more options and creating competition will help the city with travelers," Beninato said. "Chicago is, and is becoming even more so, a world-class city. I think these type of things can only enhance that image."

Voeltz said The Blackstone's art consultant, Joel Strauss, will work with recent Columbia graduates on art exhibits that will be displayed in the hotel. The plan is to host two Columbia exhibits a year.

Currently, reservations are being accepted online for the hotel. Rates range from $230 to $340 for rooms. According to a release, the interior of the hotel design odes to Chicago, weaving modern finishes and an eclectic mix of elegant furniture styles and fabrics, while embracing the classical architecture of the historical hotel.

"It's a great amenity for Chicago in terms of having a beautiful, elegant, old hotel reborn in a vital part of the city. But also, it is important as an enhancement to Chicago's reputation as a center of historical quality architecture," Samuelson said.

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To see more of the Columbia Chronicle, which covers the Columbia College community, go to http://www.ccchronicle.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, Columbia Chronicle, Chicago

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