A Loop Hotel That’s More Than Just a Place to Hang Your Hat

Hotel Monaco - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2010 - 002a

Hotel Monaco Chicago (225 North Wabash Avenue), part of the Kimpton chain, is an award-winning boutique hotel with a phenomenal location and accompanying views.  The interior is colorfully pretty and cozily chic.  My recent visit and tour with the concierge made me want to return for an extended stay.

hotel monaco 2While some Chicago hotels revel in their historic design and traditions, the Hotel Monaco—occupying a century-old building—feels completely ahistoric.  Sure, there are some random pictures of old Chicago above the lobby fireplace and some random photos of ladies in chic hats behind the main desk… but it is a place that has no historic vibe of its own.  The various renovations since the 1950s have obliterated all historic traces.

But the building most assuredly has a story, however obscured.

Today on the exterior you see a multi-hued blue, minimalist, postmodern building. The only trace of its origins as an early twentieth-century commercial building is its shape and size, still the original 13-story block built in 1912 and designed by architect George L. Harvey.

Harvey was hired by the super-successful D.B. Fisk & Company.  Originally from Massachusetts, Daniel Brainard Fisk founded his wholesale millinery company in Chicago in 1853.  It became the first millinery wholesale operation west of the Alleghenies, and soon the largest in the United States.

The company made its first home on Wells Street, between Lake and what used to be South Water, until moving to a new location in Chicago’s antebellum retail district: Lake Street (near LaSalle Street).  After the Great Fire destroyed everything in the Loop, Fisk spent the next four decades in a five-story building at Washington and Wabash, where the old Marshall Fields annex would eventually take its place.

Hotel Monaco - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2010 - 001aFisk was a highly-respected Chicagoan, an early member of the Chicago Club and president of the Humane Society.  He died in 1891, but his namesake company continued to flourish.  Ladies’ hats—particularly the company’s trademark “Fiskhats”—were big business and it was time for a big headquarters building, on the corner of South Water [now Wacker Place -ed.] and Wabash.  (Marshall Field’s also wanted the land on Washington and Wabash, so it was best to move on.)

The company liquidated during the Depression and leased its building in 1958 to the Oxford House Hotel.  The Oxford House was apparently going for a mid-mod “motor hotel” look, and by 1960 had stripped all the original ornament and detail from the building.

The Oxford House Hotel remained until the late 1990’s.  In 1998, San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels bought the building and completely renovated it as an adaptive reuse project: unveiling their newest Hotel Monaco.  The hip boutique hotel has been popular and widely acclaimed ever since.

Even more renovation was done over the past couple of years.  A $3 million revamp of the 191 guest rooms, lobby, and event space, led by designer Susan Caruso of Intra-spec, was completed in May, 2013.  The interiors are said to honor the world traveler with vibrantly colored and textured surfaces and furnishings.

hotel monaco 1While the hotel’s look has been called “quirky,” the amenities at Hotel Monaco are most definitely unique.  Great lobby music and complimentary wine happy hours keep guests satisfied, but they can expect more.   Deep, cozy window seats in the rooms, known as “meditation stations,” are intended for Chicago-gazing, contemplation, or naps (ever notice the large pillows in the windows of the hotel?).  Hotel Monaco is also more than pet-friendly: noting that its many business travelers during the week missed their pets, the hotel began offering a visiting goldfish in a bowl!  It is one of the most popular perks of staying at the Monaco.

Even though some of the PR and marketing materials for the hotel point out the hat company origins of the building, that fact is presented as nothing more than an interesting footnote.  The stylish ladies in hats photos in the lobby seem only a designer’s nod to that past.  There is nothing particular in the hotel that hearkens to its former life.

So the question is, should there be?  So what if the hotel doesn’t display its history?  The fact is that by the time Kimpton got to the building in 1998, most of the D.B. Fisk & Co. traces were long gone, its four decades erased by four more decades as the Oxford House “motor hotel.”  It must have been a welcome blank slate for Kimpton.

Perhaps the ahistoricity of the place rankles a bit because the truth remains that the building IS 100 years old and does have a story.  But you wouldn’t know it from a visit there.

But then, after snoozing in a window seat overlooking the Chicago River and being visited by a goldfish, maybe it doesn’t matter that much after all.

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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