Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago: The History
Published 14 September 2012
CHICAGO --- In keeping with the tumultuous, fast-paced and rapidly changing times in which it was born, it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from speculation in the history of Chicago’s most famous landmark hotel, the Millennium Knickerbocker, which makes the story all that more intriguing and interesting.
There is no doubt that the Davis Hotel, named for its owner and general manager, James H. Davis, opened on May 16, 1927 after a whirlwind construction period of less than a year; that the 14-story, 350-room property was designed by the renowned Chicago architects Rissman & Hirschfield and built for $3 million (approximately $40 million today) and that Allan Hurst took over the building in 1931 in a state of financial distress, renamed it the Hotel Knickerbocker and managed it until his death in 1959.
It is also true that the hotel’s grand, Georgian Crystal Ballroom, with its graceful balcony, 28-foot domed and magnificently ceiling gilded in gold and an astonishing illuminated (by 760 fluorescent lamps) dance floor made of glass tiles, the world’s largest, instantly made the Knickerbocker one of Chicago’s most exciting and popular social gathering spots for weddings, galas, meetings, and other special social events, just as it is today.
But, did Al Capone’s brother Ralph really run a speakeasy and casino on the 14th floor? Was there at one time a brothel in the basement? After all, this was Chicago during the Depression, during Prohibition – a time when the city earned a legendary reputation based on gangsters, girls and bootleg liquor. Is that why only one of the hotel’s three elevators reached the Penthouse level, and why there was a secret door leading to a hidden stairway, discovered only during a renovation in 1980? And did Yolanda, of the famous dance act of the 1930’s, Veloz and Yolanda, really often crack the glass tiles, now plexiglass, on the Crystal Ballroom floor with her sharp heels, only to have them replaced so the show could go on within 60 seconds by a uniformed hotel engineer to thunderous applause?
True or not, it does not really matter; the stories are wonderful, romantic and mysterious – much like the hotel itself. There were, in fact, two ballrooms connected by a glass-enclosed veranda on the 14th floor Penthouse level. The Towne Room was surrounded by hand-painted murals of the Chicago skyline and the Oceanic Room was decorated with murals of the great transatlantic ocean liners that also helped define this epic period in America. Later the rooms were called Towers East and Towers West.
The hotel’s Great Lakes Room restaurant was located where today’s NiX restaurant stands and the original Corner Bar was located close to where today’s Martini Bar is situated in the lobby. The hotel’s mezzanine level first served as a library with 5,000 volumes, with adjacent rooms for card playing, smoking, and writing. In 1942, this floor became an Officers Club for commissioned officers of the U.S. Armed Forces, serving this purpose through the Korean War.
This was the first instance of the Knickerbocker’s involvement with national affairs. In 1952, it was the California headquarters of the Republican National Convention and when, much to the surprise of most of the population, Richard Nixon was nominated as the vice presidential running mate to the hugely popular General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nixon was quickly given a larger suite more appropriate to his new stature. During that same election period, the future 35th president, John F. Kennedy, also stayed at the Knickerbocker, under the alias Dave Powers.
The Hotel Knickerbocker’s reputation also was continually heightened by its brushes with the world of celebrities and entertainment. In the 1960’s, when they, and the Beatles, were taking America by storm during the “British invasion,” the Rolling Stones were guests. Legend has it that fans managed to persuade hotel staff to give them the bathroom equipment that was being replaced in the “rockers’” suite.
In 1970, Hugh Hefner and Playboy Enterprises purchased the Knickerbocker, renaming it the Playboy Towers, and Chicago’s landmark hotel was propelled into a new era, with ultra-modern touches and flair, including the Playmate Bar and Living Room Lounge, a discotheque and Playboy Gift Shop. Hefner was known to stay in the hotel on several occasions. The hotel was sold in 1979 and, after changing hands a number of times, it was bought by Regal Hotels International in 1995 and renamed the Regal Knickerbocker Hotel the next year.
In 2000, Millennium Hotels & Resorts took over management of Regal properties in North America and, recognizing the extraordinary location and caliber of the Millennium Knickerbocker, invested $27 million in an impressive renovation and historic renovation that included the lobby, the Crystal Ballroom, creation of the NiX restaurant, enhancements to interiors and exteriors and the refurbishment and redecoration of all guestrooms. Eight years later the hotel received another $25 million renovation. The result? An incomparable guest experience defined by 21st century luxury amenities and service standards and a setting infused with an irresistibly tantalizing history capturing more than 80 years of life in America.
About Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel
About Millennium Hotels and Resorts