by: chicago designslinger
[Essex Inn (1961) A. Epstein & Sons, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Chicago's Grant Park-facing stretch of Michigan Avenue has a long and storied hotel history. In 1870 the elegantly appointed Michigan Avenue House hotel rose on the southwest corner of Congress Street, and narrowly escaped being consumed by the flames of the Great Fire a year later. Post fire, the Gardner Hotel rose out of the ashes on the southwest corner of Jackson Street, followed by the Beaurivage and the Richelieu - all in the same block. Then in 1889 came Adler & Sullivan's monumental, multi-purpose Auditorium Building with its combined hotel/office/theater complex, followed by architect Clinton Warren's Auditorium Annex three years later. That building was enlarged in 1902 with a design by Holabird & Roche and renamed the Congress Hotel, then in 1908 architects Marshall & Fox designed the Blackstone Hotel for the Drake brothers a little further down the street. Finally, in 1927, Holabird & Roche returned - this time at the southern end of the accommodating avenue - with their massive Stevens Hotel.
[Essex Inn, 800 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By the late 1950s a new hotel hadn't risen along Michigan Avenue's park-facing frontage in over 30 years, but Eugene Heytow was about to change all that. The 25-year-old entrepreneur along with his investor, dermatologist, brother-in-law Martin Gecht, had created an entity called the Aristocratic Inns of America and were interested in three corner properties at the southern end of Michigan overlooking the park. Each parcel contained a gas station with lots of room to spare so the partners snapped-up all three and then hired the architectural firm of A. Epstein and Sons to draw up plans for three hotels for each corner. Abraham Epstein had started his structural engineering firm in 1921 and when Raymond and Sidney joined their father's company in the mid-1940s, the Sons were added to the company's name. By that time Epstein had morphed into a design/build firm overseeing not only the structural components of construction but also the design. The mixing of two different disciplines ruffled the feathers of the esteemed American Institute of Architects who felt that architects were designers not contractors, and Sidney never forgot the, "snobby snub." He refused to join the AIA, even as he and Raymond grew the company into one of the largest firms in the country, and still refused to join even after the architectural association changed their policy.
[Essex Inn, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The contiguous wall of Michigan Avenue masonry that had faced the park for generations had recently been broken by the steel and glass structure Epstein & Sons had designed and built for the Borg-Warner Corporation, while Heytow's hotel projects would be of a smaller scale. Of the three, the hotel at the southwest corner of 8th Street and Michigan would be Aristocrat's tallest and glossiest. At 14-stories it didn't beat-out the 29-story Stevens - now Hilton - Hotel. But its sleek, modern, metal and glass curtain walls stood in stark contrast to the weighty, soot-coated surfaces of the Auditorium and Congress Hotel, and garnered enough attention to land Gene Heytow in Life Magazine standing on the balcony of the newly completed Essex Inn.
[Essex Inn, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The association between the brothers-in-laws and Sidney Epstein went beyond hotel design and construction. Epstein was an investor in the Aristocratic Inns venture and served as a director of Heytow and Gecht's Amalgamated Bank. And by the time Heytow died in 2010, Life Magazine's Chicago wonder boy had become the owner of a number of other hotels, been a majority shareholder in a few more banks, and served as chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, overseeing the McCormick Place Convention Center complex and Navy Pier. Martin Gecht kept-up his dermatology practice until his death at the age of eighty-four in 2005, leaving behind an art collection which was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. Sidney Epstein is still going strong at ninety, while the 52-year-old Essex Inn is approaching middle age.