Clark and Randolph Streets
Built 1911, demolished 1980
Architects: Holabird & Roche
The Hotel Sherman was one of the city’s premier hotels and a leading night-life venue during much of the early twentieth century. The hotel’s origins, however, date back to 1837. In that year, Francis C. Sherman, a three-time mayor of Chicago and father of the legendary Civil War general, opened the City Hotel on the north side of Randolph Street between Clark and LaSalle. The hotel, renamed the Sherman House in 1844, measured a mere 18 by 84 feet.
The venerable Sherman House endured many changes over the years, not the least of which was the great fire of 1871, when the hotel burned to the ground alongside the rest of downtown. Quickly rebuilt, the new structure was larger and more elaborately decorated than its predecessor. By the turn of the century, however, the Sherman House began to lose its luster and popularity. Gradually, it gained the reputation as the “deadest hotel” in town.
Not until the hotel was acquired by entrepreneur Joseph Beifeld was its decline reversed. Beifeld, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, dramatically improved the hotel’s image with the help of first-class customer service and top-flight entertainment in the evenings. By 1904, the new and improved Hotel Sherman and its famed restaurant, the College Inn, were the talk of the town, increasingly frequented by local celebrities and members of high society.
Buoyed by the turnaround, Beifeld invested several million dollars in new construction at the hotel. In 1911, the main hotel structure was rebuilt, followed by an additional $7 million, twenty-three-story expansion in 1925. By the end of the 1920s, the Hotel Sherman contained 1600 guest rooms, a banquet hall seating 2500, and stunning new marble lobby. Local newspapers reported that the new facilities made the Sherman the largest hotel west of New York City.
Incidentally, soon after his purchase of the Sherman, Beifeld joined two other entertainment entrepreneurs, Aaron Jones and Paul Howse, in another major entertainment venture. With Beifeld’s significant financial assistance, Jones and Howse proceeded with their plans to open the Midwest’s largest amusement park, named White City, on Chicago’s South Side. Beifeld served as president of the amusement park, which received its first guests in the summer of 1905.
The Hotel Sherman remained one of Chicago’s premier night spots through the 1910s and 1920s, attracting celebrities, tourists, and members of high society. It was during this period that the College Inn restaurant, with the help of band leader Isham Jones, became a notable jazz venue. Jones broke with the genteel tradition of violin-based hotel performance when he replaced many of his orchestra’s waltz-oriented numbers with new, jazz-inspired tunes. Though there were critics of the change, most of the restaurant’s patrons applauded the livelier arrangements and the freer dance styles they encouraged.
Though the tunes played by Isham Jones and his all-white jazz orchestra were tame in comparison to those heard in the racially mixed cabarets of the South Side, they nonetheless gave many white Chicagoans their first taste of jazz. To be sure, the College Inn was an especially important fixture in Chicago’s growing jazz scene. There, amid the refined surroundings of the Hotel Sherman, jazz sounds migrated from the city’s African-American neighborhoods into the center of white society. For black musicians, however, the popularization of jazz music among white Chicagoans was a mixed blessing, since discriminatory hiring practices excluded them from joining the orchestras at the city’s white hotels. Hotel managers feared that patrons of venues like the College Inn would object to listening and dancing to jazz music if it were performed by black musicians.
After the Second World War, the Sherman retained its position as one of the city’s leading hotels, popular among visiting businessmen and conventioneers. In time, however, the hotel began to show its age and had an increasingly difficult time competing with newer hotels along Michigan Avenue and in the suburbs. In January 1973, the hotel closed. At the time, it was the oldest hotel in continuous operation in the state of Illinois. There were plans to remodel the building into a fashion mart and build a replacement hotel at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle, but nothing came of them. In 1980, the hotel was demolished. Its site is now occupied by the Thompson Center, formerly known as the State of Illinois Center.
Photograph: “Frank W. Bering, night clerk at the Sherman House,” 29 Sept. 1903 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Sherman House Site,” 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Top of the Sherman Hotel building during construction,” 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: “Sherman House hotel, exterior sculpture,” 4 March 1911 [Library of Congress]
Sources: Chicago Tribune, 15 Jan. 1973, sec. 3, pg. 9; 25 Jan. 1973, sec. 1, pg. 3; 20 April 1980, sec. 14, pg. 1.
Image source: “Hotel Sherman, Chicago, Ill.,” postcard, V.O. Hammon: #1858, n.d.