LaSalle and Madison Streets
Built 1909, demolished 1976
Architects: Holabird & Roche
During the first half of the twentieth century, few Chicago hotels rivaled the grand Hotel LaSalle in the heart of Chicago’s government and financial district. The twenty-two story structure, located on the northwest corner of LaSalle and Madison Streets, was built in 1909. It was touted as the finest, safest, and most modern hotel anywhere outside New York City.
As such, the LaSalle was representative of a new style of hotel management adopted by most large, new urban hotels during the first decades of the 1900s. Hotels like the LaSalle, such as Chicago’s Blackstone, Stevens, Palmer House, and Morrison, helped revolutionize the hotel industry during the period. Catering to travelers’ highest expectations, big-city hotels offered spacious rooms, standardized accommodations, stately public areas, and a wide range of service amenities, including bell-hops, barber shops, full-service restaurants, and top-notch evening entertainment.
Equally significant, hotels such as the LaSalle increasingly catered to female guests as much as male guests. Nineteenth-century hotels had traditionally been male-dominated public spaces, where politicians, financiers, salesmen, and newspapermen gathered to smoke cigars, have a drink, and socialize with one another. After the turn of the century, however, middle-class prosperity and transportation improvements afforded women greater mobility, both within the city and between major cities. In response to these trends, major hotels looked for ways to replace their smoke-filled, male-only image with one that women would find sufficiently respectable to earn their patronage.
The LaSalle’s sumptuous Blue Fountain Room, for instance, offered a level of fine dining that many of Chicago’s most prominent women found attractive and acceptable. Mrs. Potter Palmer, widely regarded as the queen of Chicago society, was said to be one of the restaurant’s regulars. Like the Blue Fountain Room, the LaSalle’s elegant walnut-paneled lobby and unique rooftop garden were, in part, intended to secure the patronage of female guests through the architectural appearance of sophistication and respectability.
The LaSalle suffered a devastating blow to its prestige in 1946, however. On the night of June 5, a raging fire swept though much of the hotel and claimed the lives of sixty-one persons, including many children. Most of the dead succumbed not to the flames, but rather to asphyxiation when they opened their hotel room doors and their rooms filled with thick, black smoke.
Other guests remained remarkably calm during the whole event. One woman was said to have been seen applying make-up while she leaned out the window of her eighteenth-floor bathroom and awaited rescue. Another guest was led down eleven flights of the fire escape by her seeing-eye dog. Dozens were dragged or carried from the smoky hotel by good samaritans, including two sailors who were said to have rescued twenty-seven guests between them.
The fire, though not particularly unusual in the context of early-twentieth-century hotel history, was devastating enough to prompt the city of Chicago to enact several new hotel-related building codes and fire-fighting procedures. These included the installation of automatic alarm systems, the posting of instructions in all hotel rooms of what to do in case of a fire, and increased use by the fire department of two-way radio devices.
The LaSalle, still structurally sound, was quickly refurbished, though not quite to its former splendor. It remained in operation until July of 1976. The hotel was demolished soon thereafter. The site is now occupied by the Two North LaSalle office building.
Photograph: Construction Work in Progress, Hotel LaSalle, 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Three Construction Workers, Hotel LaSalle, 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Construction Workers, Hotel LaSalle, 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Construction Scene, Hotel LaSalle, 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Hotel LaSalle Under Construction, 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Hotel LaSalle, With Roof Under Construction, 1909 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Banquet Room, Hotel LaSalle, 1910 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: WMAQ Radio Towers atop the Hotel LaSalle, 1925 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: President and Mrs. Coolidge in Automobile in front of Hotel LaSalle, 1925 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Hotel LaSalle, LaSalle and Madison Streets, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Image sources: “Hotel LaSalle, LaSalle and Madison Sts., Chicago,” postcard, Franklin Post Card Co.: #326, n.d.; “The Donatello Fountain, Palm Room, Hotel LaSalle, Chicago,” postcard, V.O. Hammon Pub. Co.: #1881, n.d.