Somerset Hotel

5009 North Sheridan Road
Built 1919
Architect: Samuel N. Crowen

Somerset Hotel, ca. 1920

Somerset Hotel, ca. 1920

The Somerset Hotel at 5009 North Sheridan Road was one of several multi-story apartment hotels built in Chicago’s Uptown district during the 1920s. Opened for guests in 1920, the eight-story hotel cost a reported $2 million to build. It was designed by owner-architect Samuel N. Crowen and contained a total of 441 fully-furnished rooms arranged in 205 suites of one to four rooms each. One-room suites contained a living room, dressing room, and bath without dining facilities, while larger apartments included a sun parlor, separate bedroom, and dining room with kitchenette. All rooms were completely and luxuriously furnished. Opening-year advertisements promoted the hotel as both an “exclusive summer resort” and a year-round residential hotel. One described the hotel as “the ideal dwelling place for those desiring the homelike atmosphere and privacy of an apartment combined with all the modern conveniences of a hotel.”

The Somerset enticed potential residents with an array of luxurious amenities, including a a rooftop garden promenade, views of Lake Michigan, full-service dining room, and twice-weekly dinner dances. But all these services came at a steep price. Rents at the Somerset were among the highest in Uptown. When the hotel opened in 1920, room rates ranged from $100 to $450 per month (or roughly $1100 to $4800 in 2005 dollars). Although this included complimentary maid service, free laundry service, electricity, gas, and ice, it was far beyond the reach of most working-class and many middle-class families. Indeed, most of the hotel’s residents were older, upper-income professionals or prosperous business owners, and their homemaker-wives. Early residents included large numbers of retailers, attorneys, accountants, investment bankers, and life insurance salesmen, many of whom were children of Russian and eastern European Jews who had immigrated to the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. Typical of the Somerset’s early residents was Sol Stasel, who owned the 300-seat Elston Theater at 3167 North Elston Avenue and lived at the hotel during the early 1930s with his wife.

The hotel was renamed the Copeland in 1924, when owner Samuel N. Crowen leased the property to Florilla M. Copeland, president and principal owner of the C. & S. Cafeteria at 1207 North Dearborn Street. As part of the lease agreement, Mrs. Copeland assumed control of the hotel and also opened a large “serve-yourself eating place” in the south end of the hotel’s first floor. In subsequent years, the Copeland also served as the site of numerous banquets, luncheons, and other community events. Groups such as Hadassah and the Chicago Ladies Gmilas Chasodim Society, among others, regularly held meetings and banquets at the hotel.

The Copeland’s prestige began to fade, however, during the 1940s and 1950s, as its residents aged and younger professionals abandoned the city’s apartment hotels for single-family houses in outlying suburbs. By the late 1960s, the condition of the hotel, having been acquired by new owners and operating under the name of the Somerset House, had seriously deteriorated. In 1969, claiming the hotel could no longer turn a profit, the owners applied for a zoning variation to convert the building into a sheltered care facility.

The proposal provoked a firestorm of controversy as Uptown residents and community leaders contested the future of the venerable hotel. Led by Alderman Marilou Hedlund, opponents argued there were already too many sheltered care and senior care facilities in the neighborhood. “Is [Uptown] to become the community where people come to die?” asked one resident. Others, including Dr. Preston Bradley, the then-83-year-old pastor of The People’s Church of Chicago, supported the plan, citing the social obligation to provide quality places for all to live, regardless of their age or mental health.

After several rounds of hearings, the city decided in favor of the building’s owners and issued the desired license in May 1972. The license allowed for the Somerset House to operate as a sheltered-care facility with up to 720 beds. As part of the building’s conversion, the owners made a reported $1 million in upgrades and renovations.

The episode was one of several heated battles between apartment hotel owners and Uptown residents during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Faced with increased competition from newer apartment buildings and the deteriorating condition of their own buildings, owners of the district’s 1920s-era apartment hotels often viewed the conversion of these buildings into state-assisted care facilities as the only economically viable alternative to abandonment or demolition. Area homeowners, meanwhile, opposed these conversions, fearful of their impact upon private property values, local retail businesses, crime rates, and the overall desirability of the neighborhood. At issue was not only the best use of the district’s older apartment hotels, but also who would be welcomed as new residents of the neighborhood and how such decisions would affect the shifting social and cultural relationship between Uptown and the rest of the city of Chicago.

The Somerset House operated as a sheltered-care facility continuously from 1972 until 2010.  In 2014, following extensive renovations, the building was reopened as the Somerset Place Apartments.

Sources: Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 June 1920, F10; 15 Aug 1920, F7; 2 Oct 1924, 30; 13 Dec 1932, 14; 28 Sep 1969, sec. 10, pg. 7; 21 May 1972, sec. 10, pg. 4; 23 May 1972, sec. 3, pg. 14; Chicago Sunday Tribune, 31 Aug 1919, pt. 2, pg. 7; 28 Aug 1921, pt. 1, pg. 6; 31 May 1936, pt. 8, pg. 3; 2 Jan 1938, pt. 8, pg. 6; 4 June 1939, pt. 8, pg. 2; Uptown News, 9 June 1931, 4; Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Illinois e.d. 16-1790.

Image source: “Somerset Hotel, Chicago, Ill.,” postcard (n.p., n.d.), cropped; “Uptown Theatre for the Balaban & Katz Corporation, Chicago,” photograph in The Recent Work of C.W. & Geo. L. Rapp, Architects (Chicago: n.p., 1927), 30.