Congress Plaza Hotel, located on Michigan Ave in Chicago, Illinois.
The Congress was originally named the Auditorium Annex when it was built to house visitors to the Columbian Exposition—the transformative World’s Fair of 1893. The name referenced the Auditorium Theater across Congress Parkway, an acoustically magnificent structure designed by blockbuster architectural duo Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. The Annex’s original North Tower was designed by Clinton Warren, but Adler and Sullivan oversaw its development, including the addition of “Peacock Alley” (now shuttered), an ornate marble tunnel which runs under the street, joining the theater and the hotel. Later, in the early twentieth century, the firm of Holabird & Roche designed the South Tower, completing the current structure, which houses more than 800 rooms.
The South Tower construction included a magnificent banquet hall, now known as the Gold Room, which would become the first hotel ballroom in America to use air-conditioning. Another ballroom, called the Florentine Room, was added to the North Tower in 1909. These two famous public rooms combined with the Elizabethan Room and the Pompeian Room to host Chicago’s elite social events of the day.
On June 15, 2003, members of the UNITE HERE Local staff at the Congress began a strike after the hotel froze employee wages and revoked key benefits, including health insurance and retirement plans. Through the long months and years, the strikers have won countless supporters, their cause garnering momentum around the world. Even future president Barack Obama and Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn walked their picket line, while the skeleton crew that continued to punch the clock was reported to have pocketed wages of more than thirty percent below the national standard. The strike went on to claim the fortunate honor as the longest hotel strike in history, leaving in its wake a hotel haunted by pulled proms, boycotted conventions and an estimated loss of 700 million dollars in revenue.
Indeed, the ghosts of the Congress are everywhere. And no wonder. Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt all made the Congress their base of operations while in Chicago, leading to the hotel’s longtime moniker, “The Home of Presidents.” In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt announced his new “Bull Moose” platform in the Florentine Ballroom, and in 1932 the hotel served as headquarters for Franklin Roosevelt and his hopeful Democratic party. A few years later, Benny Goodman broadcast his wildly popular radio show from the hotel’s Urban Room, a posh nightclub that drew the city’s most coveted clientele, and in 1971, President Richard Nixon addressed the Midwest Chapters of the AARP and National Retired Teachers Association, speaking before no less than three thousand members and guests in the hotel’s Great Hall. For years Al Capone played cards every Friday night in a meeting room overlooking Grant Park, and rumors abound (though most certainly false) that he even owned the Congress for awhile. What is true is that Jake “Greasy Thumb” Gusik phoned Capone in Palm Island, Florida, from a phone in the Congress Plaza . . . before and after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
But the ghosts of the Congress are not generally those of headline-grabbers. Rather, they are wisps of memory, glimmers of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary guests who have glided through its halls for more than a century, often embroiled in personal drama, heartache and tragedy.
Endless, it seems are the stories that echo the tale of James Kennedy, a New York man who checked in, alone, in May of 1910. He went to his room, cut the dry cleaners identification tags out of his clothes, burned his papers, walked to the Lake and shot himself. Later that same year, an insurance salesman–Andrew Mack–called on a friend at his Congress Plaza hotel room before also walking to the Lake and apparently drowning himself at the foot of Van Buren street. There was the salesman who threw himself down an elevator shaft, the drifter who jumped off the roof of the north tower and the troubled family man who hanged himself from a cupboard hook.