Chicago Building Types: the Residential Hotel


This post is part of a series of studies of classic Chicago Building Types.  Each city has a history of materials, wealth, population shifts and popularity, hopes and dreams, written in its buildings. Don’t miss our posts on Chicago Bungalows, Worker Cottages, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), GreystonesCourtyard Apartment Buildings, Four-Plus-One Apartments, Fire Cottages, and Skyscrapers. 

Where did the Residential Hotel Come from?

High-profile high-rise buildings in North Side (and lakeshore) neighborhoods make up a big segment of Chicago’s most visible housing stock.  These days they tend to make headlines by transforming from dingy and unsafe low-rent units into trendy micro apartments, but where did these very small living spaces come from originally?

Until the advent of the passenger elevator, nearly all multi-unit housing in the US was considered undesirable and low class.  However, once residents no longer needed to hike up the stairs, the idea of living high above street level rapidly changed from a burden to a feature.  

Gilded Age Lifestyles of the Urban Rich and Famous

The new luxury apartment buildings constructed after 1880 allowed for all of the traditional trappings of wealth (people to answer the door, make deliveries, clean and prepare meals) to be efficiently combined with the newest technology (electricity, central heat and cooling, telephones) that was difficult to install in existing grand homes.  Sharing the services of the doorman, cooking, and cleaning staff even made the expected luxury service more economical, especially for owners of residences in multiple cities or countries who often left a household closed for much of the year.  

algonquin hotel new yorkThe new residential apartment buildings allowed people to live in the maximum amount of luxury they could afford – varying in size and scope as shown left in the plan of the Algonquin Hotel in New York.  

Some of the new residential high rises contained the full range of rooms found in an individual home, while others, like the Algonquin, streamlined interior areas, relying on central kitchens to provide food and shared staff for housekeeping services.  This convenience, especially for the ladies of the household, who now had less to oversee, was viewed with suspicion. Some worked that “women relieved of their domestic duties would become irresponsible and flighty,” as Ranches, Rowhouses, and Railroad Flats (238) points out.  

 Here’s a description of residential hotel life from Thrones, Dominations, a mystery novel set in 1936:

“We have just taken a new flat in Hyde House. […] We have spacious rooms, and no kitchen at all — we can eat in the restaurant on the first floor, or get our meals sent up.  We have no difficulty with servants, because the service is all run for us.  All the heating is electric.  It is just like being in a hotel, except that we can have our own furniture. […] The management even keep the cocktail cabinet fully stocked for us.”

The Residential Hotel for Everybody Else 

Those early luxury apartments were soon mimicked (in a slightly more economical form) by the upper and middle classes.  In the 1920s, new residential towers were constructed that matched the ornate exterior of their predecessors and kept up appearances with a well-staffed ground floor with an ornate lobby and amenities, but had much smaller apartments above.  They still benefited from the combined services of the buildings, with rooftop views, ground floor dining or food prep areas, and even (as at Lawrence House) the occasional basement swimming pool.  Here is the lobby of Lawrence House.

lawrence house

The residential hotels of Chicago’s Uptown area likely came after the invention of push-button elevators. The residents could operate without a service person on staff around the clock, opening high-rise living to lower and middle-class budgets.

Midpriced residential hotels were ideal havens for young single workers of both genders who either lived in cities far from their families or simply wished for residential independence. Per Paul Groth’s Living Downtown, “the working women in the better hotels were predominantly teachers, buyers in department stores, executives in other businesses, writers, librarians, private secretaries, social workers, or women politicians.” Living in a hotel freed them from the duties of maintaining their own household.

Population Cycles and the Rise and Fall of the Residential Hotel

The residential hotel had maximum occupancy everywhere during World War II as the gilded age building boom was completely filled by young war workers being shifted around the country and working and living far from home.  After the war, however, urban populations fell dramatically as young families moved out to the suburbs to pursue the dream of home ownership.  Cities cleared out dilapidated hotels through demolition; others were allowed to fall into disrepair and were occupied by people with fewer resources and less ability to complain about the declining conditions.

Now interest in downtown and urban living is on the rise again, and the residential hotels of the past are being transformed into today’s micro flats.  Our recent and ongoing design work at Lawrence House and 1325 Wilson have been buildings nearly lost to disrepair and code violations that have been transformed into bright new residences for mixed incomes.

What’s your opinion on micro living – the miracle of modern convenience or life in a shoebox?