For generations, Chicago has been a storied architectural laboratory, boasting designs from Frank Lloyd Wright to I.M. Pei. In the early 20th century, countless buildings, many of them clad in brick or Indiana limestone, served as pillars of the Midwestern economy. Now, the city features a growing number of former commercial buildings that have been repurposed as hotels, including the LondonHouse Chicago in the Loop and The Robey in the Wicker Park neighborhood. The building renovations have revealed intricate design details and created rooftop spaces that allow hotel guests to enjoy the vistas that continue to define Chicago.
Designed by the prominent Chicago architect Alfred S. Alschuler, the London Guarantee and Accident Building was constructed on the site of Fort Dearborn in 1923. The building, once home to the namesake insurance company, as well as the London House, a famous jazz club, now houses the LondonHouse Chicago, which opened in June 2016 after a lengthy renovation. The 452-room hotel, part of Hilton’s upscale Curio Collection, is located in the original Beaux-Arts building, along with a 22-story glass addition that was built during the renovation. On the first floor, the meticulously restored gold-lacquered ceiling in the rotunda and hallway reaffirms the building’s ornate history. The bar in the second-floor lobby offers a daily tea service, high-backed, plush chairs that seem right out of a film adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” and a nice lower-level view of Marina City, the 1960s-era apartment and retail complex. There is a tri-level rooftop, with indoor and outdoor space; the latter features views of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, along with a 23rd floor cupola that is available for private events.
Situated in the northernernmost fringe of the Loop, the hotel is an excellent base for exploring some of the city’s top attractions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park and the Riverwalk. The DuSable Bridge, only a few steps from the hotel, takes you to Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. There are multiple ways to reach the hotel. I took the El, the train system, from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to the Loop, which took about 45 minutes.
My eighth-floor vista king room had an attractive view of the river, the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, one of the most striking Gothic skyscrapers ever constructed. The wood paneling around the room was appealing, along with the framed pictures evoking a Jazz Age sensibility. The Wi-Fi is complimentary—it worked well—and a higher-speed option is available at an additional cost. Each room comes with a minifridge and Nespresso coffee maker.
A frosted sliding door revealed a marble-clad sink, with a modern, glass-enclosed shower (there was no bathtub). There were an array of Malin+Goetz products, including rum bar soap and cilantro hair conditioner, along with a generous amount of towels.
Almost immediately after its opening, the rooftop bar became a hot Chicago destination, which means you may struggle to get the attention of a bartender during peak times. The outdoor terrace is open year-round, while the rooftop bar is only operational as the weather permits. Try the Roaring 20’s, a strawberry and jasmine tea preserve with champagne ($16), and take in the view, anchored by Lake Michigan. The cupola is a popular place for wedding proposals. With a nod to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the names of the fair’s architects and designers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Francis Davis Millet adorn the wall and ceiling frames leading to the fourth-floor spa and fitness center.
Between LH on 21, the indoor bar and restaurant space, and LH on 22, the 22nd floor rooftop, there is a range of food options. The morning of my departure, I opted for in-room dining, ordering the outstanding blueberry pancakes and bacon. Recent selections include the toasted grapefruit and a waffle with powdered sugar, berries and anglaise.
The Bottom Line
The LondonHouse Chicago gives guests a classy, upbeat experience in the heart of the city. If you love great views and proximity to the waterfront, you’ll appreciate the hotel even more.
LondonHouse Chicago, 85 East Wacker Drive; londonhousechicago.com.
For longtime Chicagoans, the building that now houses The Robey was known as Northwest Tower. The Art Deco building, one of the first skyscrapers built outside of the Loop, opened in 1929 and was geared toward professionals with offices for doctors and lawyers. In the 1980s, the building acquired another nickname, the Coyote Building, as its spire and towering flagpole were said to favor a baying coyote. By the late 2000s, the building had been dilapidated for some time, despite the gentrification of Wicker Park. In 2014, approval was granted to Grupo Habita, the Mexico-based boutique hotel operator, for a hotel conversion, and in late 2016, The Robey opened its doors. The 89-room hotel, a member of Design Hotels, draws in guests with its revolving wooden door, dark green marble and stately brass elevator doors on the first floor. An adjacent building was previously a sister property featuring shared and private hotel rooms and was renamed Robey Hall last year; it now offers only private rooms.
The Robey, with its triangular flatiron shape, sits at one of the most well-trafficked locations in Wicker Park, near the intersection of Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenues. The Damen El station, on the Blue Line, is roughly half a block away from the hotel, and offers an easy ride to and from O’Hare, along with quick access to the rest of the city. The area has an array of restaurants, vinyl record stores, bars and bike shops. Big Star, the bustling Mexican restaurant and a neighborhood fixture, is close to the hotel.
I stayed in an upper-floor corner suite, which offered an unobstructed view of Wicker Park and the Chicago skyline. I was so taken by the landscape that it took me almost 15 minutes to start unpacking. The wooden floors evoked an era of old-school craftsmanship. With the touch of several buttons near the comfortable king bed, I was able to raise and lower the blinds for each window and dim the lights. The minibar was neatly hidden behind a large cabinet door.
The corner suite bathroom contained two separate sinks, both outfitted with Le Labo soaps, lotions and bath products. It was by far one of the most spacious bathrooms I’ve used at a hotel. The shower floor was slightly elevated, which prevented water from leaking onto the bathroom floor, which can be an issue at many hotels (there was no bathtub).
The Robey has a cozy second-floor lounge where food is available. My recommendation is to enjoy a tea and a banana nut muffin in the morning and a glass of wine later in the day. The Cabana Club, on top of the Robey Hall building on the sixth floor and open from May through September, gives off urban charm, with its rooftop pool and bar, proximity to the passing El trains and city views. The Up Room, the intimate 13th-floor rooftop cocktail lounge, has both an indoor space and an outdoor terrace. Try the Oaxacan on Broken Glass cocktail, with Banhez mezcal, lime cordial, chile liqueur and bitters ($15) and relax in a chair overlooking the skyline. Both spaces are very busy in the summer, so I appreciated the fact that the Cabana Club and the Up Room have earlier hours specifically for hotel guests before they are open to the public.
The Café Robey, on the first floor, is open for brunch and dinner, with modern American fare from the executive chef Kevin McAllister. Selections range from the breakfast salad, with kale, walnuts, beets and goat cheese ($14) to the pan-roasted striped bass, with couscous, olives, dried apricots, yogurt and harissa ($23).
The Bottom Line
With Wicker Park as an anchor, my experience at The Robey was exceptional. As you watch the sunset from the rooftop, you will likely want to stay for an extra night, or an extra week.
The Robey, 2018 West North Avenue; therobey.com.