Whatever Became of the Chicago YMCA Hotel?
One of the reasons I love living where I do, is that my building has quite the history in Chicago. It was built in 1915 and opened in 1916 the main YMCA Hotel in Chicago. Chicagoan William Messer conducted a study with University of Chicago students a few years earlier to show that the South Loop did not have many reputable places for young men to stay when they came to Chicago at Dearborn Station in the South Loop. He started by getting donations from some of Chicago’s plutocrats including John Shedd, Cyrus McCormick and William Wrigley. The Y opened with 1,821 rooms and was soon running at full capacity.
In the 1920s so many people were turned away that the board decided to expand the hotel. When the expansion was done, the hotel had 2,700 rooms, making it the second largest hotel in Chicago. After a lull during the Great Depression the Y Hotel bounded back at the end of the 1930s when millions of people poured into Chicago for the Century of Progress Exposition. Servicemen kept the hotel full during World War 2, along with travelers and tourists who wanted to stay close to downtown, but couldn’t afford the swankier hotels.
After its expansion in the 1920 the hotel had a huge lobby and restaurant on the first floor. The second floor boasted a lounge and huge library and the next three floors were full of meeting rooms that were kept busy with clubs in photography, philosophy, literature and religion. There were dances, speakers and other events every night. Residents, both overnight and long-term, were encouraged to get to know each other. There was also a rooftop deck where residents had great views of both Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. (The current residents still enjoy those great views from the roof.)
In the 1930s the YWCA a block east of the Y was closed due to how easy it was for the building to be robbed. The top four floors became the YWCA, and the building was opened to both men and women. A lady I attend church with stayed in the Y when she first moved to Chicago after college until she married that fall. This is how small the rooms were. My friend who stands at 5 feet, could stretch out her arms and almost touch both walls. The size of the typical room was 4 feet by 6 feet.
In the 1960s and 70s the hotel fell on hard times. Not as many people stayed, and people who wanted to stay close to downtown wanted nicer hotels with more amenities. The hotel was shut down in 1979. Until then it was the third largest hotel in Chicago, and the largest YMCA hotel in the world.
In the mid-1980s the building was gutted and developed into apartments then in the late 1990s it was then into a condominium as people started moving into the South Loop.
As you can see from the pictures ghosts of its lively past still live in our building. My favorite is the painted ceilings from the dining room that still decorate our garage. (I also find it a little weird that our garage used to be the dining room.) I enjoy living in a building that has so much history. I also don’t have to worry about the building going anywhere. When the hotel first opened in 1916 its advertisements assured potential roomers that, not only was the building fireproof, but each room was fireproof. I thought that was odd until I remembered the Chicago Fire, which happened in 1871. This part of the city was burned down. My building was built to withstand another Chicago fire. It’s not going anywhere. And neither am I.
The Reader, “Checkout Time for the Hotel,” by Steve Bogira, September 28, 1979.
YMCA Hotel, 826 S. Wabash Ave,. Chicago, IL at Society: The South Loop Historical Society at East-West University.