When you start paying attention to history, history starts following you around everywhere you go. And it’s not a silent companion. There’s the city you see and the city that once was, residing just out of sight. No bridge or street corner or neighborhood block is without a story, and once you’ve made it known to the universe that you’re interested in this sort of stuff—by, say, writing a historical novel—these stories seem to come pouring into your life.
A few blocks from where we live in Chicago, for example, notorious mobster “Big Tim” Murphy—famous for orchestrating a robbery of $400,000 from a Pullman mail train—was gunned down in front of his house when he answered the door in June of 1928. The main road in our neighborhood (and many others on the east side of Chicago), Sheridan, is named for the Civil War general who restored order after the Great Fire in 1871. As you can see, a simple afternoon stroll conjures up one phantom after another.
The ghosts currently haunting me reside in this striking pink stucco building in the shape of a Maltese Cross, on the corner of Sheridan and Bryn Mawr in the Edgewater neighborhood.
This condo building is all that’s left of the luxurious one-thousand-room Edgewater Beach Hotel, built in 1916 by the Chicago architects Benjamin Marshall and Charles Fox—also know for designing the Drake. For the next thirty-five years or so, the Edgewater Beach Hotel was the most glamorous ticket in town. The icons of the era opted to stay here, from Sinatra to FDR and Eisenhower to Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Lou Gehrig, and Marilyn Monroe.
The hotel offered guests a private bathing beach and an eleven-hundred-foot promenade, along with on-call seaplane service to downtown. But it’s hard to imagine why they would have wanted or needed to leave the grounds.
The place offered a formal dining room able to accommodate twelve hundred guests, plus an outdoor marble ballroom, golf and tennis courts, chocolate factory, soda fountain, post office, flower shop, and even its own film and radio studio. Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller both played here to packed rooms. When Gandhi stayed, the chef prepared special vegetarian meals and made sure fresh goat’s milk was delivered to his room each morning.
You know what’s coming next, and it’s a heartbreaker. Eventually, the glory faded. New, more modern hotels sprung up downtown, and in 1951, the city of Chicago began to extend Lake Shore Drive north of Foster, cutting off this magnificent development from the beach—its major selling point. Business tanked and, eventually, the hotel was sold and its older buildings torn down. The remaining structure contains ground-level retail space and condos up above. Their sagging window-unit air conditioners dot the pink façade. Every day, hundreds of people walk by without giving a thought to this building’s former glory.
Kelly O’Connor McNees’s first novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, was published in April by Amy Einhorn Books / Putnam. Kelly lives in Rogers Park and takes lots of walks that include frequent stopping to write things down on index cards.