The Lexington Hotel, 2135 S. Michigan Ave. (1892-1996)
Most notorious as the home of gangster Al Capone from 1928 to 1931, the saga of the Lexington Hotel on the northeast corner of 22nd St. and Michigan Boulevard exemplified the dramatic rise and fall of the South Loop.
The building was designed by architect Clinton J. Warren, who made a name for himself in Chicago during the late 1880s and early 1890s by designing several hotels and large apartment houses. In a four-year span from 1889 to 1893, Warren designed the Congress Hotel (504 S. Michigan Ave.), the Leander McCormick Apartments (Ohio and Rush Sts.), the Metropole Hotel (2300 S. Michigan Ave.), the Plaza Hotel (1553 N. Clark St.), and the Lexington. Only the Congress still stands.
Opened in 1892 in anticipation of the World’s Columbian Exposition and poised near the south end of Chicago’s most exclusive neighborhood at the time, one of the Lexington’s first tenants was President Benjamin Harrison who stayed there while dedicating the World’s Fair.
Even as the prestige of the neighborhood declined in the early part of the 20th Century and as Prairie Avenue denizens relocated to the North Shore, the 10-story hotel held its own—benefiting from its proximity to Loop business, the Chicago Coliseum, Comiskey Park, and South Loop train stations.
Al Capone moved his headquarters two blocks north from the Metropole Hotel in 1928, taking up residence with his henchmen on the fourth and fifth floors of the Lexington. Capone’s personal suite was on the fifth floor of the hotel, with a living room on the southwest corner of the building, featuring a prominent bay window that afforded him a view of Michigan Avenue and 22nd Street. The suite featured a pea-green and lavender tiled bathroom. His gang, security staff, an exclusive kitchen, and a dining room occupied the rest of the fifth floor.
In 1938, seeking to change its image, the Lexington was renamed the New Michigan Hotel. But by then the glamour of Prairie Avenue was long gone, light industry had taken over the Michigan Avenue corridor, the nearby Coliseum had become a third-rate convention venue, and North Side development had shifted focus away from the South Loop’s aging facilities.
The hotel became increasingly surrounded by blight after World War II, and descended into a haven for prostitutes, transients, and folks down on their luck. A popular kosher restaurant, Mama Batt’s, had some success on the ground floor retail space from the 1950s through the 1970s. But the hotel closed for good in 1980. By 1985, the endangered hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet it was an abandoned hulk and a blight on the neighborhood-- covered by soot, boarded up on the ground floor, raided by vandals, and its upper floor windows broken and open to the elements.
It was in this state that the former Lexington Hotel was the site of television gadfly Geraldo Rivera’s, April 21, 1986 live syndicated television special to break open what was purported to be Al Capone’s private vault. Nothing was found in the space but rubble and a few empty bottles on the highly-rated, nationally-televised special.
In 1989, plans were announced to spend $28 million to refurbish the Lexington into a moderately-priced, 258-suite hotel complex with 32,000 square feet of retail space using $2.6 million in urban development action grant funds. Renowned architect John Vinci, famous for his restorations of Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott building and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, was hired for the restoration. Developers pointed to the hotel’s proximity to the Loop and McCormick Place, the boom in Chicago hotel construction, and the novelty of the Capone connection as selling points for the viability of the project.
Yet the ravages of poor maintenance, years of neglect, the slow pace of neighborhood revitalization, a downturn in the economy, and the proximity of blighted high rise housing projects quickly doomed the project. The building was finally demolished in 1996, only a few years before improving market conditions might have saved the building.
Sources: New York Times (Commercial Property: The Capone Connection; Transforming a Onetime Chicago Mob Headquarters, Jody Brott, October 29, 1989), Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Chicago
Photos: Library of Congress
The Chicago Hotels of Architect Clinton J. Warren