A Touch of Class

Vol. I No. 4 - SUMMER 1989

By: Jane Lawrence (Senior Lifestyle Corp.)

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is station WEBH, coming to you tonight from the world-famous Marine Dining Room of the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan, presenting Wayne King…” Or Paul Whiteman, Carmen Cavallaro, Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights, Griff Williams, Danny Russo and the Orioles, Tommy Dorsey or any of the great name bands of the past which were broadcast each week.

For 53 years, the Edgewater Beach Hotel was the place in Chicago to vacation elegantly, to get married, attend your senior prom, romance your best girl, or dance your troubles away. Designed by Benjamin Marshall, architect of the Drake and Blackstone Hotels, and built in 1916 by John T. Connery, it opened with 400 rooms. Another 600 were added in 1924. With its opulent lobbies and gilded ballrooms and its adornments of marble, crystal and brass, the Edgewater Beach Hotel was the quintessence of luxury.

It was managed until its sale in 1948 by the legendary William M. Dewey. His idea of how to run a hotel came to one word: perfection. Courtesy and service were cardinal rules. Water spots on the floors and spoons swept into the trash were outrages not to be endured.

He also protected the dignity and reputation of the hotel. Xavier Cugat and Abbe Lane (caught “en flagrant”) and silent film star Tom Mix with his anonymous female companion were ousted from the hotel, as well as the non-famous indiscreet. No comedian told an off-color story more than once.

But, at Christmas, Dewey stood in front of a blazing Tudor fireplace off the Passagio Lobby and handed out $12,000 in bonuses to hotel employees while a choir of 50 voices sang Christmas carols.

In addition to the movie and sports stars, European glitterati, Arab princes and political bigwigs who frequented the hotel, the wealthy of Dallas, New Orleans, St. Louis and Tulsa came to the Edgewater Beach to escape the summer heat.

In those days, the lake with its cooling breezes came right up to the hotel. There was a 1,200-foot beach featuring the Promenade, a tree-lined walk that terminated in shaded cushioned swings and the Beachwalk, a marble-floored outdoor dance area where live music played. It was on the Beachwalk every June 15 that Chicago ushered in its summer social season.

In the Marine Dining Room, the roof was literally rolled back and couples danced under starlight while fountains cascaded and live palm trees shooshed in the breeze. Even during the hard times of the ’30s, you could dine and dance all night for a dollar. When sunshine sparkled through the windows the next morning, guests breakfasted while hundreds of caged canaries sang. Other hotel attractions included putting greens, a children’s playground, tennis courts, winter ice-skating and private bus service to the Loop.

As a cafĂ© society mecca for more than four decades, the Edgewater Beach ranked as a world-class hotel, alongside New York’s Plaza and San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins. In 1949, the City of Chicago undertook the extension of Lake Shore Drive and, with the resulting landfill project, the hotel lost its beach. Although it remained open until 1967, the Edgewater Beach Hotel never enjoyed the same eclat.

Today, a new building stands on the site, The Breakers at Edgewater Beach, a luxury congregate living facility for more than 500 senior citizens. In a twist of poetic irony, many of the residents of The Breakers recall that some of the happiest hours of their young lives were spent in the Edgewater Beach Hotel, listening to the big bands on the Beachwalk, walking the Promenade as the full moon spilled a gilded path across Lake Michigan or dressed in black tie and satin in the Marine Ball Room, dancing under the stars.