V27-2 The Edgewater Beach Hotel: From Idea to Reality

Vol. XXVII No. 2 - SUMMER 2016

By LeRoy Blommaert

Before there was the idea, there was the land. And the story of the land and its change of ownership and controversy, besides being crucial to the hotel, is an interesting story in its own right.

Since at least 1861 (and probably before), the land upon which the hotel would be built was owned by Nathaniel F. Brown; then, upon his death around 1900, by his nephew A.B. Jencks (although the will was contested). For some unexplained reason, John Lewis Cochran and his partners did not buy this land in 1885 when they purchased the land west of Sheridan for their first subdivision. (Perhaps it was because the land was owned by a different party and that party did not want to sell, or perhaps it didn’t seem worth the effort.) The narrow sliver of lakefront land east of Sheridan was the only land in Edgewater that was never subdivided. In August 1898, a portion of the land south of today’s Berwyn Avenue, and bordered on the south by Foster, was purchased by the Saddle and Cycle Club. The land north of the Saddle and Cycle Club remained undeveloped.

An important event in the creation of the hotel occurred on May 16, 1903, when John T. Connery purchased a home and lot at what is today 5228 N. Sheridan in John Lewis Cochran’s original subdivision. (The permit for the home was December 27, 1902 and the architect was the firm of Murphy and Camp. It was built for Cochran.) John T. Connery was president of the Miami Coal Company, which had mines in Indiana. He would later become one of the four investors in the Edgewater Beach Hotel Company, but before that happened, he and a partner, John Corbett, would invest in land upon which both the hotel and apartments would be built.

But the story is more complex – and interesting – than a mere investment by two men. On April 9, 1908, John Connery and John Corbett purchased at a partition sale the land east of Sheridan and north of the Saddle and Cycle property. It is not clear at that time what they intended to do with the land, and perhaps they themselves did not know, although a Chicago Tribune article reporting on the sale indicated that the land would be prepared for lots on upon which “high class residences “ would be built.

Whatever the intent, it seems almost certain that it was because John Connery had a house just a few doors south of the property and across the street that caused them to buy this land rather than some other land or make another investment.

The land that Connery and Corbett purchased was unimproved – and that was a gross understatement. It was mostly sand dunes and, north near Catalpa, was just a very narrow sliver of land, not very much wider than today’s Sheridan Road. The image shown in Figure #1 on page 4 gives an idea of what the property looked like and what needed to be done to make the property suitable for building. It is an amateur photo postcard taken in 1906 from the property looking northwest just south of Balmoral, and shows the rear of the still existing building at the southeast corner of Kenmore and Balmoral as well as the rear of several homes on Kenmore.

(The home that is today’s Wing Ho restaurant had not yet been built.) Figure #2 below is a photo postcard taken by Edgewater photographer R.E. Jackson at the beach at Bryn Mawr in about 1908 looking directly south. In the background of this idyllic scene are steam driven dredges working on the property. Shortly after their purchase, Connery and Corbett sold 100 foot frontage north of the Saddle & Cycle Club to the owners of the club. This purchase, on August 7, 1908, extended the club’s ownership of land up to the south side of Berwyn Avenue. Their next sale was March 28, 1909, when they sold 183 foot frontage at the southeast corner of Bryn Mawr and Sheridan to an Otto W. Lehmann. The deed specified that flats could not be built on the property for 20 years. (That, of course, would change.) However, they re-acquired this parcel a year later, (we don’t know why), and on August 19, 1914, they sold 200 foot frontage on the same corner to architect Benjamin H. Marshall who, according to a Chicago Tribune article, intended to build a nine-story apartment building containing 36 apartments. That did not happen (again, we do not know why), and nothing was built on that corner until 1927 when a much larger building would begin to rise on the site – the 303 unit Edgewater Beach Apartments, which would not only be designed by Benjamin Marshall but be partially owned by him as well. However, it was this purchase by Marshall that would set in motion the construction of the Edgewater Beach Hotel just a year later.

Before that happened, something else happened that, had it been successful, might well have caused the Edgewater Beach Hotel to never have been built. In March of 1914, John Connery along with a number of associates (but apparently not including Corbett) sought to buy the Chicago Cubs. They were not successful, primarily because they thought the asking price was too high. Had they been successful, who knows how history would have changed – both for the Cubs and the land.

And there were other actions that also might well have resulted in the hotel never being built. One, ironically enough, also had a connection to Chicago baseball. In December 1911, Corbett and Connery sold 100 foot frontage of land to a Charlie H. Weegham – the same Charlie H. Weegham who founded the Chicago Federal league, owned the Chicago Whales, built the ballpark we know as Wrigley Field, and who later went on to buy the Chicago Cubs. Interestingly, Mr. Weegham also owned a home nearby. It was at 5627 N. Sheridan.

There were other sales too. In June 1910, Corbett & Connery sold 316 foot frontage to John K. Stewart; in December 1911 they sold 100 foot frontage 600 feet south of Bryn Mawr to Mrs. Margaret T. McGovern, and in June 1912, they sold 75 foot frontage to Rudolph D. Huszagh.

So if they sold all this land, how did the hotel get built and have the extensive grounds that it had? The answer is first, that while they did sell some land, they did not sell all of it, and in fact retained most of it. Secondly, the two parcels they sold to McGovern and Huszagh were small and also located north of where the hotel would be built. Both McGovern and Huszagh built houses in 1912 on the parcels they purchased. The 1913 City Directory shows the addresses of those houses as 5459, and 5455. The hotel when built had an address of 5349. (See Figure #3 for a view of 5455). Thirdly, the land that they sold to Charlie Weegham was repurchased, but not by them, but by Benjamin Marshall. The date was June 9, 1915.

Another hurdle was a controversy over the amount of land east of Sheridan Road Connery and Corbett really owned. Had it not been overcome, it would have precluded the building of the hotel – or at least the hotel that eventually came to be. As was mentioned, the land they purchased was sand dunes and, north of Balmoral, did not extend very far into the lake. The question was how much of the land underwater did they own. How far east did their land extend? It obviously did not extend to the eastern edge of the lake in neighboring Michigan. So where was the boundary? An agreement was reached with the Lincoln Park board (which had jurisdiction north to Devon) establishing a line and both Connery and Corbett sought and got the agreement legally established and recorded. The line was not congruent with the existing shoreline but was further east into the lake. This allowed them to create land fill from the shoreline up to the line. They did this by building piers into the lake. In exchange for the potentially additional land Connery and Corbett waived their riparian rights. See Figure #4 for a map that shows the existing shoreline and the line east of it to which Connery and Corbett and the Lincoln Park board had come to an agreement.

It was not without challenge. Indeed, an ad hoc group of Edgewater residents challenged the agreement arguing that (1) the process by which the agreement was reached was a secretive one which allowed no community input (not much has changed), (2) that Connery and Corbett did not own any riparian rights that they could surrender, and (3) that the submerged land was a land grab – that it belonged to the public rather than Connery and Corbett.

The complainants’ main beef was that the agreement closed to them and other residences access to the beach at the ends of the east west streets of Catalpa, Balmoral and Berwyn. Residents further north in Cochran’s subdivision enjoyed access to the lake at the ends of the streets. As was expected the majority of the complainants lived directly west of the Connery and Corbett land. An October 12, 1909, Chicago Tribune article on the controversy listed 19 names (with addresses) on a petition to a special state legislative investigative committee. Of the 19, three lived on Winthrop; the remainder lived in today’s Lakewood Balmoral neighborhood. One of them was Herman C. Lammers who lived in the house now owned by EHS founder Kathy Gemperle and her husband.

The special state legislative committee did hold hearings on this issue. Interestingly enough, Connery and Corbett’s title was defended by the firm of Cochran and McClure. The challenge failed, and thus residents today still do not have access to the lake from Balmoral and Catalpa, only from Berwyn.

Despite these potential detours and hurdles the hotel did get built.

The Edgewater Beach Hotel Company was incorporated on May 22, 1915. A building permit was issued in August; the four stockholders held their first meeting in the same month; Corbett & Connery transferred land to the new company on September 2; and the first plans for the hotel were drawn by September 16.

Whose idea was it? We don’t know for sure, but it was probably Benjamin Marshall’s. He had already designed the Blackstone hotel for the Drake brothers, which had became quite successful, and he had already purchased the land at the southeast corner of Bryn Mawr and Sheridan from Connery and Corbett, and also he had purchased the land from Charles Weegham. The fact that he was the first president of the new Edgewater Beach Hotel Company lends further credence to this supposition. And, of course, it was he who was responsible for the unique design of the building.

The hotel opened on June 3, 1916, and was an immediate success, and remained successful even after the original investors or their heirs sold it in 1948. The company had only four original shareholders (Corbett, Connery, Marshall and Fox), and each had an equal number of shares.

The Edgewater Beach Hotel Company would later purchase the McGovern and Huszagh homes north of the hotel and tear them down to expand the hotel grounds, although in the case of the McGovern property the purchase did not occur until December 1927. The company also purchased from subsequent owners, the land that Corbett and Connery had sold to John K. Stewart in 1910. That was in May 1927. In another interesting bit of irony, one of Rudolph Huszagh’s sons, Ralph D., who spent his teenage years in the family house, became an architect, and the firm of Huszagh and Hill would design the Wyndham Apartments at 5230-42, Sheridan, [permit July 1928], which were immediately to the north of John Connery’s home. This firm also designed the Aragon Ballroom, the New Lawrence Hotel, and the four top floors that were added to the Sheridan Park Trust & Savings (later renamed Uptown National) bank building, which had been originally been designed by… yes, Marshall and Fox. In yet another bit of irony, John Connery, perhaps unhappy about his home being overshadowed on either side by high rise apartments, announced plans in 1930 for a 15 story apartment building on the site of his home. The architect? – Benjamin Marshall of course. Alas, the timing was not right; the Great Depression came, and the apartment building was not built. Nothing would be built until the 1970s, when a four-plus-one building was erected on the site. The Connery family retained ownership until 1938, one year after John Connery died.

Sources: Cook County Records of Deeds, Chicago Tribune, 1914 Blue Book, 1913 City Directory, inquiry to the library at the University of Texas at Austin where Benjamin Marshall’s papers are stored, articles of incorporation for the hotel, and 1916 annual report from Illinois State Archives.