V27-3 Edgewater Beach Hotel Memories

Vol. XXVII No. 3 - Fall 2016

Compiled by Barbara Strauss and Kathy Gemperle, with special thanks to Adam Langer.

On June 3, 1916, the Edgewater Beach Hotel opened after overcoming many obstacles and challenges (see our newsletter for the summer of 2016). It was an immediate success and became a premier resort in the Midwest. It was unique in that it had beachfront on Lake Michigan and very spacious grounds. Transportation also played a part in its success, since in those days, you could not travel directly o from coast to coast; you had to change trains in Chicago. The hotel with its 1200-foot private beach offered seaplane service to downtown Chicago. On February 9, 1924, a second building opened. It was called the Annex and it was connected to the main building by a large hall known as Passaggio.

“When I first saw the Edgewater Beach Hotel, it was a beautiful enchanted island in the middle of the city.” Unfortunately, we do not know the author of this quote, but the words were very apropos. On October 17, 1915 the Chicago Daily Tribune said “[It] will be, it is claimed, one of the most artistic as well as novel hotel structures in the country.”

An article in the Brick and Clay Record, an industry business paper of that time, stated in its January 14, 1919 publication, “The Atlantic City Resort of the Middle West, as the hotel is known among travelers and those of discriminating taste, is a place many have desired to visit because of its uniqueness and refinement.” The May 30, 1920 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune said “Edgewater’s fashionable hotel colony, with its gay glitter of lights, jazz, dinners and dances, has at last vamped the ‘younger set’ of that district away from the luxurious but sedate pleasures of the Edgewater Country Club to the extent that within two or three weeks taps will be sounded for that well known social organization.”

Dorothy Hild, a choreographer during that time, put on many spectacular shows at the hotel. Alice Ann Knepp was a dancer with the troupe, and said “Dorothy Hild was terrible to work for. She was very unpopular, but she got results. She would always have some kind of big production number. We did a Polynesian theme with Freddy Martin’s band. Our job included room and board and our salary was $30 a week. If you lived at home, the girls got $40 a week.”

Irwin Kostal, an arranger, adapted music for the stage shows. “One time we were playing some music based on something by Dmitri Tiomkin for some sort of African picture he had done. We had a live tiger, a live elephant and a few other things on the stage. And on Monday nights, when I conducted the orchestra to play the floor show, Dorothy Hild was always the choreographer.” He went on to say “this time I was conducting the music and everything was going along fine until, all of a sudden, there was pandemonium on stage and I didn’t know what happened. The audience was hysterical. The whole stage had sort of fallen apart. Dorothy Hild was waving at me from the sidelines to keep playing, so I called out a number to the orchestra and we went back and played a little bit to the end again. And finally the stage cleared and we went back and I asked her ‘what happened?’ She said, “We forgot to tell you, if the elephant craps, go back to the top.”

The stage shows were an important part of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Romeo Meltz was a bartender and a bandleader: “When I got out of high school during the depression ears, I worked at the Edgewater Beach. I mopped the floors there from 12 at night to 8 in the morning for $40 a month and a meal. The fellas that were elevator operators they got $75 and they were college kids. There was an opening in the bar as a bar porter. And they had opened the Yacht Club downstairs. That was in 1934, when booze became legal. George Stanton recalled “In the Yacht Club it was made to look like the inside of a ship. We had snacks in there and you’d walk in on a gangplank. When you hit a certain spot it blew a whistle like a yacht.”

In the summer, dancing was on the Beach Walk. If it was cold, dancing was inside in the Marine Room. Big band performances were broadcast nationwide over NBC. According to Chuck Schaden, radio personality, the band performances were also broadcast locally over WEBH (the Edgewater Beach Hotel). Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke (March 10, 1903 - August 6, 1931) was an American jazz cornetist, jazz pianist and composer. He hopped on a train in Iowa and came to Chicago telling his parents “You see, I have the chance to play the Edgewater Beach Hotel and make some dough.”

Again, a quote from the Chicago Daily Tribune on July 26, 1931: “A stroll along Edgewater’s beaches on a hot summer day is sufficient to convince even the most skeptical of Chicago’s standing as a summer resort.”

Frank Masters, bandleader, said: We used to play the Beach Walk before they filled in the lake. It came almost all the way up to the hotel. In summertime, they had the outdoor place. It was pretty enough, but you found out that half the time the floor would be covered in sand flies. And you’d have to pack up and go back in the dining room.

There are many stories people have told us about their connection with the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

Betsy Kane, a resident of Edgewater, told us her father and Johnny Weissmuller were hired to do shows at the hotel at the outside swimming pool. They didn’t receive any money, but her father told her they could eat anything they wanted – free meals all the way. Undoubtedly they ate very well. Hotel resident Marilou Hedlund said: Usually, when there was a big show, we would have a table for one night. Just once a show. But that wasn’t nearly as interesting as being behind the band shell or up in the wings. I don’t remember getting all dressed up and watching the floor show. It was a lot more fun to be watching in play clothes from the wings. And the ballrooms were wonderful. Part of the joy of that hotel was the vast amount of interesting space to explore. It would be fun to go there when they were setting up the ballrooms and hide out and watch them. There were lots of secret passages and you’d go down after the events and pick through the debris to find treasures. Kids have different treasures than grown-ups. What grown-ups throw away can be a treasure for a kid.”

There were a lot of permanent residents at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. With the extension of Lake Shore Drive beginning in 1951, the hotel was cut off from its access to the lake and business began to decline. In order to compete with downtown hotels, the Edgewater Beach added a swimming pool and in 1960 underwent a restoration at a cost of $900,000. The hotel continued to host conferences including in 1963 the National Conference on Religion and Race with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steering committee.

It lasted a long time – over 50 years. Then the end came in bankruptcy court in December 1967. Things were pretty dire by that time. Lima Kim, a resident, said of the building, “The heat’s turned off. There are no lights in the elevators and the halls are dark and my room is dirty.” Herb Kruger, General Manager, said, “we were making a lot of economies and plugging a lot of leaks.”

The hotel closed on December, 1967. The building was leased in the fall of 1968 to Loyola University to house 300 students. When the students learned that the hotel was being demolished and they would have to move, an 18-year old Loyola student, David Balunas, said “We’ve grown to like her. There’s talk that we may move out at the semester’s end to a new residence hall they’re building on campus but I hope not.” In January, 1969, the students were relocated.

George Stanton, Chief Executive Steward from 1924 until 1967, said, “I remember when they were building it and I remember the sad days then they had to tear it down floor by floor. The idea was that the building would never collapse. An atom bomb wouldn’t have brought it down – they criss-crossed the steel beams so well. An earthquake might have cracked the walls or the plaster, but we thought it would never fall down.”

Demolition began in the fall of 1969. Pete Boyas, Boyas Excavating Company, said, “It looks like a more complicated wrecking job than it is.”

Author Adam Langer has graciously allowed us to include his article about memories of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, which appeared as part of a lengthy article in the November 10, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader, in the section of our website devoted to the Edgewater Beach Hotel. You can read it at www.edgewaterhistory.org

Adam said “my parents spent their honeymoon there. My Aunt Faye and Uncle Harry had their school prom there. They wanted to dance on the Beach Walk, but the 17-year cicadas were swarming, so they had to stay indoors in the Marine Dining Room. I don’t remember the place, but I do remember my dad driving us by in 1970 to watch it being demolished. We sat in the back of his black Thunderbird while he took home movies of the wrecking ball crashing into the pink stucco structure.

An Edgewater resident, Gail Gill, said “Mom and Dad met at College Night at the hotel. She lived there for two years with her Mother and sisters in the 1920s. My memories are of Easter egg hunts, Koko the Clown, fireworks on the 4th of July, Sunday dinners in the Colonnade Room and a rare and very special treat, dinner in the Marine Dining Room, running up and down the Yacht Club ‘gang plank,’ and running back and forth in the great connector hall of the two buildings. Today, I see immediate joy on the face of an individual remembering the Edgewater Beach Hotel.”

Demolition was completed in 1971. And still, people remember and smile.