Walking into the top-rated luxury hotel in Chicago feels like walking into an office building for a simple reason: It is an office building. But taking up residence in the bottom 13 floors of one of the city’s iconic downtown steel towers has only worked in favour of the Langham Chicago, which opened in July 2013 and reached the top of the city’s Trip Advisor hotel ranking in slightly more than 100 days.
“One hundred eight days,” said Bob Schofield, the property’s managing director. “But who’s counting?” Well, Schofield is. He checks the rankings three times a day but has been able to relax of late. “We are so far ahead of the competition that I know it won’t change overnight,” he said. The 315-room Langham has thrived by balancing a unique combination: luxury in a 52-floor office tower, a dark, heavy exterior with a light, elegant interior, and an elegance hearkening to mid-century crossed with casual modern American comfort. It is the Hong Kong-based company’s fifth hotel in the Americas, and the first built from scratch. While previous North American Langhams have taken over existing properties, realising the vision that became the Langham Chicago was “much easier when you start with a blank slate,” Schofield said. “We’ve been able to create a great deal of graciousness without being formal,” he said. But the building is its stunning wildcard. The hotel is set innocently enough – hidden almost – in a tower that opened as an IBM office tower in 1972, designed by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. IBM departed in 2006, leaving the building as home to architectural and legal offices, and, most recently, the American Medical Association. (The property has recently been renamed AMA Plaza.)
The Langham Chicago is as counterintuitive a canvas as a big city hotel can get. Hotel Manager Joe Aguilera, who has spent 20 years in the city’s luxury hotel landscape (including stints at the Four Seasons and Elysian), said even he was surprised that the bottom of van der Rohe’s tower would become a hotel. “I thought, ‘OK, well, it’s kind of plain,’” Aguilera said. “But I always thought it was a great location. And for those who have seen it, they have been very complementary on how we’ve been able to assimilate a hotel in the space.”
Protected by both the National Register of Historic Places and Commission on Chicago Landmarks, architects were severely restricted when modifying the building. Features such as the heavy brown-black steel beams that comprise the building’s exterior couldn’t be touched, nor
could the floor-to-ceiling windows. As a result, no windows in the hotel open.
“We couldn’t change them, and we wouldn’t change them if we could because of the light and the impact that they have,” Schofield said.
The impact is stark. Those windows offer broad, uninterrupted views of the Chicago River that twists just outside the building’s front doors, Lake Michigan to the east and, in all directions, one of the world’s great swaths of architecture.
The only external modification is a brass-colored awning designed by van der Rohe’s grandson, Chicago architect Dirk Lohan. In keeping with the building’s existing flow, the street-level lobby is necessarily spare: stone walls, marble floors, clean-lined chairs, tables and lamps and barely a hint that you have arrived at a hotel.
There are, of course, indications: a doorman, a bellman and a “service stylist” – a team of (mostly) pink-clad women dressed in chiffon suits and pearls to offer brief explanations of the hotel and lead guests to the elevators that whisk them to the main lobby one floor above. At that moment, the notion of a historic office building vanishes. Despite the building’s iconic dark metal beams, the lobby is bright and wide, offering marble floors, tinkling piano music and broad city views.
“We wanted to create a light, airy structure,” Schofield said. “We encouraged lighter colors to give vibrancy to the location and we carried that throughout the whole hotel – light-colored fixtures, carpets and furniture.”
Luxury is standard at the Langham – 48-square-metre rooms (beginning at $395 per night plus tax) with marble bathrooms and 55-inch televisions. Top-end rooms get butler service (all the way down to packing and unpacking and drawing a bath) and access to the top-floor Langham Club, a lounge offering buffet breakfast, afternoon snacks and evening cocktails, plus some of the hotel’s most astounding views. It amounts to what Schofield called “casual elegance,” where accommodation and service seem effortlessly flawless – even if plenty of effort goes into the experience.
“You can’t be perceived as stuffy because in today’s world, that doesn’t work”, Schofield said. He cited the hotel restaurant, Travelle, where the hostesses are trained to step out from behind the desk when greeting guests.
“It says, ‘I’m aware of you, I’m welcoming you and I’m being proactive,’” Schofield said. “If you stay behind the desk, you’re like every other hotel.” He cited such service as the primary reason for the Langham’s assent to the top of the Trip Advisor rankings.
“We focus on those hospitality moments and having as many of them as we can,” he said. “One of my favorite phrases is ‘Do not be a monument.’ That’s the culture we’ve tried very, very hard to get into the hotel.” But then there is that one-of-a-kind space, which offers not
just the best of Chicago views, but a surprising and disarming slice of luxury; who expects world-class luxury in a building built for IBM? “Ultimately”, Schofield said, “the two combine to give the hotel its greatest strength.”
“We tell the staff, ‘You’re fortunate you have a beautiful stage. If you perform on the stage that we have created, we will be successful.’”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josh Noel writes about travel, beer and spirits for the Chicago Tribune.