Friday, February 10, 2023

The Drake Hotel, Chicago; A National Historic Place Since 1980.

"Aquila Non-Capit Muscas" literally means in Latin, "The Eagle Does Not Catch Flies," or in modern times, "A Noble or Important Person Does Not Deal with Insignificant Matters."
The Drake brothers were second-generation hoteliers. Their father, John Burroughs Drake, was one of America's most noteworthy hoteliers. A native of Lebanon, Ohio, he was born in 1826 and arrived in Chicago while not yet 30. He eventually became proprietor of the Tremont Hotel, which burnt in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Not one to wallow in his misfortune, he negotiated for the Michigan Avenue Hotel at Congress and Michigan while the fire was still burning. The panicked owner was only too happy to sell the hotel to Drake, who had the last laugh after correctly predicting that the fire would bypass the hotel. From this hotel, he re-christened the Tremont House. Drake then took control of the venerable Grand Pacific Hotel, where he presided for 20 years and gained an international reputation as a bon vivant, connoisseur, and popular host. Drake died in 1895, but his sons followed in his footsteps, establishing themselves as hoteliers and naming The Drake Hotel in their father's honor. 

Architect Benjamin Marshall conceptualized the Nation's first urban resort that came to fruition on the Magnificent Mile (Upper Michigan Avenue), financed by brothers John B. Drake and Tracy C. Drake in 1919. The Drake Hotel's location opposite Oak Street Beach at Lake Shore Drive & Upper Michigan Avenue allowed the hotel to be billed as one of the Nation's first urban resorts.

The Drake's architect, Ben Marshall, inspired the hotel's design from the Italian palaces of High Renaissance Rome and Florence. Constructed of smooth limestone, the building is 14 stories high. It rises from a rectangular base, which changes at the third story to an H-shape. A distinctive feature of Italian Renaissance design found in The Drake is the "Piano Nobile," (the main story; the first floor of a large house containing the principal rooms). The base level of the hotel featured an arcade containing several services, such as a barber shop, beauty salon,  high-end  retailers,  and changing rooms so guests could freshen up from their journey to the hotel and look presentable before making their "grand entrance" onto the Piano Nobile.

Like Potter Palmer before the Marshall brothers and Earnest Stevens after them, the Drake brothers built upon their hotel knowledge to create a new structure that would inspire awe and emulation.

When Ben Marshall advanced the plans for The Drake in March 1919, The Economist, a real-estate trade journal of the period, reported that the structure would be "of unusual magnificence, nothing like it in appearance, arrangement or finishings having ever been attempted in this country." Marshall was so enthused about the project that he waved his architectural fees in exchange for an ownership share in the hotel. He remained involved in many aspects of the hotel after its construction, including interior design, entertainment, and the design of employee uniforms.

Benjamin Marshall, the flamboyant self-taught architect of The Drake and many other notable Chicago structures, including the Blackstone Hotel, the Blackstone Theater, and the Edgewater Beach Hotel, Marshall was instrumental in all aspects of The Drake for 20 years. He initially served as vice president of The Drake's parent company, the Whitestone Company, and subsequently even served as the hotel's general manager and director of entertainment. A close friend of the legendary show business impresario Flo Ziegfield, Marshall had an appreciation of drama and theatrics that he put to excellent use in the events he orchestrated at The Drake.

The hotel cost $10 million ($172 million today), including land, building, and furnishings. Nine hundred employees served its original 800 guest rooms. The Drake opened officially on New Year's Eve 1920 with a gala dinner for 2,000 of Chicago's leading citizens.

Throughout the 1920s, the fame of The Drake spread first across the country and subsequently across the world. WGN's first radio station was perched on the top of The Drake, and it was from here where the famous "Amos and Andy" radio show originated and was broadcast live along with the big bands that performed at the hotel. In 1924, HRH the Prince of Wales (the Duke of Windsor) was a guest at The Drake, thus establishing the tradition of serving as the Chicago home to Britain's royal family. The Drake has always been their official headquarters in Chicago.
September 26, 1926.

The 1930s saw the parade of famous guests continue at The Drake. The onset of the decade, which coincided with the depths of the Great Depression (1929-1933), brought about a change in ownership at the hotel as the property was purchased by the Brashears family of Chicago, which formed a partnership with the ever-present Ben Marshall known as the National Reality and Investment Company.

The Coq d'Or bar (which means a Golden Cockerel or a Young Rooster) opened on December 6, 1933, following the repeal of Prohibition. The second establishment in Chicago to obtain a liquor license (the first being the Berghoff Restaurant). The patina of Coq d'Or blends rich wood paneling, leather accents, live weekend entertainment and a cozy glow to evoke a genuinely nostalgic vibe.

Here, pre-prohibition standbys, eight decades of iconic cocktails and new favorites are mixed, shaken or stirred to astonish the taste buds and amaze the eye. And for those who like it on the rocks or straight up, our branded Rye Whiskey, curated in conjunction with a few Spirits from an award-winning local distillery, is one of numerous batches and blends that will ignite and delight the palette of any whiskey connoisseur.

And the soup . . . is the perfect bowl of tradition. Bookbinders Red Snapper (replacing the snapping turtle meat) soup is named after the restaurant of its provenance, Bookbinders, which opened in 1865 in Philadelphia and has been served at The Drake since the 1930s. A tomato-and-roux-based soup with snapping turtle red snapper chunks and a crystal decanter of sherry for patrons to pour into the casserole became an authentic Chicago tradition among locals.

As the menu reads: "The lines were so long that our bartenders only had time to pour whiskey at 40¢ a glass. Along with the rest of the city, we were ready, however, with an excess of 200,000 gallons of whiskey for the celebration that lasted until dawn." Allegedly, bartenders started serving patrons before the official 8:30 PM repeal.

Coq d'Or transformed by installing one of the first televisions in a Chicago bar. By then, the bar was already a favorite haunt of the Streeterville neighborhood residents, reporters, politicians, and entertainers. The leather-backed chairs and warm wood paneling evoked the feeling of a bygone "gentleman's drinking pub."
The Drake Hotel's Main Entrance is at 140 East Walton Place.

In 1937, Edward L. Brashears Sr., then President of The Drake, leased the hotel to the Kirkeby Brother's Hotel Group, which ran the hotel for nearly a decade until Edwin L. Brashears Sr. returned from World War II military service in 1946

The Drake Hotel's a-la-carte menu dates back to the 1940s. It is always interesting to note how culinary tastes have changed over the decades. The menu offered such favorites of the period as "Boned Pigs Feet in Jelly," "Tongue Sandwiches," "Sardine Sandwiches," "Mutton Chops," "Welsh Rarebit," "Clear Green Turtle Soup," "Beets in Butter," and a special of "Braised Larded Calf's Sweetbreads (the thymus; throat, gullet, or neck, or the pancreas; stomach, belly or gut, typically from a calf or lamb)," Needless to say these delicacies are long gone from restaurant menus.

In 1940, the larger Gold Coast/Silver Forest room was vacated in favor of the adjacent but smaller Camellia House. 

Here, more intimate shows, usually featuring a chanteuse (female nightclub singer of popular songs), were presented nightly among the fresh white camellias (flowers) and black banquettes (extended bench seating along a wall), and smaller orchestras were used for the floor shows and dancing. Blade had his own NBC radio talk and live music program from Chicago for eight years at The Drake Hotel's Camellia House supper club. 

The orchestra of the pianist-leader-arranger James "Jimmy" P. Blade holds the record for playing the longest engagement at the Camellia House: sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Blade died in August 1974. Bill Snyder, another Chicago pianist-leader famous for his 1950 hit record, "♫ Bewitched, ♪" succeeded Blade and remained until 1970, when the Camellia House ended its show policy.

The room went through several revivals, with the local bandleader Dick Judson playing for seven seasons. Paul Meeker and his group also played in the room. Then, in 1975, Victor Lombardo, Guy Lombardo's youngest brother, brought his small group into the room for the season to play for dancing and a small floor show.
Syracuse China dinnerware was designed by Dorothy Draper for the Camellia House restaurant in Chicago's Drake Hotel. First produced in 1940, this beautiful pattern was made with different color ring accents. Postcards of the Camellia House from the 1960s show this pattern on tables. The Drake Hotel retired Draper's China in the late 1960s.

By the mid-1940s, the skyline surrounding The Drake had changed markedly. The Drake Towers apartment building rose to the east of the hotel at 179 East Lake Shore Drive on the inter-drive. At this time, Drake's landmark sign was installed on the hotel's roof.

In the late 1940s, the Brashears family set out to re-establish The Drake as the premiere luxury hotel in Chicago. By 1950, it was the first hotel in Chicago to have air-conditioned guest rooms, and it was the first to have color televisions in all its guest rooms. 

But some seeming anachronisms remained at The Drake simply because it was believed they resulted in better guest service. For example, The Drake was the last Chicago hotel to go to direct dial telephones because it was thought that an operator could do more for the guest at the onset of the 1970s. The Drake was the only hotel in Chicago that still retained elevator operators. In addition, The Drake was the only hotel in Chicago that still made its own ice cubes until 1967, refusing to go to ice machines until the quality of the product that the ice machines produced was deemed comparable to the "handmade cubes."

The hotel's Cape Cod Room was one of the city's most famous themed restaurants that opened in 1933 for Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair. 
 The Cape Cod Room in the 1930s.

An early brochure highlighting the hotel's dining options describes the restaurant as follows: "When you step into the Cape Cod Room . . . you enter the atmosphere of the New England Coast. Here you find Chicago's finest, freshest and most unusual seafood restaurant." Upon its closing in 2016, little had changed. It was dimly lit, adorned with nautical paraphernalia, exposed wood beams, hanging copper pots, and stuffed sailfish, all tastefully done.
The Cape Cod Room is Fully illuminated. 2004.

Its Coq d'Or was one of Chicago's best-loved bars, and its private "Club International" enjoyed a waiting list for membership. But the decade of the 1960s saw many longtime Chicagoans and regular patrons of The Drake begin to leave the city for the suburbs. 

Noting this trend, the Brashears family, which owned The Drake, decided to build another Drake hotel in the burgeoning western suburb of Oak Brook in 1962, which resulted in the famous Drake Oak Brook.

The downtown Drake could easily afford the financial opportunity for a sister hotel in the suburbs. According to an October 1970 article in Hospitality magazine, between 1963 and 1966, while the average occupancy for Chicago hovered between 63 and 64 percent, The Drake ran an even 80 percent.

In the 1970s, The Drake's occupancy was aided by North Michigan Avenue overtaking State Street as the premier shopping street in Chicago. The "obscure" location for the hotel selected by Ben Marshall was reaping handsome dividends half a century later when the city's downtown indeed "caught up" to The Drake.
author's note
Saturday, January 13, 1973, was my Bar Mitzvah party catered by The Drake at the Drake Hotel. The 270 guests chose from fresh Walleyed Pike, Flounder, Chicken Kiev, or an aged 10-ounce Filet Mignon steak. For the adults, there was an open bar with hand-served appetizers, an extra large dessert table with an entire cake of Cashew Halva, and lots of dancing to live music until 1am. What made the evening so special, was my Mom's childhood friend's birthday was also on the 13th. We had the pastery chef make a special birthday cake and when it was brought out of the kitchen, the lights were dimmed and the band played "Happy Birthday" to Mrs. Kerstein. She was floored and cried tears of joy. When a gift-wrapped box (a pendant and gold chain imported from Israel) was delivered to Mrs. Kerstein, all she could muster was to place her head in her hands and cry. It was the pinnacle of my party!

After participating in the Friday night Shabbat service, in Hebrew, which signifies becoming a full-fledged member of the Jewish community with the responsibilities that come with it; in other words . . . at 13, I became a man. 

We had three adjoining rooms at The Drake, and mine was the corner entertainment suite with a sunken living room, a kitchenette/bar, a bedroom, a full-size soaking tub, and a north view up Lake Shore Drive at Oak Street Beach from the 12th floor. How gracious were my parents to give me the suite? Well, it was my Bar Mitzvah, after all. It was an affair so classy that I'll never forget it.

As such, the hotel continued to attract a host of world leaders in the 70s, including H.M. Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1975 and H.R.H Prince Charles of the United Kingdom in 1977. In 1979, the prestige of The Drake was still such that John Cardinal Cody, head of the Chicago Archdioceses and official host to Pope John Paul II when he visited Chicago that year, requested that they cater the official dinners for Pope John Paul II, which were held at the Cardinal's residence. The Drake obliged, and the Pope was served the hotel's famous Bookbinders Soup, the club's international salad, the tail of whitefish, and California wines. Despite these notable successes, by the end of the 1970s, many venues in The Drake looked highly dated and needed considerable refurbishment. 

Sadly, the 1970s forced changes in dining preferences in menu offerings and was the beginning of the end for supper clubs (Comedy Clubs also served dinner but didn't fall out of favor). The Camellia House closed in 1977.

In 1979, the Brashears partnership created a ground lease for The Drake whereby the family would continue to own the land on which the hotel sits but would lease The Drake building itself to a "tenant" who would own the physical hotel for the duration of the lease. The new owners of the hotel were financiers Jerold Wexler and Edward Ross.

The Drake Hotel was honored with the placement on the National Register of Historic Places List on May 8, 1980.

On January 1, 1981, United Kingdom-based Hilton International, then operating in the United States as Vista Hotels, was brought in as the management company for The Drake. Hilton International pledged to the City of Chicago to return the hotel to its previous splendor and embarked on a multi-year renovation that cost over $40 million. In May of 1981, the 61-year-old Drake Hotel was honored to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, joining other landmark structures in Chicago, such as the old Water Tower structure and Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building.

With Hilton International restoring The Drake to its traditional grandeur, the hotel became a set for several popular movies, including The Blues Brothers, Risky Business, My Best Friends Wedding, and Hero, among others. 

In 1996, Hilton International acquired the lease interest on The Drake from a venture controlled by Edward Ross. Also in 1996, The Drake was front and center during one of the most high-profile visits ever bestowed on Chicago when the late Princess Diana came to the city for three memorable days in June to help raise money for cancer research. 
People Weekly Magazine, July 17, 1996, Cover: DI WOWS CHICAGO.

Like generations of British Royals and family before her, she made The Drake her residence in Chicago.

Drake Hotel, Chicago, Restaurants: 
The Fountain Court (1920-1940) 
changed to The Palm Court (1940-)
The Cape Cod Room (1932-2016)
Coq d’Or (1933-)
The Camellia House (1940-1977)

Perhaps no other hotel in Chicago inspires more loyalty than The Drake, where different generations of the same family routinely come to continue the traditions their forefathers began so many decades ago.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor, The Drake Hotel


  1. My uncle Rich Williams was the pastry chief in the early 60s,I remember him stopping by my mothers house with all kind of sweets..he did wedding cakes etc too worked 3-11 am

  2. My dad was a carpenter and I can remember him telling my Mom on numerous occasions probably throughout the 70’s “I’m working at The Drake today, Helen.” Oh how I wish they had take your daughter to work days back then. It would have been magical at my young age to see all the people who came through there.

  3. Thank you, Neil, for yet another magnificent account of a great Chicago Treasure!

  4. I love the nostalgia of the Drake. Thanks for the deep dive into its history Neil!

  5. Extremely interesting article & loved my own experiences each time I stayed and dined at the Drake. I lived down the street and walked to the Drake & the memories are crystal clear today. Oak Street Beach on the right side & the Chicago vibe in the air is what makes Chicago the best town!

  6. I was always told my grandfather worked on the construction of the Drake Hotel. He was a master plasterer. Does anyone know what construction company actually did the building of the hotel? I know Marshall & Fox were the architects.


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