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Golden Oldie: Once-Proud Chicago Hotel Served Up a Victory Banquet for the Ages (Chapter Excerpt)

You'd have to say the best days of Chicago's Congress Plaza Hotel are behind it. I checked in here last night on the beginning of a book promotion tour to coincide with the Cubs' 2018 home opener Monday against Milwaukee. I picked this place for two reasons: it's cheap ($100 a night in a town where middling downtown hotels charge $300 or more), and because it's where the Chicago Cubs and the city's high and mighty held a Victory Banquet just after the team won its first World Series championship in 1907.

I devoted the opening scene in Chapter 7 of Tinker to Evers to Chance to a description of that banquet and its eye-popping venue — called the "Auditorium Annex" at the time—a late 19th century architectural masterpiece on Michigan Avenue, just across from Grant Park. (See excerpt below.) The hotel and office complex was built to support the famed Auditorium Building across the street. The latter now belongs to Roosevelt University and still houses a famous theatre. An underground tunnel connecting the two buildings — once called Peacock Alley for the famous actors and actresses who strutted through it from stage to their hotel rooms — is now closed and even bricked up, I'm told.

But the Auditorium Annex — even then the owners preferred the name Congress Hotel — is still going strong as the Congress Plaza. Though no longer the "Home of Presidents" and other muckety-mucks, the hotel is teaming with foreign tourists and conventioneers. But luxury accommodations are clearly a thing of its past. The word seedy does come first to mind, though it looks like they've tried to spruce things up as much as a small budget makes possible. And, you know, at least the rooms are clean.

I asked the bellman if they gave tours, specifically of the famous "Gold Room," which opened in late 1907 and where the Cubs and 325 well-heeled guests celebrated the city's first major sports championship. "You want to see it now?" the bellman asked, then called a security guard to show me the way. Fernando Flores, the guard, led me upstairs and unlocked the doors, then ambled into the darkness to turn on the lights. Voila! An oval-shaped ballroom as big as a hockey rink, with vaulted ceilings three stories high, encircled half-way up by a wrought-iron balcony. And every inch of it painted in gold, crystal, or some form of Rococo painting. It's probably in need of a new paint job, sure, but the Wow! factor is still there.

The Congress Plaza continues to book the Gold Room for weddings and conventions when the season comes around, Fernando told me. I tried hard to imagine my boys clinking their champagne glasses, singing their tunes, and howling at the bad jokes with the guiltless self-regard that comes with ultimate victory. Fernando, it turns out, is a lifelong Cubs fan from the South Side (a true anomaly for anyone who knows Chicago), and we spent a few minutes reminiscing about our shared misery (the past) and more recent reasons for new hope (the present).

Opening Day, the home version, has arrived once again. And as always, it welcomes us all to the new season.

From Chapter 7 — Conquest Into Culture: 1907

Just after sunset on Thursday, October 17, 1907, 350 Chicagoans, dressed in their best, gathered at the Auditorium Annex building on South Michigan Avenue, just across from Grant Park. Stepping along to an orchestra’s spritely accompaniment, the party entered the gold- and crystal-laden banquet hall for a feast and an evening’s entertainment of songs, cheers, tall tales, and victory speeches.

The printed programs at the elegant table settings let the guests know they would dine in high style: consommé Rachel, puff-pastry bouchée à la reine, sea bass Dorothy with potatoes Laurette, and a beef tenderloin forestière topped with larded mushrooms and wine sauce. An appetizer of Blue Point oysters would precede the main courses, with fancy ice cream, cakes, and cheese bringing up the rear. Liquid refreshment would flow from beginning to who-knew-what end, kicking off with Manhattans and progressing through carafes of Pommery & Greno Champagne and an 1893 Sauternes. For those with less affected tastes, there came bottomless cups of “Cubs Punch.” Five days after the completion of the 1907 World’s Championship series, the high society of the nation’s second-largest city hosted a victory banquet for their newly crowned Cubs. The Auditorium Annex, or Congress Hotel, as its owners preferred to call it, was part of a complex constructed in 1893 to house visitors to the great World’s Columbian Exposition. The original twelve-story north tower of the Annex was designed to complement Louis Sullivan’s pathbreaking Auditorium Building across Congress Street, one of Chicago’s early architectural masterpieces. The Annex boasted a state-of-the-art concert hall, luxury hotel rooms, office suites, and a large observation tower that jutted another ten stories above the city’s rising skyline. A tunnel under Congress Street connected the Annex to the Auditorium with a glass-and-marble passageway, which had become known as Peacock Alley for the famous actresses and opera stars who paraded daily through it. As Joseph M. Siry describes in The Chicago Auditorium Building, the architectural wonder went on to play a central role in the city’s social history.

A fourteen-story south tower, an annex to the Annex, had just opened in 1907, and it featured the ornate banquet hall, or Gold Room, where “the walls and ceiling are literally plastered with gold leaf,” according to a reporter. “We do not know of any other large room anywhere that makes such a show of gold.” It was the crowning showpiece to a dining and entertainment complex that would become the largest gathering place of its kind in America. At the time, and until it fell into disrepair between the world wars, the Congress Hotel was a destination among captains of industry, politics, and culture, including presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Their frequent visits gave it the name “Home of Presidents.”

The Gold Room seemed an appropriate venue for the city’s newest champions. “No civic event,” the Tribune reported, “has been given greater or more representative recognition by Chicago than that of Chicago’s National league triumph on the diamond in the season just finished.” The limited seating and high price of entry ($10 per person, or about $300 today) made it a rather exclusive affair, with representatives of industry, retail, the Board of Trade, and state and local government leading the guest list. But it was not without a few everyday fans. At the head table sat manager Frank Chance, club owner C. W. Murphy, National League president Harry C. Pulliam, and former Chicago newspaper reporter George Ade, by that time one of the best-known playwrights and humorists in the nation. All eighteen players from the Cubs’ pennant-winning roster were on hand, led by Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, Mordecai Brown, and Harry Steinfeldt. A flamboyant and well-traveled orator named James Hamilton Lewis, a Chicago city official with a long political résumé, handled toastmaster duties. “Gentleman, the City of Chicago honors itself in honoring you,” Lewis intoned in a deliberate baritone, the vowels long and plaintive, the Rs rolling melodiously. “It greets you tonight in the most sacred festival man ever invented as a sign of friendship to man, that where man breaks bread with his fellows.”

And that was just to clear his throat.

J. Hamilton Lewis—“J-Ham” to his many acquaintances in politics and judicial halls—gave some of the most eloquent speeches in America. “One of the world’s most gifted spellbinders,” the Tribune’s I. E. Sanborn had promised. Lewis had only recently settled in Chicago after a long career as a lawyer and politician in Washington State. A man of slight but erect bearing, he might appear in public in a dark suit with a cream-colored waistcoat and a bright-green tie with matching handkerchief and socks. Even then, his most arresting feature was a lush Vandyke, neatly combed, parted, and waxed. J-Ham presumably dyed both whiskers and matching toupee as he aged; his contemporaries referred to their “pinkish” hue.

In Chicago, Lewis had just served as the city’s corporate counsel in the brief, two-year term of reformist Democratic mayor Edward F. Dunne. Lewis had previously done a tour as U.S. senator from Washington, and he would later return to the nation’s capital as a senator from Illinois, where he would rise to the post of Democratic whip. Lewis certainly knew how to take center stage. Even though some of the more illustrious men on the speakers’ list, including Illinois governor Charles S. Deneen and federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had begged off, it was no matter to Lewis or to the crowd. Lewis read aloud their letters of regret and felicitation with a flourish that the less-gifted authors could never have delivered. Lewis knew how to capture the spirit as well as the import of the Cubs’ accomplishment. “There never has been a time in the history of the recorded ages,” Lewis declaimed in his arched, Mid-Atlantic-trained accent, “when the heroic athlete was not received with honor and greeted with praise.” He was just warming up:

The gratification you afford the community is not alone in tendering amusement and offering attraction, but in giving the illustration of that which builds character, strengthens physical manhood, and shapens [sic] to perfection the proportions of God’s noblest creation—the man. . . . You have displayed to the world of athletes how men can play baseball and come forth without stain upon character or reflection upon the profession. For this Chicago is doubly proud of you and greets you as her honorable and deserving sons. At this table tonight we not only proclaim you as victors in a contest of sport, but as men who have obtained the crown of personal approval of those who love honor above victory, but who worship more those who obtain victory with honor.

The Chicago Cubs, Hamilton made sure, were the toast of the town.

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