The Curious Tale of the Ritz-Carlton Chicago, a Former Four Seasons Hotel
As the elevator doors open on the 12th floor of Water Tower Place, it’s clear this is not the same Ritz-Carlton Chicago.
Before, upon stepping into the lobby, there was really only one place to look: the centerpiece fountain with its famed bronze herons. Now, the eye follows two rows of 19-foot walnut fins upward — taking in the statement lighting of a new restaurant on the left and bar on the right — to a blown-glass sculpture floating near the ceiling, a wave of tiny Cloud Gate–like pieces that sweeps your view out the windows of the atrium and into the skyline ahead.
It’s a huge departure from the previous space, and the new look is not only far more functional, but it marks a new era for the landmark Gold Coast hotel. As one of the first Four Seasons-managed properties and the only Ritz-Carlton in North America at its prime, it was effectively a flagship for two of the biggest luxury hotel brands in the U.S. — and also the source of major confusion for travelers in Chicago.
When Water Tower Place was constructed, in 1975, the builders acquired the rights to open a hotel with the Ritz-Carlton name and its iconic lion logo. If you stop there, nothing is unusual. At the time, there were several independent Ritz-Carlton-branded properties around the world, all predating the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company (it wasn’t founded until 1983; we’ll get there in a minute).
Two years later, in 1977, the Canadian-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts was contracted to manage the hotel. It was one of the brand’s first U.S. contracts. so it would go on to set the standard of five-star service for both brands in the States.
The property operated as the Ritz-Carlton Chicago (A Four Seasons Hotel) — a convoluted moniker that led to a stream of confused clients and endless explanations from the staff — even as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company debuted and quickly expanded throughout the world. The licensing terms prohibited any other hotel from using the Ritz-Carlton name in the Chicago area for the duration of the agreement.
Four Seasons, though, was under no such restrictions and opened the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago in 1989 practically across the street, at 900 North Michigan Avenue. So in the 1990s, as the two brands began a direct competition for luxury traveler loyalty, Chicago was the exception. In fact, the two properties worked together as “happy partners,” according to the Ritz-Carlton Chicago’s General Manager Peter Simoncelli, who was working with Four Seasons at the time.
In August 2015, after 40 years with an eye on the property, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which is a subsidiary of Marriott International, finally took over management. An unprecedented $100 million investment and more than a year’s worth of renovations later, the 435-room hotel debuted a full revitalization on July 31, 2017. As one could imagine, Ritz-Carlton President and COO Herve Humler is thrilled to welcome it into the company's portfolio.
"Each venue and detail has been carefully re-imagined to evoke the heritage of the city and the legacy of the building as part of Water Tower Place, an anchor of the Magnificent Mile," Humler told Travel + Leisure. "We are proud to offer loyal Marriott travelers the opportunity to stay at an address that is very much part of the fabric of Chicago and experience the vibrancy of the destination as it was meant to be."
To say the space looks different is bordering on an understatement. For six weeks, the hotel shut down for a total rebuild of its public spaces. The redesign — led by Billy Quimby of San Francisco–based design firm BAMO — draws inspiration from the surrounding architecture, Lake Michigan shores, and Water Tower Place itself, to “bring the inspiration and energy of Chicago inside,” according to his statement. And he means this literally: the Calcutta marble of the lobby’s pillars is actually the same stone that clads the building’s exterior. With this new sense of place comes a clear top-to-bottom consistency as the public spaces, guest corridors, lakeside suites, Club Lounge, and spa all share a coherent aesthetic.
Compared to several other five-star hotels in the city that have recently undergone or are currently in the midst of renovations — the Peninsula, the Langham, and the Four Seasons — Simoncelli believes the Ritz-Carlton’s is by far the most extensive.
“I don’t think any of them have gone through the transformation that we have gone through here,” Simoncelli said. “The people we’re touring through the space are calling it ‘breathtaking,’ and ‘so much better than the rendering.’ That’s how I feel it is, too.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is the above-and-beyond commitment to service that’s a hallmark of both the Ritz-Carlton’s and the Four Seasons’ credos. An impressive number of staff members — “ladies and gentlemen,” in Ritz-Carlton parlance — have worked there since the hotel’s opening and stayed on through the transition.
Director of Catering Marc Kaufman calls it a family, in terms of the staff. Kaufman himself is a testament to that: he's the second director of catering in the property’s entire 42 years of operation. He worked with the Ritz-Carlton Chicago in the ‘90s before departing for rotating stints at a few of Four Seasons’ other U.S. properties, most notably in San Francisco and Palm Beach. Twelve years ago, though, he returned to Chicago and his former role.
“Once you work at this particular Ritz-Carlton, you never really leave it,” Kaufman said. “Coming back was like putting on an old, comfortable glove for me. Everywhere else I worked, I compared to this hotel.”
When the property opened, Kaufman explained, it broke the mold for luxury hotels in the States, standing as a new model in terms of infrastructure. It was pretty revolutionary at the time to open a hotel as part of a mixed-use building that also housed luxury residences, a mall, and a Broadway-style theater. Water Tower Place shook up the shopping culture of the Magnificent Mile, too, bringing more accessible retailers to an area previously reserved for high-end brands and department stores.
The décor, however, was never meant to be quite as forward-thinking. Though the hotel was built in the ‘70s, the interior was fashioned in the French style of the 1700s, which was a trend at the time in the luxury space. “It’s kind of weird that you would take this modern International-style building and put in 18th-century Paris, but that’s what they did. The Park Lane in New York is the perfect example,” said Kaufman.
Now, it's as though the design has also had a homecoming of sorts, too. One that honors the hotel’s place in Chicago’s skyline and history.
“To walk around this hotel and see the city around you is just so remarkable,” Kaufman said. “We used to have heavy drapes, and they got a little less heavy over the years, but there still were big valances. Now, it’s like your heart opens when you get off the elevator because you have the whole city around you. It’s just so beautiful.”
Disclaimer: A complimentary media stay was provided to Travel + Leisure by the Ritz-Carlton Chicago.