When Ian Schrager first set foot on the neglected property of Chicago’s former Ambassador East, he recalled the words of Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella on the big screen in ’89: If you (re)build it, they will come.
“I saw value and opportunity where others didn’t,” says the renowned hotelier, who recently opened the doors to what is now the uber-buzzed PUBLIC Chicago, home to the iconic and since-remastered Pump Room. With his wife’s roots in the Windy City and an ongoing quest to add Chicago to his brand, Schrager found added drive with the Gold Coast project. “New York has the Plaza. San Fran has the Clift. ... Every major city has a hotel that speaks to the heritage and culture of that city. Now Chicago has PUBLIC.”
From the hotel’s original interior to the restaurant’s famed menu (which beckoned the likes of Sinatra, Marilyn, Bogart and, of course, Hef), staying true to the legacy and aesthetic of 1301 North State Parkway, while keeping it modern, was nothing short of a “treacherous balancing act,” admits Schrager. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, he pulled it off. His secret to success? The hotel mogul assures it’s not about marketing or financing or making a point to be flashy. Instead, he boils it down to product distinction, creating something special that will resonate with the masses, regardless of age or A-list credentials. (Check).
For a comfortable $135 a night, guests can reserve a standard room offering the same elements of sophistication and style that the Ambassador East prided itself on in its heyday. The more spacious celebrity suites (ranging from $695-$2500 per night) also retain the look and feel of the original rooms, with one exception: bigger bathrooms. “We didn’t bang on the walls. That was important to me.”
Like the hotel, the Pump Room is still the Pump Room. But better, if you ask Schrager. Farm-to-table dishes created by head chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten co-star alongside the dining room’s playful yet glamorous ambiance, due in no small part to its innovative globe-inspired light fixtures (above), cozy chocolate brown leather booths and an all-black-clad waitstaff sporting matching Chuck Taylors.
Bar at the Pump Room
Still a place to see and be seen, those in search of celebrity sitings can saddle up to the bar any night of the week. But the upscale eatery is also a place where locals make up 90 percent of the lunch seating. In Schrager’s opinion, the best of both worlds.
Schrager’s resume begins with Studio 54, weaves through over a dozen world-class properties and ends with a question mark. The sixty-five-year-old entrepreneur compares his expiration date to that of athletes. “Like a ball player, you know when it’s time to leave. When it’s not fun anymore, when you’re not loving it and giving it everything you’ve got…”, that’s when you throw in the towel. “It’s not about the money,” he confesses. “It never was.”
Blaming passion, curiosity and the prospect of finding a love affair at an unexpected site, Schrager’s heart is still very much in the game.