Ian Schrager’s modus operandi has always seemed at once subversive and exultant, deconstructing tropes and traditions of the hotel’s old vaudeville act, creating startling new stages on which the functional demands of life and the playful needs of style perform side by side.
A master of his chosen medium, a mischievous stage director of profoundly fanciful lifestyle experiences, Ian Schrager has defined and redefined the concept of hospitality for a generation, transforming the hotel into a form of luminous theatre for thousands upon thousands of dazzled guests. One of Schrager’s early masterstrokes was to reinvent the hotel lobby as a vibrant social hub, where what had been grand utilitarian halls became, at his hotels, instantly and impossibly cool nightspots.
The Ambassador East etched itself into the annals of great American nightlife in 1926 - a fabulously starry and exclusive venue in the heart of the Gold Coast area of Chicago, an elegant aristocrat of a district surveying one of America’s truly great cities from the shores of Lake Michigan. Within walking distance cradle of Michigan Avenue, to this day the city’s most celebrated luxury retail location, The Ambassador East has always been found at the epicentre of Chicagoan fine living.
In a Schrageresque displacement, the beating heart of The Ambassador East was the glittering Pump Room - a high class restaurant designed with the express intention of being, since the day it opened in 1938, a society showcase for the great and good from across the nation and beyond.
Everyone who was anyone in the universe of public life and celebrity in the pre and post-war years passed through the Pump Room, which often acted as an unofficial blue ribbon transit point for social grandees, politicians, movie stars and musicians luxuriating in the glamorous heyday of coast to coast train travel.
From Queen Elizabeth II, John F. Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, through to more modern luminaries such as David Bowie, Tina Turner and Eddie Murphy, all made a bee-line for the Pump Room night after night. Cary Grant, the enduringly suave icon of the smooth-talking 1950s, was also a regular at Chicago’s white-hot hotspot, his art even mimicking life with his starring role in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece North by Northwest, which features the restaurant in a series of thrillingly stylish scenes.
When he took on the restoration and reinvention of The Ambassador East, therefore, Schrager was also taking on a legend of Café Society history. The historic Ambassador East that reopens this month as the timeless PUBLIC Chicago premieres Schrager’s PUBLIC brand, an entirely new species of hotel which places the concept of value at the centre of its philosophy and takes the Pump Room as its touchstone.
Schrager has brought the stars back to very heart of the Pump Room, having invited culinary kingpin Jean-Georges Vongerichten to reconceptualise the restaurant and helm its famous kitchen. Vongerichten has brought his world-beating talent and his Michelin stars with him to the exquisitely re-imagined Pump Room. Locally sourced regional ingredients, often featured in a “farm to table” experience, are refined and sculpted by the James Beard award-winning chef into stunningly fresh versions of Pump Room classics and his own original, instantly classic, creations.
The restaurant transforms itself into a supper club that at once celebrates the topsy-turvy romance of the starry lives lived by the occupants of those famous booths in the Pump Room’s heyday, and at the same time revels in an utterly modern sense of relaxed after hours chic. With its eighteen feet ceilings and the deep luxuriant tones of rift-cut cerused oak flooring, the new Pump Room ushers guests into oil-rubbed bronze-based plush banquette seating that summon up the fabled booths from all those years ago.
In fact, the legendary Booth One, the pole position for celebrity diners due to its proximity to the entrance and thus its strategic value of seeing and being seen first, remains, as does the booth that Frank Sinatra, perhaps the former Pump Room’s most emblematic regular, made his own. Milan’s Dilmore Studio cast a glow of both epic and intimate proportions with the simply stunning one-off installation of optic art which, composed of five hundred individually cast resin orbs, is suspended from the Pump Room’s ceiling to its floor. The bar of this magical place sits below a double-vaulted ceiling adorned splendidly with a backdrop of twelve karat white gold leaf.
Sinatra’s coveted booth is found in the Sun Room, which offers a serene all-day dining experience that basks in the natural light flooding in through the floor to ceiling windows, and looks out onto a delightfully sculpted Boxwood garden featuring Yellow Raindrop trees from Wisconsin.
That sense of the movie continuing long after the cameras have stopped rolling, that of somehow being in a collective fantasy bent around one’s own whims, that tingle of freedom whilst seated in Booth One, has always been a powerful undercurrent in the creative value found in all Schrager hotels.
His great revolutionary statement, the concept of night-time “lobby socialising”, takes a further evolutionary step with the Living Room at PUBLIC. The lobby in Schrager’s new vision is a now a flawlessly designed twenty-four hour social haven - the ultimate casual and comfortable luxury hangout which is also classily stylish enough to host high powered business meetings. The ever-shifting and deeply personalised needs of today’s savvy and sophisticated social entities are effortlessly catered for, with all manner of cutting edge technology at their beck and call from the comfort of their sumptuous Christian Liaigre chairs.
Tipping its hat to the bohemian cafes of the Paris 1950s and serving a headily aromatic selection of the world’s finest coffees from La Colombe and Vongerichten’s exquisite bar snacks throughout the day, by night The Library becomes a sleekly casual wine bar and beer garden offering gourmet fare express from the Pump Room kitchen.
Completing the array of effortlessly integrated and multi-faceted facilities at PUBLIC Chicago are the Screening Room which doubles as a candlelit lounge full of chic romantic nooks, the generously appointed and fully equipped meeting rooms, and the state-of-the-art twenty four hour gym.
One of Schrager’s great talents lies in his unerring selection of those with whom he works. His intuitive feel for the industry has drawn to PUBLIC Chicago such stellar talents as Vongerichten and his business partner Phil Suarez, design architect Anda Andrei, premier designers Yabu Pushelberg and Gabellini Sheppard, and hospitality guru Jeffrey Chodorow as a special consultant.
His overarching collector’s eclecticism runs through every element of this vast and yet compellingly intimate project, having commissioned and curated original and unique pieces of art from Brooklyn’s Callidus Guild and Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens. The Pump Room itself pays expansive homage to its past, its walls twinkling with a constellation of over three thousand framed stills of the stars that have occupied those famous booths over the years.
One-off prints by French photographer and darling of the fashion and music world Jean Baptiste Mondino adorn each of the two hundred and eighty five guest rooms and suites, which are themselves individually furnished to Schrager’s exacting and stylish blueprint. Indicating the level of his personal investment in PUBLIC Chicago, the bespoke beds are inspired by that which revered designer John Pawson made for Schrager’s own home. Guests are invited to take in the breathtaking views of downtown Chicago from their uniquely and exquisitely appointed rooms, all featuring the latest and most interactive technological features, and to take advantage of yet another innovation Schrager is unveiling at PUBLIC.
Public Express represents the latest step in an organic move away from the straight jacket of the exorbitant and myopically limited mini-bar still found at some of the most respected hotels. A Bento-style menu of Vongerichten’s sumptuous cuisine, including speciality pizzas and desserts, is a mere phone call away at a thoroughly reasonable price - either to eat in-house or as an on-the-move option - while the mini-bar itself can be customized to each guest’s own specifications.
Schrager has been emphatic in his desire for the kind of ultra-responsive and often highly personalised service that Public Express exemplifies to be the central and unifying theme at his latest brainchild. For genuinely affordable rates and for the first time in industry history, guests are seduced into an experience of pleased-to-pamper luxury service set in some of the most thrillingly designed luxury recreational spaces to appear anywhere in the world in the last few years.
The exotic film star hedonism of the Midnight Pump Room breakfast. The Michelin-starred chef creating your room service snack. The free-wheeling glamour of the latest Schrager lobby. The truly Twenty First Century Guest Services pioneering the “own your guest approach”, where the operative that picks up the phone will be the same operative that resolves the situation to a satisfactory conclusion. These are just some of the fresh and unique features of his new project that describe the combination of epic ambition and an unbridled enthusiasm for detail that are hallmarks of Ian Schrager’s genius as a designer of leisure experiences.
At PUBLIC Chicago he has thrown himself into the reconciliation of true luxury with genuine value in one of the great cathedrals of the bygone era of transcontinental glamour - a challenge which he has overcome with typical, but no less stunning, verve.
- Benjamin Stewart
Address: 1301 North State Parkway
Tel: 312 787 3700