Just steps away from the Magnificent Mile …
That’s the second most-coveted phrase (the first being “on the Magnificent Mile”) a Chicago hotel wants in its description. The famed street, officially known as Michigan Avenue, is stocked with some of the Midwestern city’s biggest tourist highlights, including the Gothic-style Tribune Tower, the flagship stores of many major retailors, and multiple options for Chicago’s famous deep-as-a-casserole-dish pizza. And, for business travelers, it’s an ideal launching-off point, centrally located and proximal to various Near North office complexes and the massive Northwestern and Lurie Children’s Hospitals.
The MileNorth Hotel isn’t the only hospitality space to claim a spot within the Magnificent Mile’s stroll radius, but it’s definitely one of the coolest. The 29-floor hotel opened in May 2013 in the former Affinia Hotel building—which was, before that, a mixed-use residential and office development—and it’s now managed by Destination Hotels & Resorts (DH&R) on behalf of a pension-fund client. With its reinvented vibe, the space has found a comfortable niche for itself, right between the opulent old-money aesthetic of the nearby Drake Hotel and the super-funky, super-modern atmosphere of theWit.
When DH&R buys a property in need of rebranding or renovation (it manages nearly 40 hotels and resorts nationwide), Shirli Sensenbrenner, vice president of design and construction, starts building a vision from scratch. It’s a mark of the company’s brand that you wouldn’t recognize one of its hotels unless you happened to see the DH&R plaque on the wall. The feel of each is custom-designed to reflect the specific character of its neighborhood, city, and region—as well as the needs of its target market.
To that end, “we do our best to hire local designers,” Sensenbrenner says. “It does make a difference, if you’re trying to be authentic to the local scene, to have people who can speak to the character of the neighborhood and tell you what works and what doesn’t.” For MileNorth, Sensenbrenner hired Chicago design firm Gettys, and the resulting design honed in on the uniquely proud, busy, and underdressed vibe the city has been flaunting since the 19th century.
The front desk, an important focal point at any high-end hotel, is made of stacks of old steamer trunks. (Gettys designed the check-in area as an homage to the immigrants who have made Chicago their home from the 1800s to today.) It’s a standout element but only a part of the whole arrival experience: on the east side of the lobby is a contemporary flat-panel fireplace and a pair of inviting rocking chairs, and the west is filled with a series of additional intimate sitting spaces—leather couches and vintage coffee tables in living room arrangements, gossip chairs for reading the newspaper in, and a bar with stools overlooking St. Clair Street. “We didn’t want it to feel fancy or formal,” Sensenbrenner says. “We wanted people”—guests and passersby both—“to come in and hang out or work on their laptops all day.”
Vintage architectural touches—such as clouded antique-glass paneling, on the lobby’s two supporting columns, and bric-a-brac, including a typewriter, an old atlas, and classic hardbacks arranged on a midcentury credenza—make the young luxury hotel feel cozier than home. “We call the lobby the Living Room, the bar the Library, and the market the Pantry,” MileNorth general manager Steven Ellingsen says. “We want it to have a residential feel.”
It’s all part of DH&R’s overall effort to eschew uniformity. “We’ve always seen ourselves as the antibrand,” Sensenbrenner says. “We want our hotels to be different, to be authentic to their location, to be all about the experience. If you go to Chicago, you should experience Chicago inside your hotel.”