The (Secret) Intercontinental Hotel Tour
If you are a history buff, or, like me, are just buff and like history, then I have a secret to share. I shouldn’t really be doing this right out in the open, but I am going to slice through the veil of secrecy. These things are usually reserved for cryptic messages written in invisible ink behind the canvas of the Mona Lisa, you understand? I’m speaking of Dan Brownian searches, the mystery hidden in plain view; I’m talking about the Intercontinental Hotel. Lets get the humdrum out of the way first. This is what they tell you about the Intercontinental, the facts they make known to the public: the Intercontinental of Chicago is the only hotel on the Magnificent Mile with a lobby that opens directly onto Michigan Avenue. The building was constructed in 1929 and served as the Medinah Athletic Club. The club was shut down after only five years due to the failing economy. Flash forward over fifty years; the space is bought in 1988 by the InterContinental Hotels group and renovated to resemble the original space, as copied from an old club yearbook donated to the hotel. They even reinstalled a junior Olympic pool on the fifth floor, the only athletic element retained from the original club.
But here is where the secrets start to flow. Did you know that the Intercontinental offers a tour? My father came to visit last summer and he told me he had taken the tour years ago and we should go check it out. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time that trip. Since then I have been trying to research the tour online, but it seemingly does not exist. Finally my father came back, and when I told him I had searched for the tour with no avail he anointed me with the same secret he had been anointed with many years before, a secret that I anoint you with now; the Intercontinental doesn’t advertise the tour anywhere. They don’t tell anyone about it, they don’t write about it, they don’t use it as a tourist draw or an incentive to visit. The tour exists only through oral tradition. You have to have heard about the tour from someone else who got it by word of mouth as well.
There will be no sign, no sign-up, no nothing, but go up and discreetly ask the concierge if you can take the Intercontinental tour. He will ask for something important of yours to hold at the desk and then give you a small audio recording with earpiece headphones. You will then be guided all around the hotel by a voice pointing out and explaining all manner of exquisite detail and art that adorns the interior. There are carvings and likenesses of lion heads, griffins, knights and nobles, crests, torches, references to Camelot and King Arthur, ornate chandeliers, stair tiles, fountains and gold leaf everywhere. See, the voice guiding the tour tried very hard to convince me that these elements were strictly for decoration, but I’ve read the DaVinci Code like everyone else. I let my imagination run wild, picturing secret Masonic meetings behind every locked door I encountered. Most of the hallways they had me walk were empty and it gave me ample time to peek behind curtains, push on the heads of statues, and test every stubborn doorknob in sight.
Perhaps the building was designed by masons, and perhaps not. And if it was, perhaps there are no divine secrets, messages in the patterns across the ceilings and floors. None of that quelled my imagination and it certainly didn’t make the hotel any less ornate and beautiful. I don’t know what happened in that building from the time it closed down to the time it reopened, but they certainly keep a shroud of secrecy around their tour and it makes for a wonderful afternoon of exploration. Every piece of the building, from the cozy elevators to the statue of water flowing from a stone outside, has been painstakingly crafted with a level of detail we don’t bother putting into our work today. Whether or not you believe in conspiracy and secret societies, the hotel is a masterpiece of craftsmanship and deserves a good, long look. But come on, a statue of water flowing from a stone? You can’t tell me that doesn’t mean something.
Oh, and if you do decide to go, slip a tiny blacklight in your pocket. Somewhere along the tour I left a coded message in invisible ink that may lead you on a wild chase through the very depths of Chicago itself. Good luck.