Saturday, June 27, 2009

Killer Serials--The Ghost of Al Capone is My Roommate

Part II--The Lexington Hotel

***Do Not Read Before Part I***

I'm not a historian; I'm not even from Chicago. I'm just a condo owner.

Last April I became a fighting Mondale alumnus when I graduated from the University of Minnesota Law school. Spring 2009 was a rough time to hit the job market, especially for a Mondale, like me, who was in the bottom half of his class. The job hunt was humiliating and slow, and after a month all my best supporters--mom, dad, aunt Karen--began to lose any trace of hope when they would talk to me about the hunt. It wasn't until late May that I found a job, not as a lawyer, and not at a high power law firm, but as a paralegal for the IRS in Chicago.

When people would ask I would say I was taking a job with the federal government and tell them nothing more. I didn't have the heart to tell anyone (who I thought wouldn't find out) that I was going to be looking up cases and photocopying reports for real attorneys. But, disappointing as it was, federal jobs mean federal pay scales, and the money, though it wouldn't compare to private work, was not too bad. Not bad at all for a guy who had $120,000 in loan debt and had gone two months without any job offers. Although heartbreaking, the decision was easy. I was off to the Second City to enter the exciting world of tax law research.

On the day I arrived in town I extended my debt even more by signing closing papers for a Lexington Park condominium, unit 1947. It was my very own one bedroom with den in the heart of Chicago's southside, "starting in the low 200s."

Lexington Park was named after the Lexington Hotel, which sat on the same plot of ground until 1995. It's probably alright to name a residential building after the old hotel, but you wouldn't want to name your kid after it. The Lexington Hotel had a shady history, at best.

Built in 1892 for the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition, perhaps better known as the Chicago World's Fair, the hotel was supposed to provide luxury residences and accommodations to fair guests. With the closing of the fair, demand substantially fell. Once it was discovered that the hotel was just down Indiana Ave. from H.H. Holmes's infamous "murder castle," demand died, and the hotel fell into disrepair. This is probably why a young, up-and-coming entrepreneur decided to pick up the property on the cheap and establish his headquarters there.

In 1928 Al Capone bought the Lexington Hotel, placed armed guards all along the bottom floor and all around the block, and ran his criminal empire from 22nd Street (later renamed) and Michigan Ave. The hotel would serve as his headquarters until Capone was arrested in 1938, and shipped off to Alcatraz where his body and mind would slowly be ravaged by syphilis. The hotel would outlast Capone, but didn't fair much better.

The associations between the Lexington Hotel, crime, Capone, and Chicago's seedy underside were two strong. With no other entrepreneurs chomping at the bit, the hotel slide into a brothel, and then a low-rent residential hotel, which is a nice way of saying crack/flop house. The Lexington Hotel was declared blight and the city condemned it in 1980. For fifteen years it sat vacant, it's only wholesome use being as a back drop in the photographs of old tourists, mostly men who remembered seeing Capone's exploits on the news reels as small boys.

In 1995 the Lexington was finally demolished, razed clean to the ground. The building was a historical site, and a lot of old Chicagoans were angry at the time, but the city had had enough of the rats and drug dealers that infested the area. A decade would pass before the recollections of the prostitutes, crimes, and mob bosses were sufficiently vanished. Buildings can be torn down faster than memories. In a turn of good fortune, the southside started to become revitalized, just in time for the White Sox to bring home the 2005 World Series trophy and set it on the Chicago mantel. Pleased with the change they saw, the Chieftain Construction company decided the Lexington lot had sat fallow long enough. In 2007 ground was broken for thirty-one stories of trendy urban condos--a whole tower of glass, faux granite, and stainless steel appliances.

When I moved here I didn't know anything about H.H. Holmes, mobsters, or the Lexington Hotel brothel. Even if I had known, I wouldn't have changed my decision. I'm not superstitious. A few months ago I would have been happy to learn they built the place on an Indian graveyard; it would've given me a decent little bargaining chip when I was negotiating the price in the low 200s.

1 comment:

Suvi said...

i'm anxiously awaiting the next installment!