Chicago Sun-Times: Cubicle hotels would improve conditions or shut down under proposal

By Fran Spielman

Brendan Reilly
Brendan Reilly

Cubicle hotels — the last vestiges of Chicago’s “Skid Row”-era — would be forced to shut down or improve living conditions “not fit for human beings,” under a crackdown proposed this week by a pair of aldermen.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose newly re-drawn ward is literally on the border of the Ewing Annex Hotel, 422-26 S. Clark, and Ald. James Cappleman (46th), whose Uptown ward includes the Wilson Club Men’s Hotel, 1224 W. Wilson, want to eliminate the archaic section of Chicago’s zoning ordinance that somehow still allows cubicle hotels.

With rents as low as $250-a-month, cubicle hotels rent “sleeping stalls” without windows with 50 sq.ft. of space, compared to a 70-sq.ft. minimum in other residential buildings.

The walls or partitions are made of plaster-board or metal and they don’t reach the ceilings made of chicken wire. Each tiny room has a bed with a steel frame, a mattress, a desk and a light fixture that may or may not work. There’s one toilet for every 20 occupants, compared to one for every 10 occupants of a single-room-occupancy (SRO) building.

Two men died at the Wilson Club during the 1995 heat wave that killed roughly 750 Chicagoans. Another Wilson Club resident was convicted of plotting to bomb the federal building. Over the years, neighbors have complained about child sex offenders living there.

Reilly acknowledged that cubicle hotels may have served a purpose during the 1920’s and `30’s, when thousands of transient employees were passing through Chicago for a season worth of work. During the 1950’s, 8,000 men reportedly lived in them.

But he argued that there’s no place for such sub-standard living conditions in modern-day Chicago.

“Average Chicagoans wouldn’t want to house their dogs in this type of facility. We need to ensure living conditions are fit for human beings. They need to be shut down,” Reilly said.

“The current rules and regulations governing these types of facilities are an embarrassment. These cubicle hotels are the lowest common denominator in housing.…We sat with the commissioner of buildings, the zoning administrator and the law department. Everybody in the rooms said, `Why do we allow these to exist anymore?” We all came to same conclusion quickly that we could do much better. Most cities did away with these years ago.”

Cappleman said the Wilson Club is half-empty — and for good reason. The living conditions are downright dangerous.

“During the Great Depression, when we had different building codes, they served a purpose. But you remember the Paxton Hotel fire. There was a reason why the city changed the fire code as a result of that fire. This is the same thing,” Cappleman said of the 1993 fire that killed 19 residents of a transient hotel at 1432 N. LaSalle.

“It’s 2013. We want to make sure all building are safe for residents. If there are two buildings in Chicago that fall outside those standards, it’s time to bring them up. For some reason, these two buildings escaped having to abide by the same standards as the rest of the city. It’s just not fair. I want them to have the same standards as the rest of the city. That’s my goal.”

The current zoning code allows cubicle hotels to compute the number of occupants on each floor by taking the total square footage from wall to wall, including halls and washrooms and dividing that number by 50.

The operators of the Ewing Annex and Wilson Club could not be reached for comment.

In his 1979 book, “Skid Row,” William McSheehy wrote: “If it were not for modification of normal building ordinances, men’s cubicle hotels would be forced to close.”

West Madison Street was once widely-known as “Skid Row” for its preponderance of cage hotels that packed men like sardines into 200 rooms on a floor.

But as the Loop moved westward, the flop houses were either demolished to make way for high-rises or converted into costly condominiums and trendy apartments. The Wilson Club and the Ewing Annex are all that’s left of that bygone era.