Hotel Orrington keeps four-star status despite unstable history

Laura Kelly

Back in the ’80s, guests tired of dancing in the elegant ballroom could wander downstairs and order a Big Mac and fries – all at Hotel Orrington.

The hotel, located at 1710 Orrington Ave., has housed Queen Anne furniture, Oriental rugs and, for 18 years, a McDonald’s restaurant. Through the decades, the hotel has gone through many transformations, but today it is again the luxury hotel its founders intended.

The Hotel Orrington opened its doors in September 1923. The Orrington originally advertised to both residents and “transient” guests, according to a 1948 newspaper article on the hotel’s 25th anniversary celebration. The luxurious hotel featured Georgian furnishings, crystal chandeliers and a sweeping staircase in the lobby.

Today, the hotel is a modern, four-star hotel, featuring a high-tech conference center on the ninth floor and the hip Blu Sushi Lounge and the Globe Cafe & Bar. Still, the hotel retains some of its original features.

“We still have a historical staircase in the ballroom,” said Tyler Drendel, a sales associate and graphic designer at the hotel. “A lot of people want to have their weddings here because they love that staircase. It’s beautiful.”

The hotel was renovated in 2003, causing some dissatisfaction, said Randy Pluta, director of sales and marketing.

“Some clients like the old, traditional hotel better,” Pluta said. “But it was very worn and dated. Now, it’s modern and updated.”

Hotel Orrington has changed hands many times in its long history. From the beginning, the Orrington was a high-class establishment – guests enjoyed the hotel’s elegant ballroom and dinner (but no drinks – Evanston was dry until 1972) at The Huddle restaurant.

In 1961, hotel owner Earl Zweifel began a sort of shuttle service for Evanston residents. The “Streetcar Named No-Hire” transported Evanston shoppers to various stores around town, according to a July 1961 edition of the Evanston Review.

“We think there is a need for such a service,” Zweifel told the Review. “Whenever we can attract people to downtown Evanston, we create a favorable impression of the city and are more likely to benefit directly and indirectly.”

During his time as shuttle service owner, Zweifel also opened a sidewalk cafe in June 1960.

But the hotel has seen some bad times.

During the late 1960s and ’70s, the hotel fell into disrepair. The hotel lost its restaurant license in 1977 due to unsanitary conditions in the kitchen, according to reports.

Paul Wilcher had a lot of work to do when he took over ownership responsibilities in 1977. According to an August 1980 article from University Archives, Wilcher successfully took out loans and oversaw a 10-month renovation, returning the hotel to its former extravagance.

“Evanston needs a first-class hotel, and that’s what I’m trying to give it,” Wilcher said in the article. “People in Evanston have demonstrated that they don’t really care about the money. They want the quality.”

Business is doing well at Hotel Orrington, Pluta said. The hotel fills 69 percent of its 269 rooms on average.

And people keep coming back.

“We’re now in our third, fourth generation of weddings and bar mitzvahs,” Pluta said. “There’s a lot of good history in this hotel.”

A previous version of this story inaccurately described Tyler Drendel’s position at the hotel.  Drendel was a sales associate and graphic designer at the time of this story’s publication. The Daily regrets the error.

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