My Visits with Al

Al Capone - Photo from LibertyMagazine.com

 In much the same way that I was intrigued by the Chicago Stockyards and Packingtown, I became intrigued, even moderately obsessed, with the Lexington Hotel, Al Capone’s headquarters at the corner of Michigan and 22nd Streets. The result of this obsession is what I am quite sure is the only existing videotape record of the interior of the Lexington and of Al Capone’s suite before its 1996 demolition, and the solving of one of the great Capone mysteries, the vaunted secret passageways in the Lexington Hotel.  Here’s the story.

I.

As near as I can remember it was Geraldo Rivera’s 1986 farcical but massively-watched live television escapade at the Lexington that first spurred my interest.

Geraldo's Capone Vault Grand Opening - Photo from RWCRN.com

But it wasn’t the vault or the hotel itself that caught my fancy. In order to fill the hours (and hours and hours) he kept us waiting until the actual vault got blown open (spoiler alert: and finding nothing) he showed several background video clips on Capone and his history. I was immediately captivated by the “fact” presented in one of these clips that there were “secret passageways” that Capone could use to escape the cops or his enemies or whatever. This grabbed the little boy/adventurer/Indiana Jones part of me and wouldn’t let go.

Wikipedia has it like this. “…A construction company (Sunbow) in the 1980s planned a renovation of the Lexington Hotel and while surveying the building discovered a shooting range and a series of secret tunnels including one hidden behind Capone’s medicine cabinet. These tunnels connected taverns and brothels to provide an elaborate potential escape route in case of a police raid. These discoveries led to further investigation of the hotel, notably by researcher Harold Rubin.”

First, I would like to point out that “researcher Harold Rubin” is none other than Chicago’s own Weird Harold, who ran a porn shop by that name in the Loop for years in the 1970s. This to let you know the kind of company I was keeping in my historical endeavors at the Lexington. Point being, if you decide to read anything about Al Capone, you will find way more romanticized myth than real history. Go ahead, do a google search and you’ll see for yourself. Separating fact from fiction is not easy, and you’d better have a pretty good Bull-sh__ meter when you start to dig about him. A lot of Capone “historians” simply are not historians, and maybe for at least two good reasons: mobsters don’t tend to keep meticulous records of their activities, and Capone was romanticized from the very start. I will vouch for this second statement farther down the page. Thirdly, the type of person that seems to be attracted to him is that type who seem to want to believe every type of over-the-top thing about him, result being that much of the raw animal of the man is white-washed in the fog of time that seems to envelop a lot of despicable characters. Part of my quest for the secret passageways was to try to find out for myself who the real Capone was.

To continue. I had the same kind of mini-epiphany about the Lexington as I had had about the Stockyards: I live just forty five minutes away, and while a lot about Capone might be myth, the Lexington Hotel is not, it’s a real place. And there are either secret passageways or there are not. I have the kind of access that hundreds of millions of other Americans don’t have due to that proximity…and my curiosity.

But it turns out access was the problem. I don’t believe I ever made a special trip for the purpose, at least not at the start, but when time allowed, when I found myself in the Loop, I would drive past the Lexington, this foreboding, long-abandoned hulk of a building on the northeast corner of 22nd and Michigan. I would drive slowly past in on both 22nd and Michigan, scouting for any possible way to get in. But every ground-level window and entry was boarded tightly. The alley behind its east wall seemed promising – there was a door, but it had no handle and was sealed tight. A parking deck adjacent to the north wall seemed a distant second possibility. By parking against the building and climbing onto the roof of the car, there might be a chance of climbing through an unboarded 2nd floor window, but that would be in full view of every apartment in the 20-story building to the north of the parking lot. Not good.

The years went by (like I said, this was only a semi-obsession) and there seemed to be no entry cracks appearing in the facade. A third option presented itself – throwing a rope from ground level in the dark alley at the southeast corner of the building onto the old exterior fire escape that snaked down from the top floor down to the second floor. (Fig. 1) By climbing up the rope onto the fire escape (insert mental picture here of the last scene from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), one could simply walk into the building through an open window. But do you do that during the daytime, even if it IS a dark alley (yes, the proverbial one)? Unwise. And there was simply no question of going into that building at night!!!

The Lexington Hotel - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 1
The back side of the Lexington. The alley is below. You can see the fire escape on the left

And then, in early 1993, the break I’d been waiting for. But first, some pictures so you get the lay of the land. The picture below (Fig. 2) is looking east down 22nd and would have been taken sometime a few years before the building was demolished. You can see the old R.R. Donnelly printing empire a few blocks further east: this appears as it did when Lois and I broke into it in 1994.

The Lexington Hotel - Probably some time in the 1980s - Photo from Flickr.com

Figure 2
Probably some time in the 1980s

Southwest corner of the Lexington at 22nd and Michigan - Photo from Flickr.com

Figure 3
Southwest corner of the building, at 22nd and Michigan, probably some time in the late 1980s. There are still hints of its past elegance.

The southloophistory.org website is actually a pretty good account of the hotel, a magnificent building in its time (Fig. 3) . It was built in 1892, designed by renowned hotel architect Clinton Warren, who designed five other hotels in Chicago. Its immediate purpose was to house well-to-do out-of-state and out-of-country guests who were flocking to Chicago for the World’s Fair (1893). President Benjamin Harrison stayed in the hotel when he came to dedicate the Fair. I have read (reliably, I believe) that Antonin Dvorak stayed there when he visited Chicago and the Fair, and may have penned at least some of his 9th Symphony (New World) during that extended stay.

So it’s sad to see the building like this then, isn’t it? (Figs. 4, 5 and 6)

Corner of 22nd and Michigan - probably taken in the late 1970s/early 1980s - Photo from EBay.com

Figure 4
Corner of 22nd and Michigan. Probably taken in the late 1970s/early 1980s

The front entrance - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 5
The front entrance, looking from the south, 1972
(Note the pillars above the main entrance)

Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 6

Now let’s take a look at what the Lexington really looked like in its day. (Figs. 5-11)

Looking north on Michigan - Photo from FRWorksOnPaper.com

Figure 7
Looking north on Michigan – a beautiful neighborhood

Lexington Hotel - Photo from SouthLoopHistory.org

Figure 8

The Lexington Hotel - Worlds Fair Edition? - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 9
This looks like a “Worlds Fair Edition” advert

English soccer team at the Lexington 1906 - Photo from e-five.HubPages.com

Figure 10
English soccer team posed in front of the entrance in 1906 –
note the detail of the pillars

Front entrance - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 11
Front entrance, taken circa 1915

II.

Before going further, we need some background and setting. As I said above, the Lexington was built to accommodate visitors to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the famous and beautiful White City, which was located several miles to the south along the lakefront. The Lexington sat where it sat because of its proximity to the toniest neighborhood in the city, known commonly as the Prairie Avenue district (Fig. 13). Prairie was just two blocks to the east, and Chicago’s wealthiest and most-famous citizens lived clustered on or around it, primarily the six blocks between 16th and 22nd. This would be names like Marshall Field, Marshall Field, Jr. (another story for another entry), Phillip Armour, George Pullman (Fig. 14), William Wallace Kimball (the piano man), John Sherman (founder of the Union Stockyards), and Daniel Burnham, to name some. Even Potter Palmer and his wife, for awhile. This neighborhood was established after many of the wealthiest Chicagoans saw their homes burn in the Chicago fire (1871) and as they saw the reincarnation of the Loop begin to be “residence-unfriendly”, they found their comfort in this neighborhood just a mile or so to the south, and right on the lakefront. They built a levee (Fig. 12) to keep the lake out of their backyards (the entire current lakefront east of Prairie Avenue is landfill) and the race was on.

Limestone from The Levee - Photo by Bob Graham, 2013

Figure 12 – Photo by Bob Graham, 2013
The Levee was made from the material Chicago had plenty of: limestone
I picked this up in the 1990s from a section of wall that still remained. The last remnants of the actual levee disappeared by 2005 when the area began to regentrify and a raft of new condos were built on the street behind Prairie. I’m sure nobody even knew what that stone embankment was anymore.

Prairie Avenue in its heyday - Photo from PDNAChicago.com

Figure 13
Prairie Avenue in its heyday

Residence of George Pullman - Photo from History.Furman.edu

Fig. 14
Residence of George Pullman

By the late 1890s, however, a lot of the grand old Prairie Avenue names were dying and the Palmers started the trend when they built their huge castle on the lakefront of what is now called the Gold Coast in the early 1880s (Fig. 15). This set off a slow stampede for the new digs on the near north side of town, and Prairie Avenue began its decline.

The Palmer mansion on the near-north Gold Coast - Photo from Wikipedia.org

Figure 15
The Palmer mansion on the near-north Gold Coast was the beginning of the end for near-south Prairie Ave.

By the turn of the century, most of the wealthiest had moved on out and a new element had begun to move in. It started with power politics, the Chicago way. Two political bosses gained control of the Prairie District’s First Ward (it became known as the Levee district) by the mid-1890s. They were “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky-Dink” Kenna, who had both risen to power through the shadiest of connections. They solidified their power every year by throwing a debauched party for thousands at the Chicago Coliseum (at 15th and Wabash in their ward). (Fig. 16) It was called the First Ward Ball and even though reformers put it to an end in 1908, by then the state of the neighborhood was firmly established.

The Chicago Coliseum - Photo from e-five.HubPages.com

Figure 16
The Chicago Coliseum, home to the infamous, debauched First Ward Ball.
(I’ll write about this fascinating place in a separate post.)

Speaking of reformers, it was 1911 that they managed to shut down all the houses of prostitution in the Loop. The prostitutes took the El to its furthest-south destination: 22nd and Dearborn…and the Levee District was now firmly established as the vice center of Chicago. (Fig. 17) In just twenty years the neighborhood had transformed itself.

Minna and Ada’s Everleigh Club - Photo from Wikipedia.org

Figure 17
Minna and Ada’s Everleigh Club (two nice sisters from Omaha)
Thousands of prostitutes worked the Levee District by 1915 and almost every building between 16th and 26th in the First Ward was either a gambling den or house of prostitution, or both

The first “Lord of the Levee” was Big Jim Colosimo (Fig. 18) who personally controlled over 200 houses of prostitution (not to mention gambling establishments).

Big Jim Colosimo - Photo from ThisBlogOfOurs.tumblr.com

Figure 18
Big Jim Colosimo

Johnny Torrio - Photo from LaCosaNostra.us

Figure 19
Johnny Torrio

Colosimo brought in Johnny Torrio (Fig. 19) from New York in 1915, and business being good, Torrio brought his cousin Al Capone in 1919, by which time Colosimo controlled over a thousand gambling and prostitution locations Capone was one leg of a “perfect crime storm” trifecta: The Volstead Act was passed in early 1920 and Chicago elected the corrupt William Hale Thompson as mayor that November. He declared Chicago a “wide open” city. It was the young Capone who saw the advantage of expanding into the area of illegal liquor. Both Colosimo and Torrio resisted, telling the “new generation” Capone in essence that they had their hands (and wallets) full just running gambling and prostitution. In May, 1920, Colosimo was gunned down at close range in the lobby of his own club (Fig. 20), probably by someone he knew.

Big Jim Colosimo’s club - Photo from Combs-Families.org

Figure 20
Only known picture of Big Jim Colosimo’s club, 2126 Wabash, taken well after its heyday

Most guesses center either on Capone or Frankie Yale. Torrio was now the boss, but as Capone continued to push his agenda, the stakes being what they were, the violence increased. When Torrio and his family were the targets in 1925 of a machine-gun attack in the driveway of their own home (like churches, normally off-limits to gang violence), Torrio called it quits and moved back to NYC. He told Capone he didn’t have the stomach for the “new business”. That left Capone in charge of the Levee.

In 1924, Thompson was defeated by reformer Bill Dever and Capone moved his operation immediately west into the town of Cicero, setting himself up at the Hawthorne Inn, right on 22nd St., less than a half-mile from Chicago city limits. In other words, all the access to his stomping grounds with none of the hassles. Cicero was a small town mentality and Capone (rumored to have beaten up the mayor in his own office) was soon the de facto “mayor”. (One organization in Cicero proved too big for Al. He wanted to take over the Hawthorne Racetrack and run it “his way”. But Western Electric ran the racetrack as an amusement for its workers. The Western Electric plant was called the Hawthorne Works (thus the name Hawthorne on just about everything in town). Al couldn’t beat up the CEO of Western Electric – some things were even bigger than him – so he bought a parcel of land adjacent to Hawthorne Racetrack and opened his own competing racetrack, Sportsman’s Park. Until fairly recently, both tracks operated side by side, which makes no sense… until you know the rest of the story.*

In 1928, Thompson, with the backing of some quarter million Capone dollars, won re-election as Chicago’s mayor. He could now move safely back into the city. By now, he was a multi-millionaire, and it only made sense for him to move into the best hotel in the neighborhood he ran. And that brings us around to Al Capone leasing the entire 4th and 5th floors of the Lexington.

Al’s mother, wife and son lived farther south, in a modest brick home at 7244 S. Prairie (Fig. 21), which still stands today, looking almost identical ninety years later. (Fig. 22)

Capone’s home at 7244 S. Prairie - Photo from PorHomme.com

Figure 21
Capone’s home at 7244 S. Prairie on the day of what might be his brother’s funeral. His wife lived there until her death in 1952.

Capone's home - 2011 - Photo from CaponesGhost.blogspot.com

Figure 22
How it looks today. SOME things don’t change. It was for sale in 2011 for $450,000, roughly twice the value of similar homes in the neighborhood.
(The bars on the basement windows were installed by Capone.)

After Capone moved into the Lexington, he was moving to try to not only organize the city under his leadership, but was beginning to work to organize the nation. The first meetings of La Cosa Nostra were held in this time period. But he didn’t even control the whole city yet. Like today, there were many gangs, but the biggest and most threatening was the north side gang run by Bugs Moran. Capone controlled everything south of the Loop, but Moran was a thorn in his side. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Feb. 14, 1929) was Capone’s attempt to not only eliminate Moran, but to cow every other wannabe gang leader with its over-the-top viciousness.

It backfired. Chicagoans (and Americans by now) who had to this point been enthralled with Capone found this too much. Anthony Berardi’s famous pictures of the scene of the crime certainly did a great deal to create that national disgust (more on Berardi below). The Feds now entered the picture with a new level of seriousness. And the rest is history.

III.

Ok. Back to getting into the hotel. While giving some consideration to what seemed the only possible entry points, I never got so far as to act on any of them. And then the break came. It was a Sunday in the spring of 1993. I had just attended the morning worship service at Progressive Community Center – the People’s Church with former student Soren Johnson, and in driving back into the Loop to get a bite to eat, I told him about the Lexington. As always, Soren was intrigued with adventure, so I drove him up to the Lexington, turning into the alley to show him the back door. I even got out of the car to demonstrate for him the futility of trying to pry that door open. I got my fingers around the edge of the door and gave it what I presumed would be a futile yank… and it opened. Whoa! The Mother Lode!! My jaw dropped. Being in our Sunday Best and I don’t remember, perhaps on some kind of schedule, we did not go right in, but I knew that for whatever reason, “the door had been opened” for me to go into that hotel.

As we drove away the obvious questions arose: “Why IS that door open?” Followed closely by, “Who opened it?” In 1993, the neighborhood was pretty bad. Some of the same concerns presented themselves here as in Packingtown: was the building being used by a homeless person or persons (in which case, they would probably not mind the intrusion), or… was the building being used as a crack den (in which case, I could be a dead man for intruding).

I certainly didn’t want to go in alone. I knew I needed someone stronger and more intimidating than me by my side. As it turned out, my relationship with Lois had been growing pretty serious, so she became my partner in adventure and crime. I proposed the following year. Wouldn’t you?

It was the following weekend that we loaded a day-pack with a couple of flashlights and some random tools (pliers, screwdrivers) and a video camera, and drove down to meet our destiny. In all seriousness, we had made a pact with each other: whoever smelled a rat or otherwise had any sense of crossing the unknown danger line, when that person said it was time to turn and leave, then the other person would do so no questions asked. We really did have no idea what we might find.

Of course, we had no idea even if the door would still be open, so our first task was to drive through the alley. Sure enough, the door had been closed, and some large rocks (6-8” diameter) had been put in front of it. I got out of the car to check: I could still pry the door open. We were in business. Of course, someone besides us knew that door had been opened.

We parked one block west at a White Castle on 22nd and Wabash, just south of Colosimo’s (that building still stands), and walked across 22nd to stand in front of the empty lot that used to be the Four Deuces (2222 S. Wabash – get it?). (Fig. 23)

The Four Deuces at 2222 S. Wabash - Photo from DeadlyValentines.com

Figure 23
The Four Deuces at 2222 S. Wabash, on the corner of Wabash and 22nd

It was there that Lois ran the camera while I did a kind of introduction to what we were about to do. We were both nervous, which showed in a kind of giddiness. There we stood, in the heart of the Levee, looking east toward the looming hulk of the Lexington. (Fig. 24) We were really going to do this… weren’t we?

Photo from TechKnow-Eng.com

Figure 24

We walked east and situated ourselves on the south side of 22nd, directly across from the back alley. There was traffic on 22nd, but we knew none of those drivers would pay any attention to us. But there was a pickup truck parked in the alley and we had to wait about five or ten minutes for it to pull out and leave. We simply didn’t want anybody to see us going into this building.

When the coast cleared, we crossed the street, now in the shadow of the building, and proceeded down the alley. It was a cold day and getting colder. I was running the video camera now, doing a running commentary, with Lois in the lead. She began pulling the rocks away from the door and then as she began yanking on the door (no handle) she made a joke about how I was running the camera while she did all the work. In mid-sentence, the door jerked open and we found ourselves staring into the yawning abyss of the collapsed bottom two steps of a metal stairway that led up into darkness. A few particles of dirt fell into the hole and disappeared into the darkness below. We stepped tentatively across the abyss and on up the stairs (they were solid), and then there was a moment of truth. We had to get that door shut quickly. There was an empty hole where the handle used to be, so I got my fingers in there and pulled it shut as hard as I could. I remember the muffled “whoomp” sound, and then the inescapable feeling of shutting ourselves into a tomb. It immediately went pitch black, dead quiet, and a dank, musty smell permeated the nostrils. I called out, “Hello, Hello” – we didn’t want to surprise anyone.

We couldn’t see a hand in front of a face, and quickly got the flashlights out, and just as quickly realized just how inadequate they were for the task; the beams seemed so narrow and weak. They showed a jumbled mess of junk (I couldn’t tell you what) in every direction we pointed. There seemed to be three options: straight ahead, to the right and to the left. My instincts pointed straight ahead into a tangled mass on the other side of which there appeared to be a door. Maybe. Lois’s instincts pointed left down a corridor…and so left it was. We went about 20 feet before picking our way down a half-flight of stairs into what we assumed was the basement (we had already forgotten that we had walked up a half-flight of stairs upon entering the building, so in fact we were at ground level). At the bottom of the stairs we found ourselves in a large room, (Fig. 25) but there was light, and so we headed for it.

It was pitch black when we came down those stairs - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Fig. 25
It was pitch black when we came down those stairs.

From this point, the video should speak for itself, but as I don’t know how to make it internet accessible yet, I’ll keep telling the story. This might be a blessing, as the video would show every stupid thing we said and a lot of unnecessary fumbling around and guessing of where we might possibly be within the building.

As it turns out the “light” led us back into the interior of the building and as we went through a doorway, we looked up and saw daylight. It was a courtyard. (Fig. 34) The building was built around a courtyard that went all the way to the top of the building. We were in fact in the lobby of the Lexington Hotel, which at one time had a glass ceiling. (Figs. 26, 27)

The lobby of the Lexington Hotel - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 26
The lobby of the Lexington Hotel

A game described as 'pool-golf' being played in the lobby of the Lexington - Photo from ChicagoGangLandItHappenedHere.blogspot.com

Figure 27
A game described as “pool-golf” being played in the lobby of the Lexington.

We could make out the registration desk over against the north wall (Fig. 28), the twin elevator banks on the west wall, and the main entry hallway that led west out to Michigan Boulevard.

The original Lobby registration desk - Photo from lacndb.com

Figure 28
The original Lobby registration desk (more on this later)

Lois discovered the stairwell leading out of the main entry hallway, and we entered darkness again. Flashlights out now, it didn’t take us long to realize that the stairs were marble. Or should I say “had been marble”, since a lot of them were missing and we had to make sure of our footing, stepping often only on the ornate wrought-iron risers. (Fig. 29)

The staircase - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 29
The staircase. Elaborate wrought-iron risers topped with marble. Sometimes replaced by wood planks when missing; sometimes just missing.

We crept our way up to the 2nd floor, again on full alert for any signs of human activity. We exited the stairs into a dark room which was broken only by light seeping in around its large, boarded-up windows. We quickly realized that we were in what must have been a large lounge directly behind the pillars above the main entrance to the hotel (Fig. 30).

The 2nd floor - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 30
The 2nd floor directly above the main entrance on Michigan Ave.

We worked our way, back in the dark now, to the south and then down a broad hallway to the east again and into a huge well-lit room: it had to be the grand ballroom of the hotel, (Figs. 31-33) stretching most of the length of the south side of the hotel (along 22nd St.). While in terrible condition, there were hints of its past glory in the elaborate plastered ceiling decorations.

The 2nd Floor ballroom - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 31
The 2nd Floor ballroom, as we saw it

Banquet and Ball Room - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 32
And as it used to be
“Banquet and Ball Room, Lexington Hotel, Chicago, Ill.”

Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 33

But… the afternoon was moving on, it was cold and our teeth were chattering, and we wanted to find Capone’s suites. Our research (more on that later) indicated that they were located somewhere on the 4th floor. So up we went, picking our way up the stairs, taking a few smaller pieces of broken marble staircase as souvenirs. It got lighter as we climbed, because we had reached the 3rd floor level where the staircase now opened up to the interior courtyard atrium. (Fig. 34)

The interior courtyard - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 34
The interior courtyard

When we reached the 4th floor we really had no idea where to go next. We looked up and down the cluttered hallways, and into one room after the next. Now it was really cold, as the wind whipped through the open windows of every room. The bare concreteness of everything probably made it seem even colder. My hands were freezing on the video camera. There were no room numbers and we had no real guidelines as to exactly where Al Capone’s bedroom suite (and the secret passageways) might be. We found the elevator shafts, doors long gone, and peered down them into the cold darkness. The hallways were littered with an accumulation of old furnishings and the crud of any unmaintained building falling in on itself over time. It was filthy. (Fig. 35). The rooms were stacked with the remains of mattresses, cheap metal bedframes, crummy wooden dressers, ugly green leatherette sofas with the stuffing protruding, mounds of unidentifiable clothing, old shoes, record cases, telephones, clock-radios, etc. etc. All of it from the final days of the hotel in its flop-house years. Nothing of any value whatsoever. Pure, raw junk.

Typical Lexington Hotel hallway, 1993 - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 35
Typical Lexington Hotel hallway, 1993

To the right of the stairway and facing Michigan Avenue, we found two rooms about midway in the building that were connected by a doorway. Had we found the suite? Only two rooms? But then we moved our way down to a corner room overlooking the intersection of 22nd and Michigan and that’s where we discovered for quite certain that we had found it. (Fig. 36) But found what? Was this his office, or his bedroom? Or what?

Al Capone’s office or bedroom? - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 36
Al Capone’s office or bedroom? (This is not me.)

Like many historical places, the mind’s eye provides an expectation of hugeness, especially when the historical figure has become larger than life. We have noticed this on any number of Civil War battlefields when we realize that, for instance, Pickett’s Charge was just from here to over there by the trees. This realization makes the place so much sadder because one realizes instantly that instead of larger-than-life sun-burnished heroes charging valiantly across the windswept grainfield, we have thousands of boys and young men walking into the teeth of their death. So it was upon entering Al Capone’s bedroom. Can this be it?? We expected a much larger room, at least the size of the master bedroom of a McMansion. I mean, come ON! This is Al Capone!

Well, I suppose it could look pretty nice (Fig. 37), but it was a desolate place the day we were there.

What a typical corner Lexington suite looked like at the time - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 37
What a typical “2-room”corner Lexington suite looked like at the time

What did it was the bathroom. (Figs. 38, 39) We had read that Capone had special Italian tiles installed in his bathroom. The only bathroom in the entire hotel with these hand-made tiles. Sure enough… sort of. What we found was the spaces where those tiles used to be – souvenir hunters had been here before us, and most of them were dug out. There were a few left, and this is where we discovered that the screwdriver we had brought with us was entirely inadequate for the job. Oh well. One souvenir we didn’t get.

Tiles on the bathroom wall - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 38
Tiles on the bathroom wall

The only bathroom with this kind of tilework - Photo from CaponeFanClub.com

Figure 39
The only bathroom with this kind of tilework

Just to the right in Figure 39 is the bathtub alcove. The tub was gone, but an image came immediately to my mind of Al Capone, cigar in mouth, reclining in a bubble bath up to his chest, with a glass of champagne perched on the ledge of the tub. It was a far cry from those days.

But, back into the bedroom. Now with the fair certainty that we had found the right bedroom, we began to realize in looking more closely that this shambles was at one time quite elegant. (Fig. 36 again) Carved plaster cove  molding, hardwood floors, a fireplace (the dark hole on the left side of the picture), the beautiful bay window. All in ruins now. How temporary is power. Like the flash of a camera. I remember commenting on the video something to the effect of “All things shall pass.”

We didn’t want to get too near the windows, but we were reminded of a moment relating to those windows that is confirmed. Eliott Ness at one time raided a major distillery, filling a long line of trucks with the confiscated liquor. He then made a point of having that convoy of trucks driven right up Michigan Avenue past the Lexington Hotel. Capone was purported to be apoplectic as he watched from his corner window. (Fig. 40) This is recounted in the film The Untouchables, the Kevin Costner version.

Looking out of the bedroom onto the intersection of 22nd and Michigan - Photo from MyAlCaponeMuseum.com

Figure 40
Looking out of the bedroom onto the intersection of 22nd and Michigan.
The MGD billboard = irony

We quickly realized now that the rooms on either side of the bedroom were connected by interior doors, and that those rooms were connected to the next rooms, and so on. We weren’t good enough historians to note exactly how many connected rooms extended from either side of the bedroom, but it was at least three per side, maybe four. Different from Figure 37’s “2-room suite”. Doors had been punched between rooms to provide connection.

So we were pretty sure, quite certain that we had found Al Capone’s suite. Now for that most intriguing question – the one that started this whole escapade: secret passages. We checked every wall in the bedroom, bathroom, closet and connected rooms, and none of them had any space anywhere that could have possibly contained any kind of secret passageway. They were like the walls of your house. Look at the wall between your dining room and living room. Anybody squeezing in there? I don’t think so.

Until… two bedrooms east of Capone’s. We went into the bathroom and much like in the 1995 picture of Capone’s bathroom (Fig. 39), the sink and mirror had been had been blown out. (The day we were there in 1993, the outline of the sink and mirror in Capone’s bathroom were still visible on the wall, which was still standing.) In this room it was only the sink that was gone and what attracted me was the cheap mirror vanity whose door was hanging open.

But this room was different. Not only was there a gaping hole where the sink and plumbing below it had been ripped out, but a section of the whole wall was missing, right down to the floorline, as was a section of wall in the bathroom that backed up to it in the adjoining room. You could see through right into the other bathroom.

But… something wasn’t right. There was a gap of at least three, maybe four feet between the two bathroom walls. Certainly way more space than should exist between the walls of any two bathrooms. My gosh! It was a rectangular space, maybe 4×6 ft. I crept in for a closer look, being careful not to slip on the loose tiles laying all over the floor. Excitement rising. I had the video camera in one hand, and Lois held my other hand as I leaned in to peer into the void. It was much like the elevator shafts. I was looking straight down into the darkness, light penetrating from similar or smaller holes in each bathroom wall as the floors went from 3rd to 2nd to 1st and then into blackness. And up in the same fashion. Holy mackeral! What was this thing???

And then the clincher. Fastened to one wall was a wooden ladder that extended up and down as far as the eye could see.

We had it! The tangible proof of a Bonafide. Al. Capone. Secret. Passageway! I was gushing on the video. Lois was laughing. The long search had born fruit. We raced back to Capone’s bathroom, two rooms away. Sure enough. Under the outline of the sink there was a hole in the wall. We had simply missed it in the visual overstimulation of everything else we were trying to take in upon first view. And behind that hole… the same space with the same kind of ladder!! Bingo.

And that was it. It was late afternoon, we were freezing cold and the battery ran out on the camera. We did NOT want to be in that place at dark (it had been dark enough in places), so we went back down the stairs, through the lobby and let ourselves out the back door, being careful to close it as tightly as we could, replaced the rocks, and headed back to the car. It had been a great day. It was good to be alive.

IV.

Now, could we get any confirmation of our find? During the following week I went to the Wheaton Public Library, pulling all Capone-related books off the shelf and looking for any reference to Al Capone in the Lexington. In researching this story, I just found this amazing interview by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. of Al Capone from his Lexington Hotel suite in 1931.

I found nothing that first day, but on a subsequent visit I found a picture of Capone sitting at a desk. The caption read, “Al Capone in his office at the Lexington Hotel”. The lousy historian that I was, I made no notation of any information on this book: title, author, date of publication. Nothing.  It contained the single picture of the hundreds I had looked at (before and since) that put Al Capone inside the hotel, and I didn’t write any information down. Fact is, I was excited, because…

…better than the picture and its caption was the credit for the picture. In quaint and sort of unprofessional documentation language it said, “Picture taken by Anthony Berardi. Mr. Berardi is now retired and living in San Diego.” Whoa!! Now retired and living in San Diego?? Wait. When was this book published? Late 1970s (as I now recall). Some fast arithmetic – ok, he took pictures of Capone in 1927 or so. He (Berardi) would have been probably in his 20s, maybe 30s. By 1993 he would then be… oooh, not good… in his late 80s and possibly 90s. What were the odds on his being alive? How can I find out?

Public libraries have (had) telephone books for every major American city. With a rising excitement I found the San Diego city phone book and flipped it open to the early alphabet. I found the ‘Bs’ and scrolled down with my finger. Bandola, Banner, Benet, Bennett… and there it was: “Berardi, Anthony”. I don’t remember the street address. My heart was racing. Could it be? I mean, first AND last name the same. Maybe a son? I scribbled down the phone number. I looked at my watch. It was late afternoon. If it’s him, he’s very old. It’s naptime. And after nap is dinner – I don’t want to catch him at dinner. I drove home and waited what seemed like an eternity until about 6:30 Pacific time. Dinner should be over, right? But not bedtime yet.

I dialed the number. It rang, and rang, and rang. Then…

“Helllooo??” It was the quavery voice of an old man.

“Mr. Berardi?”

A drawn-out, “Yeesss??”

“Mr. Anthony Berardi who used to work as a photographer for the Chicago Tribune?”

Longer pause, then, in that creaking voice… “Yeeesss???”

Whoa!! Heart pounding.

I quickly explained who I was, a history teacher with an interest in the Lexington Hotel, and I had found his picture etc. etc. etc.

It was then I realized I hadn’t planned any further. And Tony Berardi began talking. He answered every question I could possibly think of. He told me all about the interior of the Lexington, how he was questioned by Capone’s goons in the lobby, who went through his entire 40-lb. bag of photographic equipment. How he entered the waiting room to Capone’s office diagonally to the left after stepping off the elevator. (This confirmed to us that we had found his suite.) He told me stories about how he met Capone at the boxing gyms they both frequented; he said Capone called him “Kid”. He told stories about Capone in Cicero. Berardi took finish line photos at Sportsman’s Park, Capone’s racetrack. He said he was walking down to his post before one race. Ahead of him was Capone, surrounded by a group of henchmen, one of which peeled off and came back to Berardi with a ticket in his hand. “Al wants you to have this,” he told Berardi. “I’ve already got my bet down on the favorite,” says Berardi. “Take this one,” the henchman replies. Berardi looks at it; it’s for a broken-down nag that was picked to finish last. It won, of course, and Berardi made some money that day.

He told me that it was his boss at the Chicago Evening American who made Capone famous. Capone used to shirk reporters, actually go after them and rough them up when they tried to take his picture. It was his boss, Berardi said, who met with Capone for lunch one day and said in essence, “Look, we’re good for each other: we can make you famous, a star in this town, and you can improve our circulation.” Capone got the message and began to use the press to garnish his public image from that time forward. And 17-year-old Anthony Berardi was the one his paper sent to take Al’s picture. He was the youngest newspaper photographer in America (by the 1940s he was the chief picture editor for the Chicago Tribune, and his son would also work full-time as a photographer for the Trib. In a small-world coincidence, his son lives in Downers Grove and ran for mayor there once.) Berardi said that even after Capone accepted print photographers, he would still go after the newsreel cameramen. This was because he took his son (Sonny) to the movies every Saturday afternoon and he didn’t want his son to see his face emblazoned across the movie screens every weekend as Public Enemy Number One.

I spent almost an hour on the phone with Anthony Berardi. This was in the days before remote telephones. I hadn’t prepared for an interview, let alone a long one. I had no paper handy. I was reaching for any scrap I could get my hands on at the end of the curly-Q handset cord –a significant percentage of my notes were on napkins.

Having said my many thanks and goodbyes, I sat down and typed out everything as quickly as I could. I wonder if I still have those notes.

If you’d like to get a glimpse of Anthony Berardi on videotape, you will find some fascinating interviews done a few years before he died:

Video clip of Berardi on how the Chicago gang territories were formed and why Valentines Day massacre happened.

Video clip of Berardi telling the camera what he told me on the phone about the Lexington.

Video clip of Berardi talking about the first time he met Capone.

His obituary is a good read.

This brief article also sheds light on the man.

Several of the more famous pictures taken by Anthony Berardi:

Gangster Al Capone and his son having baseball autographed by player Gabby Hartnett - Photo from GettyImages.com


CHICAGO, UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 10: Gangster Al Capone and his son having baseball autographed by player Gabby Hartnett (Charles Leo Hartnett) from Capone’s front row seat at Cominsky Park stadium. (Photo by Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
This is the Getty Images caption for this picture. First, “Cominsky”. Perfect. And I think that wall looks like old Comiskey. But Gabby Hartnett played for the Cubs, and every other copy of this picture I’ve seen captions it at Wrigley Field. I haven’t investigated whether the teams played a cross-town rivalry back then or not, but it just gives an idea of how public historical records aren’t necessarily the greatest. (The Wrigley 1st and 3rd baseline walls are natural red brick now. Were they in 1925??)

Capone liked the picture, scar and all - Photo from FatherDaughterTalk.blogspot.com


A few seconds later (or earlier), Berardi told me it’s just about the only picture you’ll see with the scar this prominent. He said Capone liked the picture, scar and all.

Valentine’s Day Massacre - Photo by Anthony Berardi - Photo from TomClarkBlog.blogspot.com


Valentine’s Day Massacre
Berardi says he took this picture by climbing up onto one of the trucks in the shop. This is one of a series of pictures he took that morning.

V.

            With Tony Berardi’s confirmation, Lois and I went back to the hotel again. I think it was the next weekend, since we wanted to get in before that door was sealed shut again. Fresh battery and a back-up in the camera, better tools, warmer gloves.

The back door was still open, but the rocks had been moved, and it was again with some sense of trepidation that we entered, but as with our first visit, we saw nary a soul.

In our research, we had read about other passages/tunnels that linked the basement of the Lexington with Levee brothels and speakeasys, or perhaps even with Chicago’s famous tunnel system, which ran under almost every street in the Loop. What a way to run illegal hootch to all parts of the city!!

So we went into the basement. Talk about pitch black. Once again, we needed much more light than we had. But we found Geraldo’s famous “vault”. And that was about it. We looked at every conceivable possibility for there to be some kind of tunnel system leading into or out of that basement and left feeling quite certain that there was none. There were some “openings” that led under the Michigan Avenue sidewalk, but that was it. This lead proved just as false as Geraldo’s. And much cheaper.

Then we hastened to the fourth floor, video tape running once again, and we made a somewhat sobering discovery. About halfway around the west side of the hotel we noticed another bathroom with a large hole in the wall. It too had the 4×6 ft. passageway with a wooden ladder. Now we began to look in earnest at every bathroom that had any kind of hole in the wall. Sure enough, they too had the 4×6 Ft. passageway with a wooden ladder – it seemed a safe deduction that there was one of these passageways between every two bathrooms in the entire hotel.

Which raised an obvious question, leading to an obvious solution.

Question: Would Al Capone have spent the money to completely rearrange the interior walls in every room in the Lexington Hotel from the basement to the 11th floor?

Answer: Doubtful in the extreme. And when we looked again at the access below the sink in his bathroom, it seems also very doubtful that even if he could have fit through the panel, I doubt very much he would have lowered himself to have crawled under the sink (what about the trap? was it a pedestal? vanity?) through an opening that tight. In my mind’s memory, there’s no way he would have fit.

So what did we find? Our best estimate based on the fact that these passages were placed between every bathroom, is that in a day when square footage was a matter of cents and not dollars, that they were a plumber access, so that any plumbing issue in any bathroom could be repaired without disrupting the service in that room.

Not nearly as glamorous as secret passageways, eh? Which brings us right back around to the whole problem in researching Capone. People attracted to him now seem to need to think he was as glamorous and powerful as the image he portrayed of himself at the time (with help from the Chicago Evening American and the national press of the time). In fact, perhaps the real lasting image we should take away from Al Capone is this one (Fig. 41):

Demolition of the Lexington Hotel, 1996 - Photo from EBay.com

Figure 41
Demolition of the Lexington Hotel, 1996

You can find a brief video of the demolition here.

 

There were plans to save the Lexington. To rehab it. Lois and I thought we had the perfect idea. Restaurant and micro-brewery on the first and second floors, with the lobby and the banquet room redone in the style of the hotel in the 20s. Capone Museum on the 4th floor, centered on his suites. The rest of the floors redone into condos. As we look back on it from the present (2013), and we see the regentrification of the surrounding neighborhood, with a McCormick Place extension reaching to within one block on 22nd St., we think this could have been a plan. But it would have taken just a few million more than we had at the time.

This is the website for a company that renovates buildings. Scroll down the page to the picture of the Lexington and you find this passage: “Techknow performed all structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering and construction management for the renovation of the ten-story, 100-year-old Lexington Hotel. Work included evaluation of the steel frame, tile arch floors, and roof of this severely deteriorated building in Chicago. Techknow designed completely new electrical and HVAC systems, prepared construction specifications, coordinated the efforts of contractors, and inspected construction work.” They made these plans in the early 1990s, just a few years before the hotel was demolished. This is how close the Lexington was to being rehabbed into the magnificent building it could have become.

Before leaving at the end of that day, we explored every floor up to the roofline, finding nothing really of note. We took some pieces of the wallpaper from what we feel was Capone’s office, the very one in which young Anthony Berardi took pictures of Public Enemy Number One. (Fig. 42).

Wallpaper from the office of Alphonse Capone - Photo by Bob Graham, 2013

Figure 42
Photo by Bob Graham, 2013
Wallpaper from the office of Alphonse Capone

And we grabbed a piece of the elaborate plaster cove molding from his bedroom, (Fig. 43) as well as a piece of that marble staircase (Fig. 44) and a tile from one of the other bathrooms. (Fig. 45)

Cove molding from Capone’s bedroom - Photo by Bob Graham, 2013

Figure 43
Photo by Bob Graham, 2013
Cove molding from Capone’s bedroom

Marble from Lexington Hotel main staircase - Photo by Bob Graham, 2013

Figure 44
Photo by Bob Graham, 2013
Marble from Lexington Hotel main staircase

Bathroom tile from the Lexington Hotel - Photo by Bob Graham, 2013

Figure 45
Photo by Bob Graham, 2013
Bathroom tile from the Lexington Hotel

But the real prize came from the lobby. We pulled the corner off the wood and glass hotel registration desk. It was quite beautiful. The glass was curved where the desk made its 90 degree turn to the back of the hotel. You can see the desk in Figure 26, although the piece we took is obstructed by a pillar. In Figure 27, you can see our piece missing, right on the corner there. Lois and I carried it to just inside the back door, then ran to get the car, drive it into the alley, hop out at the door, hope nobody was watching, load the artifact into the trunk, slam the door shut, replace the rocks, and… another successful visit. Our final one.

We have a videotape of this second visit as well.

Three years later, the hotel was gone. When I heard of the demolition, I wanted to dress up like Capone (big overcoat over the shoulders, white fedora), steal into the building one night when it was just a shell, stand in a window of the fourth floor, holding a (fake) tommy gun… and wait to see how long it would take for the first person to notice. That’s all it would have taken, of course.

So, did Capone have an escape plan? It was a number of years later that we heard a plausible one. There was a 2-story office building connected to the north side of the Lexington along the alley. The Lexington kitchens were in the northeast corner of the building on the second floor. Capone leased offices in the building and had a door cut from the kitchen into that building. If any threat appeared to be arriving at the front of the building (the main entrance and where Capone was situated on the fourth floor), his men would simply alert him and he would hustle out the back way and into a car waiting in the alley. This seems simple and logical, although if true, perhaps too simple. If I was a rival and wanted to kill Capone, wouldn’t you cover all possible exits? Which makes me think these guys weren’t too sophisticated. To the best of my knowledge there was never any attempt by either police or rivals to reach Capone at the Lexington.

Why no picture of the registration desk section? When I sold my house in Wheaton in 1994 and married Lois, we felt we had no real place to store it, so we left it in the garage. That house became a tear-down, and so one more small piece of Lexington history met the wrecking ball. We regret not saving it.

VI.

            There was one final quest: to find the burial place of Al Capone. In all the books I read, there seemed to be a veil of secrecy on this subject. Authors who would wax eloquent about incidents in Capone’s career that were sketchy at best would clam up when dealing with a (pardon) real-life location. I found one close-up picture of the gravestone, but no reference to what cemetery, let alone how to find him inside that cemetery. Sometimes there would be statements along the lines of “honoring the privacy of the family”. Now, googling “al capone grave” provides at least fifteen pages and “563,000 results”. So much for the wishes of the family.

I simply can’t remember from where I got the word of his gravesite; that he was buried in Mt. Carmel cemetery in Hillside, a twenty minute drive from Naperville, right off the Eisenhower on Wolf Rd. Of course, you need more than that because the cemetery, in “respecting the wishes of the family”, will not tell you where the grave is, and as I was told, there is a large shrubbery that covers the name on the tombstone.

But somehow I did get the exact location. I’m thinking it was some library book that finally revealed the gem I’d been looking for. And it’s surprisingly easy to find. Go east on Roosevelt to the Roosevelt Rd. cemetery entrance, turn left into the cemetery, then right at very the first cemetery road, go about 20 yds., and there it is on your right. (Figs. 46-52). I once made the mistake of bringing a school bus load of Sociology field trippers into the cemetery to see the grave. Within a minute of unloading, the cemetery security people were there. They informed me of the private nature of the cemetery and of the Capone family wishes for privacy, and wrote me up a trespasser’s notice (which they said carried no penalty as long as it was the only one), a copy of which was sent to my principal. I suppose he could add that to the list of reasons to fire me. I just know it made for an interesting field trip experience for the kids.

The Capone family gravesite in Mt. Carmel Cemetery - Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995

Figure 46
Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995
The Capone family gravesite in Mt. Carmel Cemetery. The overgrown shrub hides the name “Capone” just below the cross.
Mt. Carmel was the “Italian” cemetery and many of the biggest Chicago names in crime of the Capone era are buried here: Dion O’Banion, the Gennas, Earl “Hymie” Weiss, Frank Nitti, Frankie Rio (Capone bodyguard), Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci,, Big Jim Colosimo, George “Bugs” Moran, Peter and Frank Gusenberg (both killed in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), Sam Giancana, Tony Accardo, and others.

A more recent image of Capone's grave - Photo from VirtualTourist.com

Figure 47
A more recent image. The internet has opened up the “secret” of his burial place to the extent that the shrubbery didn’t matter anymore.
(Just beyond the wrought-iron fence in the background is Roosevelt Rd. Thousands of people each day drive within 50 ft. of Al Capone’s grave and have no idea how close they are to infamy.)

Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995

Figure 48
Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995

Sister Mafalda is buried on his right - Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995

Figure 49
Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995
There is heavy foot traffic on/at Capone’s grave.
Sister Mafalda is buried on his right.

Parents - Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995

Figure 50
Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995
Parents

Other Capone family gravemarkers - Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995

Figure 51
Photo by Bob Graham, circa 1995
Older brother Salvatore (on the left) went by the name Ralph. He worked for Al, especially in Cicero and was gunned down by police there in 1924.
Ralph, Jr. (center) is the son of Al’s brother, Ralph (Bottles) Capone, who was Al’s front man and in charge of bottling operations during the 20s. He outlived Ralph, Jr., whose grave is here, dying of natural causes in Wisconsin in 1974. His daughter interred his ashes in the family plot here in 2008.
Umberto (on the right) went by Albert and changed his last name in 1942 to his mother’s maiden name (Raiola). Although he worked for the Cicero Tribune¸ which was owned by Al, Umberto stayed clean of mob connections.

If you turn around while at Al’s gravesite, you will see the Bishop’s Mausoleum less than 100 yards away. Here are buried Cardinals Bernardin and Cody, Archbishops Quigley and Feehan, and Bishop Quarter - Photo from CatholicNewWorld.com

Figure 52
If you turn around while at Al’s gravesite, you will see the Bishop’s Mausoleum less than 100 yards away. Here are buried Cardinals Bernardin and Cody, Archbishops Quigley and Feehan, and Bishop Quarter. Quite the juxtaposition, isn’t it? Then again, in light of what we’re learning about the Roman Catholic leadership, perhaps not.

FINIS

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About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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4 Responses to My Visits with Al

  1. rob schildt says:

    I’d like to thank you for sharing your story.
    I have been interested in the lexington hotel for years an al Capone.
    would like to see and learn more of the mafia and the Chicago time and era and area with mafia historic sights.
    thanks again

  2. randy welch says:

    Heck of a story. Thanks.

    Randy

  3. Joe Walters says:

    Hello this is a good article. I see you have used a few of my photos of the interior of the lexington hotel, no worries. We should exchange Lexington stories and talk about our collections

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