Hidden Hotel

By Vanessa Morton

Aviva Einhorn, Contributing Writer

Tucked into one of the last original blocks in the Chicago Loop is a historic site that dates back to the 1800s. The Ewing Annex Hotel, 426 S. Clark St.—earlier known as The Hinky Dink Tavern and later as The Workman’s Exchange—provides reasonably priced shelter for working men.

The hotel is marked by a subtle white sign reading “Hotel, Men Only,” so the average passerby is probably unaware that the hotel serves approximately 150 men each night with the capacity to sleep 210.

Randy Cohen, owner of the Ewing Annex Hotel, purchased the property with his brother more than 10 years ago. Cohen said the hotel is dedicated to helping any men who come looking for a place to spend the night. According to Cohen, the hotel sees an increase in guests during the winter months.

“We do everything we can to make sure everyone has a place to stay,” Cohen said. “If we’re filled up or if they can’t pay, we let them stay in the lobby, out of the cold.”

Acting Manager Michael Bush, who once was a guest at the hotel, has been working at the Ewing for 15 years. He said as an employee he’s seen a range of people who have stayed at the hotel.

“We have people who are homeless and come in to spend a day or two to clean up before going back into the street to look for work,” Bush said. “[We have] people who are going through divorces or bankruptcy. We even had a couple of Enron executives who stayed for [approximately] a week.”

Bush said they’ve also housed a Hurricane Katrina victim for a few months, who was brought in by city officials as part of a relief effort. The man was never charged for his stay nor was the hotel compensated by the city. Bush said this is a way they can give back and lend a hand to struggling individuals.

“We didn’t want the money anyway,” he said. “That’s what this place is all about—for people who are down and out.”

According to Bush, he took the position following a period of corrupt management. He said that a combination of mentally unstable individuals in need of housing and careless management led to a time of drugs and prostitution in the hotel.

“Since they cut the funding for programs and housing facilities for mental patients in Illinois, many of them have come here during the years,” Bush said.

He said approximately a decade ago, the city tried to close down the hotel by taking the property into state ownership. He said an overwhelming number of men who are loyal to the hotel showed up in court to show their support.

According to Bush, since taking over as manager, he has re-evaluated policies at the Ewing Annex Hotel and runs what he called a “safe and humane business.” He has implemented things like routine security checks on all guests, which help to make sure unauthorized objects aren’t brought into the hotel.

The corridor-style building consists of rows of individual rooms, approximately 8 feet by 5 feet. Each room has a small cot and lockable door.

Along with occasional donations of food from local restaurants, Bush said a variety of organizations help support the men. Billboards in the hotel entrance display fliers from churches and welfare groups, listing the days they visit. Many donate food and services to the men on a weekly basis.

“During Christmas and Thanksgiving, we have people who bring food like pizza, soda and sometimes multiple-course meals for the guys,” Bush said.

Cohen and his family also donate when they can to the men at the hotel.

“A lot of the people up there are poor and they really appreciate the services we can provide them,” Cohen said. “And other people up there are lonely. Some people have been there for years. It’s a community and for some people, it’s a better life than living alone.”

Bush said he has been trying to arrange for a nonprofit dental service to visit the hotel.

“A lot of these guys don’t have access to that stuff. There’s a dental bus with free services that makes rounds [across] the city,” Bush said.

George Nelson, an 81-year-old Korean War veteran, said he has been living at the Ewing Annex Hotel since 1990.

“You used to see a lot of people in and out of here [who] were mentally imbalanced,” Nelson said. “People who needed to get off the street.”

Nelson said some of the men at the hotel are living off of Social Security. He said that despite its long history, the hotel has stayed strong.

“There’s a real mixture in here,” Nelson said. “It’s amazing that in all that time, we’ve really never had any real problems in here. It’s a well-run place. A lot of people who get in here are glad to get off of the street.”

He said he used to work for an insurance company before it asked him to relocate. Nelson said he considers himself lucky and gets $322 per month from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and $663 per month from Social Security.

“I have a lot of friends here in Chicago and I didn’t want to leave,” Nelson said.

Bush said he hopes that the city will look more kindly on the Ewing Annex Hotel in the future and as a society.

“Many people you know, they got their jobs, a good education, nice suit, a family [and] a big house. Well, hold on to that,” Bush said. “And listen: You can’t forget to listen because there are a lot of different people out there in a lot of different situations.”