Ernest J. Stevens – Millionaire Hotelier and Businessman

Ernest James Stevens was born on February 13, 1884 in Colchester, McDonough County, Illinois. His parents were Jessie Louise (Smith) and James William Stevens. In 1890 the family with four sons moved to Chicago where Ernest’s father James W. and his brother Edward established the Illinois Life Insurance Company, a business that ultimately generated the substantial wealth that financed enterprises including two hotels that Ernest built and managed, the Hotel LaSalle the Stevens Hotel, which became two of the most luxurious hotels in the world at that time.

The Stevens was across Balbo Street from the older Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. When the Stevens Hotel opened on May 2nd, 1927, it hosted nine thousand guests for dinner and its 2,818 rooms earned it the distinction of “World’s Largest Hotel” and possibly the most opulent. Its brick-and-limestone walls, decorated inside with hand-painted frescoes, contained fine restaurants, exclusive shops, and vast ballrooms. Stevens even honored his home town by naming the hotel’s first floor main grand hallway  Colchester Lane and an eatery the Colchester Grill which can be seen in the photo collection below.

There was a bowling alley, a hospital, and a special private room for pets. The Stevens could produce 120 gallons of ice cream per hour. On its roof, you could play miniature golf at the High-Ho Club. “What a grand realization of an ambition and an ideal . . . is this great caravansary,” gushed Hotel World magazine, “this magnificent palace of hospitality dedicated to Chicago and the world!”

The Great Depression ruined the Stevens family. Like four out of five American hotels during the Great Depression, the Stevens Hotel went bankrupt. The property changed owners over the years, changing to the and it is now known as the Hilton Chicago, a centrally located luxury hotel.

Ernest J. Stevens married Elizabeth Maude Street (b: Oct 1881 IL, daughter of Richard Willison Street [1861-1952] and Helen Ellen Cass). He died on February 7, 1972 in Chicago and was buried at Bronswood Cemetery in Oak Brook, IL.

Stevens’ son John Paul Stevens spent 35 years as aa influential judge on the United States Supreme Court. He died at the age of ninety-nine in July of 2019.