A rock marks the spot where former President Barack Obama first kissed Michelle Obama.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Doors that cordon off the restaurant’s private dining area are covered with a design reminiscent of a Ferris wheel, which debuted at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, not far from the hotel’s location.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
A portrait of President Obama made of pennies hangs in the lobby of the new Sophy Hyde Park. The hotel is across the street from the spot where Barack and Michelle had their first kiss in 1989.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
A 1,000-pound chandelier hangs from the 14-foot ceiling in the Sophy’s lobby.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Staff at the hotel’s restaurant, Mesler, practice before the Sept. 24, 2018, opening.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
Seating between a pair of queen beds is designed to give guests better separation.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
A dining area in one of the Sophy suites has windows overlooking 53rd and Dorchester.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Geometric shapes and symmetrical patterns can be found throughout the bar area.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
The outdoor “Sanctuary” at the Sophy has two fire pits and a gurgling water fountain to add to the tranquil vibe. It’s located on the quieter side of the property on Dorchester Avenue.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
Some of the Sophy’s suites have soaker tubs.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
The Queen of Gospel, Chicago’s Mahalia Jackson, helped inspire the decor of the lobby.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
A literary aesthetic dominates the hotel’s restaurant, Mesler, whose name comes from a Middle French word meaning to mix and mingle.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
Aspen wood is used throughout the new hotel.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
The Sophy has a fitness center with weights and several exercise machines on the second floor.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
Top-notch museums and cultural attractions, gorgeous green space, architecture — there’s no shortage of great things to see and do in Hyde Park.
But there is a shortage of great places to stay.
The South Side neighborhood has long been a hotel desert, with nearby options largely limited to a smattering of random motels, guesthouses and budget chains.
That lodging landscape is getting a shot in the arm with the debut of Sophy Hyde Park, a 98-room boutique hotel opening Monday.
Construction started nearly two years ago on the seven-story building, at 1411 E. 53rd St., whose industrial façade is softened by hints of Prairie Style with long, linear red bricks. Designed by Chicago-based GREC Architects, the hotel looks like something retrofitted out of a former warehouse or factory, even though it’s an entirely new structure.
“When people ask us if this was an existing building, I take that as a compliment; it means we fit in with the fabric of the neighborhood,” said Nikoletta Stagias of Stonehill Taylor, the interior design firm that worked on the project.
“The idea was not to land a spaceship at the corner of 53rd and Dorchester,” added Sophy’s director of sales, Paul Calvin.
Inside the hotel and its Mesler restaurant, also opening Monday, is an environment inspired by the neighborhood’s rich history and reputation as a hotbed for intellectuals and artists. The public areas are packed with personality, built around themes of music, literature and science with subtle nods to the nearby University of Chicago, an institution sure to drive much of the hotel’s traffic.
High and low seasons for the Sophy are expected to go hand-in-hand with the university’s calendar, Calvin said. Unlike most hotels in Chicago, prices are likely to trend lower in summer, when school is out. Grand opening rates start around $175 for a deluxe king.
Elements of jazz infuse the inviting, light-filled lobby, from decor fashioned out of brass instruments to less overt touches, like a lyrical abstract painting by Chicago artist Lewis Achenbach and a swirling, 1,000-pound chandelier meant to convey a sense of free-spirited improvisation.
“Many miracles had to happen to hang that,” Stagias said about the weighty light fixture suspended from the 14-foot ceiling.
A sleek, double-sided fireplace separates the lobby and reception desks from the lounge and bar. The watering hole’s motif is more science-oriented, dominated by geometric patterns and the occasional cluster of glass beakers reminiscent of a chemistry lab.
Behind the bar, tiny cerulean orbs are perched on shelves — a wink to University of Chicago-trained astronomer Carl Sagan’s musings about the Earth being a “pale blue dot.” The reference is anything but obvious, but that’s by design, Stagias said. The goal is to spark people’s imagination — do those dangling glass beads look like notes on sheet music? — and conversation.
“It’s nice when you’re talking to hotel staff and they drop those little bits of knowledge about the meaning of this and that,” she said.
Another decorative Easter egg of sorts looms in the large wooden doors separating the 14-seat private dining room from the main restaurant. When closed, the door panels form a giant circle with spokes radiating from the center, similar to the Ferris wheel that made its debut not far from the hotel at the 1893 World’s Fair.
A literary vibe dominates the intimate, 60-seat restaurant whose name, Mesler, is a Middle French word that means to mix and mingle. (Extra credit points for knowing that Sophy is rooted in a Greek word that denotes wisdom.) Columns divide dining areas into discreet nooks and double as bookshelves, displaying works by University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, political strategist David Axelrod and lauded author Saul Bellow.
Mesler serves brunch, dinner, light bites and room service, with a focus on “approachable contemporary American cuisine,” Calvin said. Comfort food such as shrimp ’n’ grits, chicken and waffles, and a so-called 5th Ward burger populate the brunch menu. Executive chef Bradford Shovlin helms the kitchen. The Detroit native previously worked in Chicago at Michelin-starred North Pond and the now-shuttered Crofton on Wells.
An expansive outdoor seating area dubbed the Sanctuary runs along the quieter side of the building on Dorchester Avenue.
On 53rd Street, the Sophy is a stone’s throw from the “Obama Kissing Rock,” a boulder marking the spot where future POTUS Barack Obama first smooched future FLOTUS Michelle in 1989.
The hotel’s guest rooms are meant to feel like mini apartments, outfitted with doorbells, light dimmers and windows that can be cracked open to let in fresh air. Classic marble bathrooms get a jolt of modernity with wall-hung toilets.
There’s nothing mini about the largest of the hotel’s three tiers of suites. The Presidential Suite — and there are two of them — measures a spacious 1,200 square feet.
Guest rooms have fun touches, like a portable record player just waiting to take a spin with vinyl albums by the likes of Chicago jazz vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and late blues musician Magic Sam. Feeling creative after a visit to Hyde Park’s Robie House? Minibar offerings include a $10 set of Frank Lloyd Wright colored pencils.
Bed headboards back up to large fabric facsimiles of abstract paintings by local artist Joey Korom. The property is full of works by artists with ties to Chicago, including Sonya Clark’s print of an Obama portrait made of pennies as well as paintings by students at Hyde Park Academy High School.
The Sophy was developed by Olympia Companies and SMART Hotels, the team behind the Hyatt Place that opened a few blocks away in 2013. Calvin said the team’s plan was to start with a safer bet — a franchise hotel — before launching a boutique property.
That bet, he said, paid off.
“The demand we’ve seen at Hyatt Place gives us a lot of confidence about what to expect here,” Calvin said.
The rapidly transforming neighborhood is only growing in popularity, he added, noting that new places like the Sophy can help keep that momentum going.
“We hope to be a stone that casts a ripple effect, bringing even more interest and development to Hyde Park.”