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This week in history: Chicago Riding Club opens

The Chicago Riding Club held its opening reception on Dec. 17, 1924. Here’s a history of the building.

Exterior of Chicago Riding Club on Dec. 17, 1924
Exterior view of the Chicago Riding Club building, nearing completion, located on McClurg Court between Erie and Ontario Streets in Chicago on Dec. 17, 1924.
From the Sun-Times archives

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

By 1924, Chicago roads had become crowded with automobiles, streetcars and even bicycles. Horse riders — many of them wealthy — could either take their chances dodging traffic or bring their horses out to the city parks.

But that all changed on Dec. 17, 1924, when the Chicago Riding Club opened its doors to the public. In its lifetime, the building underwent several transformations, from an exclusive equestrian club to a public ice rink and finally to the site of a historic debate. It may be gone now, but it’s certainly not forgotten.

The new club, located at 630 McClurg Court between Erie and Ontario, would be “the first building of any size to be erected in Chicago exclusively for the use of horsemen,” the Daily News wrote. Its stalls housed 460 horses, and the arena made space for 5,000 spectators. In addition to polo matches, the club would host horse shows and steeplechases.

To provide riding lessons, the club brought in Russian refugee Demitri Ivanenko, who once served as the late czarina’s honorary captain of the regiment, according to the paper. Before World War I, he competed in international riding events as a Russian representative and at an Olympic horse show in London (possibly the 1908 Olympics).

The opening ceremonies included an “indoor polo game, an exhibition of saddle and riding horses and ‘riding to the music,’” the paper said. Some of Chicago’s elite residents, such as John Borden and new club president Col. R.R. McCormick, would be playing in the match.

For 12 years, the riding club provided a safe space to ride horses in the city as automobiles and streetcars took over streets, but the Great Depression halted growth at the club. Then on April 3, 1936, the Daily News announced a new development for the property.

“The Chicago Riding Club, 333 East Erie street, has been converted into a general sports and exhibition center under the management of the Chicago Arena Corporation and will in the future be known as the Chicago Arena,” the paper said.

Management quickly expanded the building’s seating capacity, the paper said, and installed a new interior lighting system. The clay floor remained so polo matches and horse shows could still be held in the space, as well as indoor tennis and softball games.

For nearly two decades, the Chicago Arena entertained smaller stage acts. In January 1940, the Board of Trade Post of the American Legion announced it would stage its ice carnival and skating revue at the arena in March, the Daily News wrote. “Winners of the national ice championships in Cleveland will be on hand for the show as will a galaxy of international stars.”

Other ice acts followed. The Ice Capades and the Ice Follies welcomed audiences in the spring and fall, respectively, between 1940 and 1953. Amateur hockey leagues also played at the arena, but they disbanded before World War II began. For a time, the arena housed the city’s only public ice skating rink, along with two restaurants.

Then in January 1954, CBS Studios bought the building for $1.5 million and converted it into studio and office space. “CBS will vacate studio and office space in the Garrick building and the State-Lake building but will retain its Wrigley building studios and offices,” station vice president H. Leslie Atlass told the Daily News.

Naturally, the ice rink would have to come out. Atlass said plans for the space still remained fluid, but he hoped to broadcast one hour of a three-hour morning show, with the other two hours coming from a New York broadcast. Some network shows might also relocate to Chicago, he added.

The building became best known in 1960 for hosting the first televised presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. It was later torn down in 2009 to make way for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, which treats patients in need of extended care and rehabilitation.