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Navy Pier still shut, but hotel now open

The $100 million project faced challenges in building on a century-old platform in Lake Michigan.

Aerial photograph, taken using a drone, of the Sable hotel, which has opened near the eastern end of Navy Pier.
The Sable hotel has opened near the eastern end of Navy Pier.
Mike Schwartz Photography

In an engineering achievement and a show of faith that the pandemic is ending, Navy Pier’s first hotel opened for business Thursday even though the tourist attraction itself remains closed.

The hotel, called Sable, contains 223 rooms and is a central feature of Navy Pier’s renovation. The pier’s attractions — stores, rides, restaurants — have been closed since last fall because of COVID-19. The Sable, however, is operating with its own rooftop bar and restaurant.

“I’m telling our first guests this may be the only time they’ll have Navy Pier to themselves,” said Robert Habeeb, CEO of Chicago-based Maverick Hotels & Restaurants, developer and operator of the Sable. The hotel uses the Hilton reservation system as part of a brand called the Curio Collection.

Habeeb said about 20 rooms were rented for the first night and he’s looking forward to 50% occupancy this weekend, a rate he said is good for a hotel’s debut even without COVID-19. Online, the hotel listed room rates starting around $204 a night, higher for corner rooms, which have enhanced lake and city views.

Opening during a quiet stretch at the pier allows time to train staff and work out operational kinks before the crowds return, Habeeb said.

“There are positive trends in hotel bookings as the vaccine situation improves. We do expect a very busy summer,” Habeeb said, adding that the staff of 60 should grow to 200.

Spokeswoman Payal Patel said Navy Pier hopes to reopen in late spring and is working with state and local health officials on a firm date.

At roughly 800 feet long, the seven-story hotel is like a 70-story building lying on its side, Habeeb said. The $100 million construction job had to allow for numerous factors on a pier dating from 1916; promoters call it Chicago’s first hotel built “on top” of Lake Michigan.

Crews used light-gauge, cold-formed-steel bearing walls and a floor joist system designed to spread the weight on the pier, beneath which 51 micropiles were driven into two feet of bedrock. Executives at James McHugh Construction and Powers & Sons Construction said the micropiles, smaller in diameter than traditional caissons, can support enormous weight.

They also said construction schedules had to account for a species listed as threatened in Illinois — mudpuppies, which are salamanders that live under the pier during the winter. Researchers track mudpuppies to monitor Lake Michigan’s ecosystem.

The design by Chicago-based architectural firm Koo divides the hotel into three sections. Event planners can rent an entire wing for privacy and security.

Construction started in June 2018 and was completed last fall, with the hotel’s opening pushed back a few months because of the pier’s shutdown.

“McHugh has been building at Navy Pier since 2014, so we knew the space constraints, the safety concerns of building near millions of visitors and existing operations, and the engineering gymnastics required to ensure the structural integrity of the historic pier,” said John Sheridan, executive vice president at the construction firm.

The hotel’s name refers to the USS Sable, a Navy training ship that docked at the pier during World War II.

The lobby of the Sable hotel at Navy Pier.
The lobby of the Sable hotel at Navy Pier.
Mike Schwartz Photography