History of the Oak Park Arms
It was the Roaring Twenties – a time of change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. World War I was over, and people wanted to have a good time despite prohibition. Women had just won the vote, and Henry Ford and mass production made it possible to buy a Ford for $290. In 1925, hemlines went up, way up. So revolutionary was this change that the Archbishop of Naples believed that short skirts were the cause of an Italian earthquake.
Oak Park was still a young suburb in 1920. The budding community would swell to almost twice its size by the end of the decade. In 1921, city planners gave the go ahead to build an elegant hotel/apartment building in Oak Park at the corner of Washington Blvd. and Oak Park Ave.
The hotel was named the Oak Park Arms, and it became the epitome of style, grace and sophistication.
The grand opening took place on a Thursday evening in late April, 1922. Menus for the formal dinner were written in French on ivory parchment paper with the gold-crusted crest of The Arms.
The local paper said, “The beauty of the luxurious new hotel was only surpassed by the exquisitely colored evening gowns and handsome formal attire of the ladies and gentlemen in attendance. Throughout the evening an orchestra furnished music for dancing and gracious selections by vocalists and dancers were appreciatively applauded.”
Many things impressed the guests that evening from the elegant ballroom to the “smartly appointed” smoking room for men. The five-story building had elevators, 94 spacious apartments and ten community rooms in which guests could entertain. The new structure featured luxury style living with units furnished with full kitchens, dining rooms, private bathrooms and ample closet space.
The accommodations included maid service, dishes, silverware and all household linens. It was a perfect place for a long, relaxing visit, or to live permanently, which many did.
It was only a year later that The Arms became a pioneer in radio. WTAY (Wireless Tunes Await You) was broadcast from the ballroom from 6:15-8:15 p.m., five days a week. The station broadcasted “nothing but high class talent.” Name bands would play everything from light classics like “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” to ‘20s jazz hits like “Avalon” and “Whispering.”
WTAY was directed by well-known Studio Manager Hugh B. Marshall, and his program became wildly popular with listeners tuning in from as far away as Alabama and Oklahoma.
The hotel quickly became recognized as a key social center in Oak Park. Galas, card parties, luncheons, wedding receptions and meetings of all kinds were routinely held at The Arms. Each week various groups such as the Lions Club met in the Georgian Room for lunch.
By the late 1920s, the Oak Park Arms was doing so well that a massive expansion project was begun. An annex, which would virtually double the size of the building, was started just as the 1929 stock market crash happened, and the Great Depression began.
The expansion was halted, and the steel structure would stand for nearly two decades before investors returned and building resumed in the late 1940s.
In 1936 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at The Arms while in town for speaking engagements at Rosary College and Oak Park River Forest High School.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “We citizens should familiarize ourselves the needs of our own communities and understand governmental procedures. If we know these needs, we can tell if there are differences in working conditions. We may know those who govern our own jobs but not those of others.”
She then returned to the Oak Park Arms and found a Cicero couple, the Alloways, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Mr. Alloway kissed the first lady’s hand, and Mrs. Alloway kissed Mrs. Roosevelt on the cheek.
When this addition was completed in 1949, it provided additional banquet rooms, meeting rooms, a medical center, drug store and beauty shop. The hotel had expanded by 60 percent.
In 1952 a transmitting tower was put on top of the Arms, and station WOPA began to broadcast as did WOPA’s sister station – WGLD-FM. Teenagers especially were entertained by the modern radio station and would call in to request songs.
The 1950s and 1960s were the glory days of The Arms. Once again it was the premier place for banquets, meetings, proms and wedding receptions. In 1953 the national trade publication “Hotel Monthly” highlighted The Oak Park Arms and in the article, The Arms Manager Tracy Kohl commented on the new artistic decor of the Carolina Room which was often the setting for social and business gatherings.
“It is not unusual to have as many as 15 functions in the nine available rooms on a single Saturday,” Kohl said in the story.
However, by the 1970’s new hotel chains were springing up in nearby suburbs, chains that could offer lower rates, perks and entertainment with liquor. Oak Park itself was undergoing personality changes and alterations in its social order. In 1973 the hotel’s future was in doubt when the building changed hands to a group of owners, two of whom had links to the Chicago crime syndicate.
The hotel changed hands once again in the mid-1970s when it was purchased by two friends who wanted to create active retirement living in a community that would be full of life, service and spirit.
The new management recognized the value of The Arms and was on the forefront of a trend. The building had always featured full apartments with kitchens and dining rooms. It was a natural step to refocus and serve the people who were permanent residents and build a community around their needs rather than serving visitors.
The partners decided to add services and hire a full time activity director to bring events and activities to the community. By 1978, a “full lifestyle” was offered which included maid service, three meals a day and a busy schedule of social activities.
The vision and experience of the two men created The Arms of today, an ideal combination of exceptional senior care and an ideal setting. For 30 years, the Oak Park Arms has been the leader of senior living and the model in the development of other senior communities.
The Arms shares space with the Lifelong Learning Center (the local Senior Center). It provides office space for more than ten other providers of senior-centered care.
Winner of multiple awards, the Oak Park Arms has maintained its original charm. It is an affable and affordable home for older adults and a great resource to Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, Berwyn, Cicero, Riverside, Elmwood Park, Maywood and Chicago.
The Oak Park Arms’ events and activities draw people of all ages. Frequently the large ballroom is alive with “the sound of music” at monthly ballroom dances for residents and the public.
The original vision continues to this day as the Oak Park Arms is still owned and operated by the same two men who created it. Each remains involved and committed to excellence. Together, they offer strong support to the management and staff, ensuring that The Arms continues as an industry leader with a legacy of eminence and distinction.