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Famed hotelier taps into lobbies of decades past

PUBLIC Chicago opened for business in October. Hotelier Ian Schrager is hoping its $35 million renovation and focus on "cheap chic" will make the hotel a hit.

Ian Schrager wants PUBLIC, his "new" Chicago hotel, to entice locals to check out the place travelers check in.

"About 150 years ago, the grand hotel lobbies were manifestations of these great cities," Schrager told msnbc.com. "It’s something hotels have gotten away from. We intend to bring it back. We want the lobby at PUBLIC Chicago to be a 24-hour beehive of city activity."

That means mingle nooks, poetry readings, a library, video installations, performances and ambitions to be the in-demand home to Chicago’s best restaurant and liveliest bar.

PUBLIC Chicago is a 285-room, history-drenched hotel located in the Gold Coast neighborhood — about one mile north of the Loop central business district. It reopened to the public in October, though it originally started as the Ambassador East Hotel in 1926.

Sound familiar? It was to an eclectic mix of celebrities ranging from a sex symbol to a Sex Pistol: both Elizabeth Taylor and Sid Vicious were fond of the old hotel. Other famous guests included David Bowie, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Redford, Robert Plant and Frank Sinatra.

And now it's popular with a new crowd.

"The hotel has opened to great fanfare during what traditionally is a slow time of year," said Peter Walterspiel, the hotel's general manager. "Ian's recent hotels have served more niche-type clientele. The name here says it all. It's public."

Moreover, Schrager intends to turn his private venture into a brand. He has plans to open PUBLIC hotels in New York and Miami, and wants to seize on a consumer thirst for what he’s called "cheap chic" with rooms starting at $135 and coffee, an in-room staple that can cost $15 in some luxury hotels, for $5 a pot.

He wants everyone in the city, both the rowdy and the rich, to feel they have a stake in the hotel's success.

"We want the lobby to have a feel of a 1950s coffee house or, really, a Starbucks," he said. "There needs to be an electricity in the air. A great hotel today has to be about more than just a place to get good night’s sleep. The best restaurant and the best bar needs to be right under your roof."

Famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is overseeing what was and by local edict will remain the Pump Room restaurant.

Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel wrote: "The Pump Room ... has recaptured its mojo as a celebrity-spotting, see-and-be-seen destination. The dining room and its attendant lounges are packed every night, and 8 p.m. reservations are the stuff of legend, in the sense that they may not really exist." Vettel went on to say that the food was "solid," and that "Pump Room is a very good restaurant with the potential to be a great one."

Nilou Motamed, features editor for Travel + Leisure, recently cited Pump Room as a must-stop spot for travelers visiting Chicago.

Schrager says he was urged to change the name of the fabled restaurant so he put it to a vote. "We had more than 28,000 votes and keeping it the Pump Room won in a landslide."

So far, PUBLIC is getting public approval.

"For me, the best part is to see couples 60 to 70 years old sitting right next to 20-something couples and both of them enjoying themselves," said GM Walterspiel. "The neighborhood seems to really have embraced the hotel. It's becoming a gathering place."

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Chris Rodell is a Latrobe, Pa., contributor who blogs at EightDaysToAmish.com