The History of NAR’s Annual Conventions in Chicago

Today marks the beginning of the 110th annual REALTORS® Conference and Expo.  NAR welcomes attendees back to Chicago for the ninth time since the annual meetings began in 1908.  Much has changed over the years, with the convention going from a modest affair of 120 attendees to grand event for more than 20,000 REALTORS®. In honor of this ninth Chicago convention, let’s look back at the previous gatherings in the Windy City.

That first NAR meeting in 1908 was, in some respects, also the founding of the association itself.  Delegates from 19 local boards and one state association were primarily occupied with business matters during the meeting, spending the entire first day writing the association’s constitution and bylaws.  In the auditorium of the YMCA Building, they also decided on a name for the organization, agreed on the cost of annual dues, and established the mission of the association – “to unite the real estate men of America.”  Entertainment consisted of an “automobile trip” and informal dinner hosted by the Chicago Real Estate Board, now the Chicago Association of REALTORS®.

1908 Conference Ribbon

1908 Conference Ribbon

Just thirteen years later, the convention was already markedly different from that original meeting. Returning to Chicago in 1921, 4,373 attendees – the largest ever annual meeting at that point – met at Sullivan and Adler’s elaborate Auditorium Building on Michigan Ave.  The schedule grew full with committee meetings and special educational sessions.  As the convention evolved, so did the accompanying entertainment features. Publicity for the annual meetings encouraged REALTORS® to make a vacation of it with their families and included concurrent event programming aimed specifically at spouses, from fashion shows to teas to luncheons.  The 1933 convention took place in Chicago at the same time our city played host to the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition and World’s Fair. Several NAR receptions and dinners took place at the Fair itself and the Hall of Science featured a “Real Estate Day” during the convention.

However, the meetings scaled back drastically with the advent of World War II.  During this period, attendees often shared hotel rooms and expected nothing in the way of entertainment.  Still, REALTORS® found it important to continue meeting annually in order to prepare for post-war development – that is, until 1944.  NAR made plans as usual for a meeting that year, reserving the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, scheduling speakers, and even printing programs and other publicity material.  At the last minute, with an extension of the International Civil Aviation Conference and the movement of military personnel resulting in limited rooms and transportation across the country, NAR made the decision to cancel that year’s conference.

1944 Cancellation Notice

1944 Cancellation Notice

After the war, NAR made up for the convention’s 16 year absence from Chicago by scheduling conferences in our city every few years thereafter – in 1949, 1957, 1965, and 1970. The austerity of the war years was clearly a thing of the past when NAR celebrated its 50th anniversary meeting with parties and receptions.  Even Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged the significance of the event, sending a congratulatory message to the conference delegates:

“Over the past half century in the development and improvement of homes and neighborhoods across the land, your Association has been a strong influence for good. As our people seek the opportunity to live in security and beauty, I know your association will continue to exercise its power at both local and national levels for the welfare of all.”

Conferences held during this post-war period offered programming that reflected the advantages of the economic boom while addressing the great changes in American society, from housing patterns to the political landscape.  A National Real Estate Journal article summed up the general feeling of the 1949 conference as “optimism on the business front, pessimism on the political front.” Urban expansion into satellite cities was a recurring theme at the 1965 convention.  In 1970, strengthening the year-old RPAC was a point of discussion and members attended a general session on the importance of political involvement for REALTORS®.

After 1970, it would be more than 30 years before the annual meeting returned to Chicago.  With the conference scheduled to take place in the heart of a major city less than 2 months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was an element of unease among those planning to travel.  However, attendance rates ended up exceeding those of the previous year. “Thousands of REALTORS® have shown tremendous courage and the tenacity of the American spirit by traveling to Chicago from all across this great nation to conduct their business despite the threat of terrorism,” said NAR President Richard A. Mendenhall. “This courage underscores the commitment and the seriousness with which REALTORS® take the business of helping Americans fulfill their dreams of homeownership.” Conference attendees contributed to the REALTORS® Relief Foundation, the fund which was started to assist victims of the September 11 attacks and continues to assist victims of disasters today.

2001 Conference Program

2001 Conference Program

For those attending this year’s conference in Chicago, please consider continuing this tradition by participating in the REALTORS® Relief Foundation (RRF) Denim Day on Sunday, November 11.  Help support the REALTORS® Relief Foundation, particularly in light of its outstanding efforts for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Wishing all attendees a productive and enjoyable 2017 conference – welcome back to Chicago!

Hathaway Hester

Hathaway Hester, MLIS, DAS, is manager of the association archives at the National Association of REALTORS®. She currently serves on the Steering Committee of the Chicago Area Archivists as well as the Education Committee of the Midwest Archives Conference.

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