The Palmer House Chicago: Where the Extraordinary is Actually Reality

It’s a rare thing in this world of Instagram Stories and Snapchat videos when something lives up to all of its hype. In a city like Chicago, where gangsters are legends and the Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile give new meaning to luxury, it’s even harder to find anything that has a wow factor for the ages. A place that captivates us now as much as it did then.

The Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel is such a place. Its history is so long and varied that it has ceased to be just a history of a hotel and has become part of the history of Chicago, and even America. Its founders were 19th century celebrities that remain legendary to this day and its opulence has never faded, remaining one of the gold standards in luxury hotels. As if these accolades aren’t enough, The Palmer House claims to be the birthplace of the brownie. This alone is reason to pay homage, Readers. Simply speaking, to stay at The Palmer House is to have the rare treat of being part of something bigger, something to remember, and something that will never disappoint.

It Starts With a Love Story

In the late 1860’s post-civil war Chicago, Potter Palmer was a hugely successful retailer. He was one of the first storeowners to focus on the female buyer and he did so by creating large, attractive window displays of his merchandise with his prices clearly visible. He was also the first to offer a “no questions asked” return policy that allowed shoppers to try items on at home. His success with these measures attracted the attention of department store owner Marshall Field, who hired Palmer as a partner in 1865. The two made millions together, with Palmer selling his shares in the department store in 1867 to pursue other ventures and Marshall Field going on to become the biggest department store owner in the Midwest. Potter Palmer was an entrepreneur at heart and now he had the money to pursue whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was real estate.

Palmer bought multiple lots on State Street in what was rapidly becoming Chicago’s Loop district. Stores, restaurants, and hotels were being built on land that had been the swamps of the Chicago River just a few years prior. Palmer commissioned local architects and builders to design stores and offices on his swath of State Street, with the goal of having a luxury hotel right in the middle. The man was a visionary with a golden touch and he was about to secure his match.

Bertha Honore was a wealthy socialite whose mercantile family had relocated to Chicago from Kentucky when she was a child. She was a brilliant and accomplished young lady whose charm and wit earned her a top spot in Chicago society and whose beauty and love of the arts and philanthropy had endeared her to many in this circle, most notably Potter Palmer. Though she was 23 years his junior, the two were married in a lavish wedding ceremony in 1870. As a wedding present, Potter Palmer bestowed the jewel of his State Street properties on his bride by giving her The Palmer House hotel. The property, under construction at the time, was rumored to be the most extravagant hotel in Chicago and Palmer felt this real estate gem was most befitting his crown jewel of a wife. The Palmer House opened on September 26, 1871 to rave reviews of both the service and the owners, who were becoming the country’s first celebrity power couple.

Disaster-Proofing in the Gilded Age

Thirteen days after opening its doors, The Palmer House went up in flames with hundreds of other buildings in The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. All of Potter Palmer’s other State Street buildings were also destroyed. But this duo for the ages was above even the most epic of disasters. Palmer resolved to rebuild his hotel and secured a $1.7 million loan (the largest ever obtained at the time) to do so. Meanwhile, his architect, John Mills Van Osdel, the grandfather of Chicago architecture, accomplished something just as remarkable. On October 8, 1871, the night the fire began, he watched the smoke and flames advance across the city towards his home. In a desperate attempt to save his designs and plans, he buried them under two feet of wet clay on the property of The Palmer House. This forethought not only saved designs for numerous Chicago buildings, but the designs of The Palmer House as well. He and Palmer used them as the basis for an even bigger and better hotel to rise from the fire’s ashes.

Indeed, when the new Palmer House reopened its doors in November of 1873 it was advertised as the first fire-proof hotel in the country for Osdel’s use of steel beams wrapped in clay tile that was inspired by the frantic burying of his designs on the night of the fire.  As technically astounding as this feat was for its time, it was the building’s interior that stole headlines.

Redefining Luxury

The opulence of the Palmer House was over the top and, over the next thirty years, it became the meeting spot of the city’s social elite, thanks to Bertha. Her French heritage inspired a lifelong passion for French artists, most notably the Impressionists who were redefining painting at the time. Works by Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt graced The Palmer House as part of the Palmers’ personal collection. The drawing room off the lobby was painted in red lacquer and hung with garnet and crystal chandeliers. Bertha’s expensive but exquisite touch, indulged by her husband, also led to 24-karat gold Tiffany chandeliers throughout the lobby along with two Tiffany bronze statues called the “Winged Angels,” each weighing in at over a ton. Tiffany’s crowning lobby glory though was the brass doors carved with intricate peacocks, tails in all their splendor, purchased and restored by the Palmers from Chicago’s House of Peacock, the city’s finest jewelry store from the year it was incorporated in 1837.

The Palmer House was an international destination by 1879 with US Presidents, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde as frequent guests. Near the turn of the century, the Palmers had the hotel wired with electricity and telephones installed in every guest room, both of which were considered the height of modern innovation. In 1900, the Palmers secured themselves as patrons of the arts when they commissioned French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal to transform their already majestic French Empire style lobby into a world wonder. Rigal created 21 panels of scenes and figures from Greek mythology in his Paris studio, which the Palmers then shipped across the Atlantic and installed on the vaulted ceiling of the hotel. From that moment on, the stunning frescoes and The Palmer House were the stuff of legend. And speaking of legend…

Birthplace of the Brownie

In 1893, Chicago was playing host to the World’s Fair after years of intense preparation. As one of Chicago society’s key members, Bertha Palmer was head of the Board of Lady Managers for the Fair’s Women’s Pavilion and requested that the chefs at The Palmer House create an easily transportable dessert for the boxed lunches that would be provided there. Though the chefs’ creation was not called a brownie (that title for the confection would come 10-20 years later) its rich and dense chocolate structure was the dessert we know and love today. The Palmer House version was topped with apricot glaze and chopped walnuts and was an instant hit with Fairgoers.

A New Era of Glory Begins in 1925, and Never Ends

By the 1920’s Potter and Bertha Palmer had died, Bertha surviving her husband by 16 years and doubling his fortune with her own real estate ventures during that time. The managers of the Palmer Estate decided that the hotel needed to be revamped. Using the architectural firm of Holabird and Roche, the hotel was turned into a 25-story, 1,600-room giant piece by piece, not losing a day of business along the way and carefully preserving every asset in the world-renowned lobby. When the lobby was reconstructed along the lines of a European drawing room, Tiffany’s “Winged Angels” now flanked a marble staircase inspired by that at the Paris Opera House and led up to what was to become one of the entertainment capitals of the country. The Palmer House’s Golden Empire Room was a dining room equipped with a stage that hosted the biggest names in entertainment over the next twenty years. The 24-karat, gold-leafed walls echoed Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Liberace all during this golden age of entertainment.

In 1945, Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels purchased The Palmer House for $20 million and renamed it The Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel. Over the decades, the hotel would undergo numerous renovations, keeping its historical architecture and priceless lobby maintained while also providing the latest in modern conveniences. None other than Lido Lippi, who restored the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, restored its breathtaking ceiling in 1996. In 2005 Hilton sold the property to Thor Equities, while still retaining its status as hotel manager. Thor Equities conducted massive renovations in recent years, the latest of which was a $215 million project completed in 2014. It added a world-class spa, pool, and fitness center to the property as well as meeting rooms and a lively lobby bar and restaurant (which still serves Bertha’s brownie). In 2007, the hotel was made a member of the Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the longest continually operating hotel in the country.

 The Palmer House has not just withstood the test of time, but flourished in each decade’s new test for bigger and better. Yet, such a place doesn’t have to compete for what is grander or best. It was timeless from the moment it opened its doors, dreamed up by a Chicago power couple who were legends of their time. To stay at The Palmer House, to gaze at that lobby ceiling, is to be a part of the legend, part of the love story and part of at least one thing that endures.

Read reviews, find the best prices, and book on TripAdvisor.

More Stories
The Algonquin Hotel New York: Literary Legends Know Why The Caged Bird Sings