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Palmer House Backgrounder

December 4th, 2011

The House That Potter Built

The nation’s oldest hotel in continual operation, and one of the world’s last remaining Grand Hotels, the Palmer House Hilton was originally a wedding gift from business magnate Potter Palmer to his wife Bertha, a legendary socialite, arts patron and philanthropist.

Set squarely in the middle of Potter Palmer’s State Street real estate holdings, among them the dry goods store he had recently sold to Marshall Field, the Palmer House first opened  its doors in 1871, just thirteen days before the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed the original building. Determined to rebuild, Potter constructed a second hotel across the street from the original, with the first guest registering on November 8, 1873.
Almost immediately, the Palmer House became the favored spot of the city’s cultural elite and arts community who found a willing, vivacious host in the beautiful young Bertha. Bertha was a passionate art collector, accumulating the greatest collection  of impressionist art outside of France, which she later bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Inspired by her French heritage, Bertha filled the Palmer House with artistic treasures. Fresh and accessible to guests today, striking examples include the Red Lacquer Room with garnet-draped chandeliers and the world-famous lobby topped with a magnificent ceiling of Grecian frescoes by French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal.

Other jewels include the lobby’s Tiffany 24-karat gold chandeliers and majestic “Winged  Angels” – weighing in at 1.25 tons each, these two bronze statues are the largest he ever made – Tiffany brass door handles, wood hinges and hardware throughout the hotel, and  Bertha’s signature French Havilland bone china.

A Lively Social Center

Chicago’s liveliest social center at the turn of the century, the Palmer House has played  host to a long list of important politicians, entertainers and social figures in its 135-year history, and has been the site of many historic events. In addition to nearly all U.S. Presidents, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill and Prince Charles have all stayed  at the Palmer House.

In 1879, the hotel was the site of one of the most fabled dinners in history, a banquet in  honor of the return of General Ulysses S. Grant from a trip around the world. Among the 500 dignitaries in attendance was master of ceremonies Mark Twain, who jumped on a table at 2:00 a.m. and gave a rousing speech that brought the Dining Hall to its feet.

In 1933, the Palmer House converted the golden Empire Dining Room into what would  become one of the nation’s leading “supper clubs.” A showcase for the world’s biggest names in show business for the next four decades, the Empire Room was the favorite Windy City stage of entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry  Belafonte, and Louis Armstrong – just to name a few. It’s also where a young Liberace took his first bow on stage.

Global Influence

Beyond parties, performers and people, the Palmer House has had a significant influence not only on the culture, commerce and fabric of Chicago, but also on the world. Bertha was a pioneering advocate of women’s rights and social causes, and Potter was a visionary businessman. Together, they built the Palmer House into a national treasure  that debuted numerous inventions and improvements.

Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most delicious “first” the Palmer House can lay claim to, is the brownie. Invented by Palmer House chefs at Bertha’s request, the brownie first debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892 after organizers asked  her to create a dessert especially for the Women’s Pavilion.

The world’s first fire proof hotel, the Palmer House was also the first building in Chicago to install lighting and telephone systems and later, the first hotel to retro fit guest rooms for computer modems.

A Modern Legend

In October 2006, the Palmer House was named a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America (HHA) for faithfully maintaining its historic integrity, architecture and ambiance. As one of twenty-six surviving grand hotels in the United States, The Palmer House was chosen for exemplifying the HHA’s key tenets of maintaining the property’s 135 year historic integrity, architecture and atmosphere, which can  be seen in every facet of the hotel. From the restored lobby ceiling, which Chicago Sun-Times columnist George Will called “a wonderful protest of romance against the everydayness of life” to the Beaux Arts style, which  Gourmet magazine readers dubbed the regional winner for design and architecture, the Palmer House is one of  the industry’s grande dames.

Rooted in History

  • Moments before the Great Chicago Fire reached the Palmer House, its chief architect, John Mills Van Osdel, carried all the construction plans to the hotel’s basement, where he dug a pit and covered it with two feet of sand and damp clay – devising a method of clay tile fireproofing which was used for years thereafter.
  • The second Palmer House was built across the street from the original hotel and opened in 1873, after being funded by a $1.7 million loan, which Potter Palmer negotiated on his signature alone.
  • Bertha Palmer, after meeting Claude Monet in France, acquired more than 200 French impressionist paintings, which she ultimately bequeathed to Chicago’s Art Institute.
  • Palmer House had the city’s first elevators; advertisements claimed: “a perpendicular railroad connects floor to floor, rendering passage by the stairs unnecessary.”
  • There are 21 paintings on the ceiling of the Palmer House lobby, designed and created by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal. The man who helped restore the Sistine Chapel – Lido Lippi – also restored the lobby ceiling in 1996.

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