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A Hotel Built upon Love & Ingenuity

Originating as a grand wedding gift from Potter Palmer to Bertha Honore Palmer, Palmer House eventually became known as North America’s longest-operating hotel with a notable history of innovation. It was the first hotel to incorporate the light bulb, the telephone, and the vertical steam lift (elevator) as well as being the creator of one of the world’s most adored confection, the brownie.

The Beginnings of Our History

Historic first building of Palmer House


The story of downtown Chicago’s Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel is one of romance and undeniable charm. Potter Palmer was a Chicago business magnate—well-known for various endeavors, including his significant role in the development of downtown Chicago’s iconic State Street. Bertha Honoré Palmer, 23 years Potter’s junior, was a wealthy socialite who also had a drive to learn and succeed. An introduction by Potter’s former business partner, Marshall Field, sparked a romance—and eventual engagement—between Potter and Bertha that led to perhaps one of the most extravagant wedding gifts of all time – Palmer House. It was a grand Chicago Hotel—one destined to take its place among the most luxurious hotels in Chicago and beyond.

However, only 13 days after its grand opening, the Palmer House fell victim to the Great Chicago Fire. But that didn’t deter Potter. Determined to rebuild his hotel, Potter secured a $1.7 million loan–negotiated on his signature alone. On November 8, 1873, the new Palmer House welcomed its first guests, marking the opening of what would become the nation’s longest continually operating hotel.

The Brushstrokes of Bertha

Shortly after befriending Claude Monet in France, Bertha Palmer began decorating the Palmer House with paintings and other pieces inspired by her French heritage. She eventually accumulated the largest collection of impressionist art outside of France. The Palmer House was bedecked with garnet-draped chandeliers, Louis Comfort Tiffany masterpieces, and a breathtaking ceiling fresco by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal. The fresco was described by columnist George Will as “a wonderful protest of romance against the everydayness of life.”

A House of Stars

By the turn of the century, the Palmer House had become Chicago’s liveliest social center, hosting a long list of prominent figures—including those ranging from U.S. presidents to Charles Dickens to Oscar Wilde. In 1933, the Empire Dining Room of Palmer House was converted into an entertainment epicenter and supper club. It hosted legendary entertainers, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, and Liberace.

Historic dancers of Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel

The Never-ending Legend

In recent years the historic Chicago hotel, Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel has undergone a $170 million renovation to ensure that it includes all of the conveniences and comforts our 21st century guests expect while also preserving our significant history. Clearly “the Chicago hotel the world knows best” has positioned itself for the next era in downtown Chicago accommodations–and the next generation of Palmer House Hilton with a hip and historic outlook.

The Brownie was invented at Palmer House

In 1893, Bertha Palmer tasked the Palmer House pastry chef Joseph Sehl with a dessert suitable for ladies attending the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Her request was simple, a cake-like confection that could easily be transported to the fair within a boxed lunch. The result was the Palmer House Brownie, made of chocolate to comprise a fudge-like density and topped with a decadent walnut and apricot glaze. The dessert first published reference as “the brownie” following the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was when it appeared in the Sears Roebuck Catalog published in Chicago in 1898.

Perhaps one of Palmer House’s greatest and most recognizable culinary contributions was the invention of the brownie. This year, the hotel will be celebrating the brownie’s 130th anniversary on December 8th, National Brownie Day.



Learn more about the historic Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel


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Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America®, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for recognizing and celebrating the finest historic hotels across America.