Palmer House Hilton
by: chicago designslinger
[Palmer House Hilton (1926) Holabird & Roche, architects; Louis Pierre Rigal, murals /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
One of the country's remaining 26 historic, grand palace hotels sits on a Chicago city block at State and Monroe Streets - and not in Las Vegas on the Strip. Perhaps not as "grand" as the MGM, Bellagio, Venetian, or Wynn to suit some peoples tastes, the Palmer House Hilton is one of those hotels that recalls a different era in the hostelry business when luxury came with a little less flash.
[Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By the time architects Holabird & Roche were asked to design a hotel for the Palmer trust in the early 1920s, a Palmer had been offering upscale accommodations on this site since 1871. The Roaring 20s version would be the third incarnation of a Palmer branded hotel born out of a $1.25 million, Parisian-styled, 19th century, fireproof caravansary that Chicago real estate magnate Potter Palmer opened for business on September 26, 1871. The Palmer Hotel was said to have been a wedding gift given to his 21-year-old bride Bertha, daughter of H.H. Honoré, one of the 44-year-old bridegroom's business associates and a wealthy real estate investor in his own right. Unfortunately Palmer's "fireproof" investment burned-to-the-ground fourteen days later in the big fire. After surveying the damage, one story goes, Palmer was ready to throw-in-the-towel, but according the an article in New York Times published after Palmer's death in 1902, his willful and determined partner said, "Mr. Palmer, it is the duty of every Chicagoan to stay here and devote his fortune and energies to rebuilding this stricken city." Whether it was to avoid an argument he knew he could never win, or his civic pride took hold, Palmer rolled-up his sleeves and got to work rebuilding a re-jiggered version of his original fireproof structure.
[Palmer House Hotel, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Architect John Van Osdel had been able to save the drawings of the recently completed, and now destroyed hotel by burying them in Chicago's sandy soil. After things had cooled down a bit, he took-out the original plans and elevations and got to work overseeing construction on the new and improved Palmer House. Palmer spared no expense, borrowing $3 million dollars on his reputation alone, and began rebuilding his Chicago properties - literally. It wasn't uncommon to find the millionaire out on the scaffolding, pants tucked into his boots and slouch hat covering his head, handing bricks to the masons, as his hotel building rose-up on State Street once again. If Michelin had had a U.S. guide in 1874, the new Palmer House would have been at the top of the list. It was considered the most luxurious hotel in the country.
[Palmer House Hotel /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
After Palmer's death in 1902, the mighty Bertha took over the hotel and all the other Palmer holdings and investments, and held sway over the Palmer Trust until her death in 1918. The Palmer House was just one piece in a huge portfolio of real estate she passed-on to her two sons and seven grandchildren, and by the mid-1920s sons Honoré and Potter, Jr. realized that the once opulent hotel was a little worn and old-fashioned, and in need of an upgrade. Instead of a remodel, they decided to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch. They hired one of the city's preeminent architectural firms Holabird & Roche - who had designed some of Chicago's best known hotels - to build a modern luxury property on the site. Pieces of the older building were saved and reworked into the new 120 x 85 foot, two-story lobby, touted to be the largest in the world at the time. Twenty-one murals painted by Louis Pierre Rigal under Bertha's direction were incorporated into the ceiling, and a pair of Tiffany bronze sculptures from the old hotel now supported clusters of lamps at the foot of the future Empire Room's grand staircase. Potter Palmer, Jr. laid the cornerstone of the first phase of the new building on January 3, 1925, and Honoré Palmer was the first person to sign the new guest register on December 21, 1925.
[Palmer House Hilton /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1945 the Palmers sold the hotel to Conrad Hilton. Under the Hilton corporation's stewardship the hotel rode-out economic downturns, survived, and held-on against newer more modern competitors. In the mid-2000s the company undertook an extensive $170 million renovation and restoration of the 80-year-old grande dame. Completed in 2009, the hotel has won numerous awards for its historically sensitive updating, and even drew a Palmer back into the fold in 2008. In June of that year, Hilton revealed their new lounge Potter's, opened by none other than 74-year-old Potter Palmer IV - Potter and Bertha's great-grandson.