Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Palmer House I, II and III

In the late 1860's, Potter Palmer was in the process of building two hotels in Chicago. One was called the “Potter Palmer House” and the other “The Palmer House.” The first was to be a moderately priced hotel but the one on State Street was to be luxurious. By the summer of 1870, the exterior of the Palmer House on State Street was finished and work was beginning on the interior. It contained 225 rooms. The hotel would have 7 floors and 150 apartments. The first two floors would be shops and stores. The cost was estimated at $3,500,000.

Potter Palmer now owned a mile of State street and more than 100 buildings in the downtown area. He was also in the process of making Bertha Honore’ his wife. They were married July 28, 1870. The Palmer House, located at State and Quincy, was his wedding gift and they would have an apartment in the new hotel. The honeymoon in Europe lasted six months and Potter Palmer was collecting ideas for another hotel more grand than any other. It would be located at State and Monroe.

The first Palmer House opened on September 26, 1871, but 13 days later was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire on October 8. All his buildings, more than one hundred, were lost as well. Bertha Palmer was at their country home the night of the Great Fire, alone, except for the servants. Her husband had gone to New York to attend the funeral of his sister. His arrival home was a discouraging moment and he considered retiring.

An article in the Chicago Sun-Times reported: “It was Bertha who drove a buggy to the nearest town with telegraph wires still intact and wired New York business men seeking a extension of credit for her husband. The Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company allowed him to borrow $1,700,000, the largest single loan made in the United States up to that time...”


This hotel opened on November 8, 1873 and was built of brick and iron. It was advertised as the “first wholly fireproof hotel in the United States.” The first two floors were again reserved for stores, 18 on each floor. In the center was the grand court patterned after the Louvre in Paris. Around this great lobby would be a balcony running on three sides. He copied this from Spurgeon’s church in London. “The floors of the barber shop, set with silver dollars between tiles, probably bought more fame to the hotel than any other feature.” From a well, the hotel had its own water supply.

In 1876, Potter Palmer decided to raise the roof of this hotel 30 inches in order to make “the upper rooms more lofty and attractive.”  The roof weighted 3,802 tons. It was divided into 5 sections and using 200 hydraulic jack-screws, manned by 65 men, the roof was gradually raised. At a given signal the levers were all turned at once. Every half-inch the work was stopped and measurements taken so “that there may be a perfect level at all time.” In addition he was also constructing a conservatory over the dining-room on the roof. You could enter by a passage-way on the fifth floor. “It was 45 by 78 feet and 17 feel in height, with a double glass roof, and will be heated by steam. For this special feature Mr. Palmer has purchased the rarest and most beautiful plants and exotics obtainable, which will soon be in position.” This beautiful hotel was replaced by the present building. (Pictures can be found on the Internet.)

Work on the present hotel started in 1924. The new hotel rose 23-three stories and was to be the world’s largest hotel with 2,263 rooms. The cost, including furnishings, was nearly $40 million. Palmer House II was gradually replaced without closing or losing any revenue.

The hotel that we will enjoy on November 22 has had just two owners - Potter Palmer and Conrad N. Hilton. Mr. Hilton purchased the hotel from the Palmer family for $20 million in 1945. It is the longest continually operating hotel in the United States. It was also the first Chicago hotel to have telephone service in all rooms, electric lights, air conditioning and elevators.

The gilded lobby of the present hotel is two-stories high with a formal staircase and a ceiling mural depicting Greek mythology. “The Michelangelo-esque mural was originally created in the 1920s by French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal.” The Palmer House mural contains 21 portraits. Each was a separate piece of canvas, signed by artist, Louis Pierre Rigal. They were painted in France and shipped to the United States in 1926. In 1964 restoration work was being done on the mural when Martin K. Ziegner fell 40 feet from the scaffolding and died. The murals were restored again in 1983 and 1995 by Lido Lippi, a master restorer who also worked on the Sistine Chapel. The most recent restoration took place in 2012 by Anthony and Mata Kartsonas, “who are well-known art preservationists.”

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

The Scots of Chicago will meet for the 169th time this coming Saturday night, November 22, in the grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois. Click here to register.

The entertainment is a repeat performance by the Chelsea House Orchestra. These high school students are from Chelsea, Michigan, a town of 5,000 located in the southeastern portion of that state. Jed Fritemeier started CHO in 1996 with 10 students. About 30 students will make the trip to Chicago. The program has been studied as an alternative to the typical school orchestra. I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy this group of high energy young people as they perform “Celtic with a Kick.”

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