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.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Day of Remembrance - November 11, 2014

Yesterday, marked the 100th anniversary of the beginnings of World War I. It lasted four terrible years and was declared to be “The War to End all Wars.” It was a brutal war. At the Battle of the Somme (1916) in just 20 minutes, 20,000 British troops died. America did not join the war until 1917 but still had more than 100,000 soldiers die in the fighting.

It came to an end at the 11hour of the 11day of the 11th month of 1918. Countries around the world still observe the exact moment with marked silence. Many years ago when I was in school, we observed “Armistice Day” with a minute of silence at 11 a.m. I doubt that practice continues but I don’t know for sure. In our country, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all of those who have served.

In the United Kingdom this past Sunday was celebrated as Remembrance Day. Around the Tower of London, 888,426 poppies were planed in honor of British soldiers who died in World War I. The last one will be planted on November 11, 2014. In a London factory disabled veterans are hired to assemble by hand the 45 million poppies that are sold across Britain. The poppies remind everyone of John McCrae and his poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada and was the grandson of Scottish immigrants. He was first and foremost a soldier and during the Second Boar War, he served in the artillery. By profession he was a physician. When the war started he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force although by profession and age (41) he could have joined the medical corps. He grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.

McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium, The Canadian position became the first to be attacked by chlorine gas in 1915. In spite of this, the Germans were unable to break through the Canadian line which held for more than two weeks. McCrae wrote to his mother that the battle was a “nightmare.” “For 17 days and 17 nights none of us have had our clothes off, not even our boots, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for 60 seconds...and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” Six thousand Canadian soldiers died in the Battle of Ypres, among them Alexis Helmer, a close friend.

John McCrae was so deeply touched by the losses in France that he became a bitter and disillusioned man. For relief, he took long rides on his horse, Bonfire, perhaps accompanied by his dog, Bonneau. On January 18, 1918, he became ill and died of pneumonia and meningitis. The day of his funeral was a beautiful day as he was being buried in Wimereux Cemetery not far from the fields of Flanders.

Every evening in Ypres, France at 8 p.m. the local police stop traffic from passing underneath the gate, and the Last Post is played by buglers from the Ypres fire station. The Last Post has been played every night in this way since the 1920s save only for the duration of the German occupation during World War II.

The Kansas City Star wrote this tribute to Lieut. Col. John McCrae: “Lieut. McCrae has been laid to rest between the crosses that mark the couch of Canada’s immortal dead who have fought on foreign soil. He went out as a physician to heal the scars of war, but he sleeps as a soldier within sound of the guns, having given all that man may give for the honor and the liberty of his country... With the gallant dead he, too, listens to the guns, hears the lark bravely singing in the azure sky, and waits for the Dawn, where”

In Flanders field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved, and were loved, and now we live
In Flanders field.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders field.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

November 22nd come celebrate St. Andrew’s Day and our historic organization with the Scots of Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton. Click here for details and registration.