The Legendary Palmer House Hilton in Chicago

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard, 42 × 33.7 cm., Art Institute of Chicago (F 345). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite hotels in the world is the legendary Palmer House Hilton in Chicago at 17 East Monroe. I love the Lobby Bar, the Lockwood Restaurant and Potter's on the lobby level. My parents always took me to Trader Vic's when I was younger but unfortunately that restaurant is now closed.

There have been three Palmer House Hotels at the corner of State and Monroe Streets in Chicago, Illinois. The story of downtown Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton is imbued with a story tale romance. Potter Palmer was a Quaker, Chicago business magnate. He succeeded in a number of notable business endeavors and had a significant role in the development of downtown Chicago’s iconic State Street. Bertha Honore, 23 years Potter’s junior, was a wealthy socialite. Potter’s former business partner, Marshall Field, introduced Potter to Bertha. This sparked a romance and eventual engagement which lead to one of the most extravagant wedding gifts of all time, Palmer House. Bertha Honoré married the Chicago millionaire Potter Palmer in 1870. She was twenty-one and he was forty-four. The wedding present from Potter Palmer to his bride Bertha Honoré opened on September 26, 1871. Initially known as “The Palmer”,  it was one of the most luxurious hotels in Chicago. Unfortunately, it burned down just thirteen days after the grand opening on October 9, 1871 in the Great Chicago Fire.

The devastating fire didn’t deter Potter; he was determined to rebuild his hotel and secured a $1.7 million signature loan. This was the largest individual loan ever secured at the time. Potter Palmer constructed one of the most luxurious hotels in post-fire Chicago. 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 Palmer House was cloaked 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.” 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.

Designed by architect John M. Van Osdel, the second Palmer House Hotel was seven stories. “Its amenities included massive rooms, luxurious decor, and sumptuous meals served in grand style. The floor of its barber shop was reputedly tiled with silver dollars.” Constructed mainly of iron and brick, the hotel was widely advertised as, “The World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel.”

Famous visitors included presidential hopefuls James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley; writers Mark Twain, L. Frank Baum, and Oscar Wilde; and actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse. It was completed in 1875.

By the 1920s, the business in downtown Chicago could support a much larger facility and the Palmer Estate decided to erect a new 25-story hotel. They hired Holabird & Roche to design the building. Between 1923 and 1925, the hotel was rebuilt on the same site in stages so not a single day of business was lost. At the time it was touted as the largest hotel in the world.

In 1933, the Golden Empire Dining Room of Palmer House was converted into an entertainment epicenter. It hosted legendary entertainers, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, and Liberace.

In December 1945, Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House for $20 million. In 2005, it was sold to Thor Equities, but it remains part of the Hilton chain. From 2007 to 2009 the hotel, now known as The Palmer House Hilton, was completely renovated and restored, at a cost of over $170 Million. It has a total of 1,639 guest rooms in the hotel, making it the second largest hotel in the city after the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

The Palmers were enthusiastic art collectors. They depended on the advise of curator Sarah Hallowell, a Philadelphia Quaker. In 1873, Hallowell was curating a loan exhibition of the latest French art for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She introduced the Palmers to the painters in Paris and made them keenly aware of the latest artistic trends in the French capital. Shortly after befriending Claude Monet in France, Bertha Palmer began decorating the Palmer House with paintings and other pieces inspired by her French heritage.

In the years leading up to the Columbian Exposition, they became clients of the Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and began to collect French Impressionist works. The couple eventually accumulated the largest collection of impressionist art outside of France. The unrivaled Palmers collection of Impressionist paintings included twenty-nine Monets and eleven Renoirs. These works now form the core of the Art Institute of Chicago‘s incredible Impressionist collection. Hallowell also tried to get the Palmers interested in Auguste Rodin‘s work, which he had loaned her for the Columbian Exposition. “The frankness of his nudes had caused a stir at the fair and after resisting for a number of months”. Eventually, works by Rodin entered the Palmer collection; these were among the first acquired by American collectors. In 1905, Hallowell finally convinced Mrs. Palmer to sit for Rodin.



Palmer Castle Chicago

Palmer Castle Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Bertha Palmer’s Paris evening gown from 1911 can be admired at the Chicago History Museum.

Made of Silk satin, floss, crystal beads, rhinestones and metallic lace. It is a gift of the Art Institute of Chicago. 1960.

Title Dress
Artists/Makers Weeks (designer)
Place of Origin Paris (France)
Date 1911
Physical Description Dress, evening-style, of off white silk satin. V-shaped neckline in front and back; Brussels lace yoke also visible. Bodice is completely covered in floral silk floss embroidery, trimmed with metallic lace, studded with rhinestones, and beaded. Bodice has a high waist, and short sleeves of Brussels lace. The skirt is embroidered at the center front in similar way as the bodice. Attached train extends from bottom back edge of the skirt; train has squared hem. Self-fabric petticoat with pleated ruffle at hem.
Materials/Techniques silk (fiber)
There are other objects that Bertha wore on display at the Chicago History Museum.


The Palmer House Hilton

The Palmer House Hilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


English: Exterior view showing the ladies entr...

English: Exterior view showing the ladies entrance to the Palmer House Hotel at 150 South State Street in the Chicago Loop area, Chicago, Illinois, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)








Chicago's Palmer House Lobby


English: Photo of Potter Palmer I (1826-1902)

Image via Wikipedia

Here are some interesting events for you to enjoy at the Palmer House:

The Palmer House Hilton

Image via Wikipedia



The Palmer House Hilton is proud to be 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.

History is Hott at the Palmer House Hilton!!

Palmer House Hilton’s “History is Hott” Tour is the winner of the 2013 Illinois Meetings & Event’s Editor’s Pick for the Best City Tour and is led by Palmer House’s history extraordinaire Ken Price, named best historian of 2014 by Historic Hotels of America.

This interactive luncheon and tour series is presented by Director of Public Relations, Ken Price, a 32-year resident historian of the property. The historic luncheon and tour begins at 12:00 p.m. with lunch inside Lockwood, the property’s modern American fare restaurant. A prix-fixe menu will be prepared featuring a starter and entrée along with the hotel’s world-famous brownie serving as the ideal accompaniment for the tour afterwards. Guests will have the opportunity to meet and mingle with each other prior to the tour.

After lunch, guests will meet Ken at 1:30pm for approximately 1 hour and 30 minute presentation in the historic hotel’s museum. Following the lecture Ken will navigate guests through the hotel highlighting the art-deco lobby, grand ballrooms, and vintage artifacts showcased throughout the famed property. These sites aren’t typically open to the public, so guests on the tour will have an exclusive insider view. Please allow yourself approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes for this portion of the tour. At the conclusion of the tour participants will each receive a treat that embodies the true spirit of the hotel.

Lunch and tour reservations are $65 per person* and need to be made 24-hours in advance. Tour is also available without lunch at $40 per person*. Tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday and are subject to availability.”

*Does not include tax and gratuity

For individual History is Hott Reservations call 312.917.3404.

For group pricing please contact Allison Watson at 312.917.1764 or

History is Hott Prix Fixe Menu

 You can also indulge in Afternoon Tea at the Palmer House Hilton daily from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m., afternoon tea service is available. “Enjoy a classic teatime in the famed lobby of The Palmer House Hilton. Prices are set at $40 for adults and $20 for children and will include an assortment of teas, gourmet sandwiches, pastries and petit fours.”

Afternoon Tea Menu

Kid’s Afternoon Tea Menu

Reservations are required and must be made 24 hours in advance. Reserve by calling (312) 917-3404.

Chicago's Palmer House Lobby

Related articles




Leave a comment

Filed under Italy Travel Guides

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.