The Legendary Story of the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago

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.

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One of the city’s most famous hotels has been a Chicago mainstay since the 1870s. There have been three Palmer House Hotels at the corner of State and Monroe Streets in Chicago, Illinois.

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The story of downtown Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton is imbued with a fairy 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.

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Unfortunately, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the first Palmer House Hotel, it burned down just thirteen days after the grand opening on October 9, 1871 in the Great Chicago Fire. It quickly rose again from the ashes. Three decades later, it was replaced by the 24-story hotel that stands on the same spot today. The present Palmer House was the largest hotel in the world when completed in 1927, designed by Holabird & Roche. It features a grand gilded lobby designed in the French-Empire style with a formal staircase and Tiffany light fixtures, as well as several unique and colorful ballrooms. In 1945, the hotel was sold to Conrad Hilton, and it remains a Hilton Hotel to this day. A recent, thorough renovation restored this legendary landmark to its original grandeur.

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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: 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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bertha Palmer

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.

Interior of Mrs. Potter (Bertha Honoré) Palmer’s picture gallery in her home at 1350 North Lake Shore Drive. Art Institute of Chicago Archives.

Interior of Mrs. Potter (Bertha Honoré) Palmer’s picture gallery in her home at 1350 North Lake Shore Drive. Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.

Online Scholarly Catalogue | Art Institute of Chicago

Interior of Mrs. Potter (Bertha Honoré) Palmer’s home at 1350 North Lake Shore Drive. Displayed works include (1) Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926). Stack of Wheat, 1890/91. Oil on canvas; 65.8 × 92.3 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of the Searle Family Trust; Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment; through prior acquisitions of the Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson and Potter Palmer collections; through prior bequest of Jerome Friedman, 1983.29. See cat. 31 in Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mrs. Palmer bequeathed this painting to her sons, and it remained in the Palmer family collection until it entered the museum in 1983.

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. Mrs. Palmer purchased her first Impressionist work, On the Stage by Edgar Degas, for $500.

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Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). On the Stage, 1876–77. Pastel and essence over monotype on cream laid paper, laid down on board; 59.2 × 42.8 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.423.

In her bedroom, she displayed her favorite painting, Renoir’s Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando, which she loved so much that she always took it with her when she traveled in Europe.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919). Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879. Oil on canvas; 131.2 × 99.2 cm (51 1/2 × 39 1/16 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.440.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919). Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879. Oil on canvas; 131.2 × 99.2 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.440. See cat. 9 in Renoir Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Monet Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago from the Collection of Potter and Bertha Honoré Palmer

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (cat. 14)

Bordighera (cat. 20)

The Departure of the Boats, Étretat (cat. 23)

The Petite Creuse River (cat. 25)

Stacks of Wheat (Sunset, Snow Effect) (cat. 29)

Matin à Éretat (Morning at Étretat)23

Sous les peupliers (Under the Poplars)24

Renoir Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago from the Collection of Potter and Bertha Honoré Palmer

Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rowers’ Lunch) (cat. 2)

Seascape (cat. 8)

Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg) (cat. 9)

Near the Lake (cat. 10)

Pissarro Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago from the Collection of Potter and Bertha Honoré Palmer

Young Peasant Having Her Coffee (cat. 10)

Woman and Child at the Well (cat. 11)

The Place du Havre, Paris (cat. 13)

Vue sur le village d’Osny (View of the Village of Osny)25

Today, the museum is most famous for its collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, widely regarded as one of the finest collections outside of France. Highlights include more than 30 paintings by Claude Monet, including six of his Haystacks and a number of Water Lilies. Also in the collection are important works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir such as Two Sisters (On the Terrace), and Gustave Caillebotte‘s Paris Street; Rainy Day. Post-Impressionist works include Paul Cézanne‘s The Basket of Apples, and Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair. At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is another highlight. The pointillist masterpiece, which also inspired a musical and was famously featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day OffGeorges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte—1884, is prominently displayed. Additionally, Henri Matisse‘s Bathers by a River, is an important example of his work. Highlights of non-French paintings of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection include Vincent van Gogh‘s Bedroom in Arles and Self-portrait, 1887.

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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. Bertha Palmer was the only American woman to be sculpted by Rodin. It’s at the Rodin Museum in Paris.Image result for bertha palmer sculpture by rodin


Palmer Castle Chicago

Palmer Castle Chicago on Lake Shore Drive (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.








Chicago's Palmer House Lobby


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

Potter Palmer

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



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.

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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.
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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

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