Memories of the Palmer House

It was always the lobby as a child growing up in Chicago looking at the intricate, lavish ceiling, the amazing gold chandeliers as well as candles throughout. I could not speak, my eyes wide, staring at the beauty. It was always the ornate lobby chosen as an adult for meeting a friend for dinner or drinks. The lobby is actually known throughout the world; one of the most elaborate of all time. A hotel almost 150 years old, built only thirteen days before the Chicago Fire, and re-built by Potter Palmer. In the late 1930’s, my father talked of seeing Frank Sinatra sing in the Empire Dining Room. A friend of Mom’s got to see The Letterman in 1973. Now, the Palmer House may close like so many hotels throughout the county.

According to sources, The Palmer House was the first hotel in Chicago with electric lights and elevators. Telephones were in all the guest rooms. It opened on September 26, 1871, but burned down just 13 days later on October 9, 1871 in the Great Chicago Fire. It was initially a wedding present from Potter to his wife. Potter Palmer secured a little over a million dollar loan and rebuilt it again, completing it in 1875. Many presidents stayed there at the time such as Ulysses S Grant, Grover Cleveland as well as well-known writers, Oscar Wilde and Frank Baum. It was re-built again in the 1920’s on the same site to include more rooms and facilities.

In December 1945, Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House for $20 million and it was thereafter known as The Palmer House Hilton. In 2005, Hilton sold the property to Thor Equities, but it remains part of the Hilton chain. The hotel was completely restored beginning in 2007-2009 while spending 170 million. The Palmer House Hilton currently has 1,639 guest rooms.

The hotel has been closed since March because of Covid and may not re-open. The reports claim that the debt owed may not be able to be paid. According to the Chicago Tribune, the owner has been sued for an unpaid loan resulting in 338 million dollars. Banquets, weddings, and conventions have been the hotels livelihood in the last few years.

After a massive Chicago fire, that destroyed most of the city, the hotel was re-built and survived decades and decades later. I don’t know if violent protests and a virus is going to save it this time around.

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