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.

Do you remember the Edgewater Beach Hotel?

My friends father was a stagehand for a few years during the 1940’s. He helped take the stage curtain down to replace, clean and helped with lights for live shows. His father was a kid then and would sometimes also help in the radio booth since a radio program did evolve from the hotel.  It was a strictly formal environment even though he had to get his hands dirty sometimes. He met Zsa, Zsa Gabor, Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone as well as many other headliners.  The dining room, alone, could seat over one thousand people. He worked there for about four years. My parents also stayed their for relaxation to celebrate the new year and to see my mother’s favorite, the Tommy Dorsey Band. As WTTW tells us, it was a Chicago landmark — a lavish pink resort that stood on the lakefront at Sheridan near Foster for almost half a century. The Edgewater Beach Hotel has been closed since 1967, yet the memories linger on.

The hotel was huge and besides the hotel’s own radio station, a precursor to WGN with the call letters WEBH, there was a heliport, a print shop and a movie theater. It opened  on June 3, 1916 and anyone who was a star sang and danced at the hotel.  In the winter months, the bands played in the Marine Dining Room and, in the summer months, outdoors on the marble-tiled Beach Walk. Many parents of friends celebrated their proms or attended wedding receptions. Many visited taking romantic walks on the massive private beach.

According to Wikipedia, The 1951–54 extension of Lake Shore Drive from Foster Avenue to Hollywood Avenue reduced direct access to Lake Michigan, leading to a reduction in business. After the hotel was cut off from the lake by the new drive, a swimming pool was added in 1953. In 1960, in order to compete with popular downtown hotels, the Edgewater Beach underwent a $900,000 renovation which included the installation of air conditioning. King gave a major address at the conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation at the hotel. The hotel closed in 1967 due to financial reasons. Demolition of the hotel complex began in the fall of 1969 and was completed by 1971.

However, a portion of the complex is still available to visit. In 1994, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and also belongs in the Bryn Mawr Historic District. Currently known as the Edgewater Beach apartments, there is still a lush foyer, a small library, a cafe, private gardens and a indoor pool.

 

 

Michigan Avenue Chicago: Through the decades

The first places that come to my mind when I think about Michigan Avenue in Chicago that decorate my childhood was The Art Institute and the Grant Park parking garage below street level.

Most of all, I remember driving from Michigan Ave to Lake Shore Drive and back again several times when a handmade sign was placed in front of the ramp to let travelers know that the garage was full. But they must have been pretty good about monitoring customers and that sign. It would always open for us to park if we circled patiently.

I would glance at the Prudential building as we would circle…For me the highest on the 41 floor where we visited the observation deck many times. But then in 1970, the John Hancock opened and at 100 stories high, it was the tallest building in the world.  Now, of course, Sears or should I say Willis in 1973 was built 110 stories surpassing the World Trade Center buildings in New York, destroyed on 9/11.

A trip to the Art Institute during my younger years would have me consumed by the most remarkable Thorne Miniature Rooms, sixty eight glass boxes in walls displaying European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930s. Constructed on a scale of one inch to one foot,  rooms were designed by Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago and constructed between 1932-1940. The Art Institute had the best museum shop that included a wonderful collection of art books, wall decor, special jewelry and charms. Now they have an expanded and you can order right now online.

During the 1960’s/1970’s, it was the historic Blackstone hotel on Michigan where I attended a young friends Bar Mitzvah in one of its banquet rooms. The Blackstone Hotel has been dubbed “The Hotel of Presidents”. It was once considered one of Chicago’s finest luxury hotels, and a dozen 20th-century U.S. presidents have stayed at the hotel. Today, the Blackstone is still a stunning hotel example with beautifully decorated rooms and marble bath facilities.

I still remember The Conrad Hilton on Michigan Ave in the early 1970’s where I attended an overnight convention now called Hilton Chicago. Hilton Chicago is still an elegant choice to stay in as it was for me as a young girl but today the Hilton has one of the largest fitness centers along with cellular phone rental and complimentary WiFi for Hilton Honors members.

Now known as the Magnificent mile,  north Michigan ave  boosted the construction of Water Tower Place in 1975 but in the 1960’s it was Saks Fifth Avenue that was probably the tallest most prominent shop.  900 North Michigan Shops is a visually stunning and highly desired shopping destination that resides on the north end of Chicago’s vibrant Magnificent Mile.

The exclusive tenant mix offers shoppers an unparalleled experience of more than 70 luxury lifestyle shops featuring Bloomingdale’s and a strong line-up of national brands perfectly complemented by an eclectic collection of unique boutiques and a diverse selection of delectable dining options.

Michigan Avenue extends south into near south side of Chicago and beyond – past what was once the notorious Levee District,  the historic Second Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1874 and still offers services today.

The former home of the legendary Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan. In 1993, Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, purchased the building which was then renovated and re-opened in September 1997 with a dedication ceremony. It is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.

The Lexington Hotel was a ten-story hotel in Chicago at 2135 S. Michigan Avenue that was built in 1892, once a home to Al Capone. The hotel was closed in 1980 and destroyed despite being a landmark.