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Chicago Hotel Storied with Historic Treasures

September 16, 2010

A Loop hotel is now a historic Chicago landmark, though it had already been one for decades.

The Palmer House Hilton is located at 17 East Monroe.

The Palmer House Hotel celebrated its 140th anniversary this week with a huge party during which a plaque designating the property an official landmark was unveiled.

The outdoor ceremony, hosted by Chicago’s Bill Kurtis, was attended by many local officials including Mayor Daley, Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly. Potter Palmer IV was there, as was a 50-piece marching band from Carl Sandburg High School, a grand cake that resembled the hotel and several hundred celebrants.

How great would it have been to be a fly on the wall of that hotel throughout its existence?

Since that would be impossible, considering flies don’t live more than a month, I’ll try to fill you in on some of the highlights of the hotel’s past 140 years.

When they were married in 1871, Bertha was 21 and Potter was 44. They are older in this picture.

*The first Palmer House opened in 1871 as a wedding gift from real estate developer Palmer Potter to his bride, Bertha Honoré, whom Potter met through his former business partner, Marshall Field. The hotel was built as the tallest building in the city.

*It burned down 13 days later in the Great Chicago Fire.

*A new, $13 million hotel was opened in 1875. It was advertised as the “only thoroughly fireproof hotel in the United States.”

*That building was replaced in 1925 by famed Chicago architects Holabird & Roche with the grand, 25-story property that stands there today. It was touted as the largest hotel in the world at the time. It is now the second largest hotel in Chicago.

*Conrad Hilton bought the hotel from the Palmer family in 1945 for $20 million. Thor Equities acquired the Palmer House Hilton in 2005 for $230 million.

*The brownie was invented in the pastry kitchen of the Palmer House Hotel in 1893. Each guest at this week’s 140th celebration got a brownie to take home.

*The Palmer House Hotel was the first building in Chicago to install electric lights and telephone systems.

*The hotel housed the city’s first elevators.

*The Big Ten conference was formed at the Palmer House in 1896.

*The Leo Burnett Advertising Company was formed in 1935 in a suite of rooms at the hotel.

The famous Empire Room.

*Those who have performed in the hotel’s famed Empire Room include Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Ethel Merman, Sid Caeser, Eartha Kitt, Danny Kaye, Sophie Tucker, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante, Carol Channing, Phyllis Diller, Betty White, Bob Fosse, George Burns, Milton Berle, Bob Newhart and Liberace, who was hired to play cocktail music while guests were being seated.

*Every U.S. President from Ulysses S. Grant to George W. Bush has stayed there, and some, like Barack Obama, campaigned in the hotel’s ballrooms.

*The hotel has had its share of famous visitors including Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Prince Charles, the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II.

*Today, the Palmer House Hilton is the longest continually operating hotel in North America.

*It is one of the 26 surviving grand hotels in the country, and it underwent a $170 million restoration in 2009.

*In 2006, it was named a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for maintaining its historic integrity, agriculture and timeless ambiance.

*It is the official hotel of SoxFest, the annual Chicago White Sox fan convention.

The grand lobby of the Palmer House Chicago.

When you walk inside:

*The lobby’s ceiling is muraled with 21 individual paintings depicting Greek mythology that were painted by French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal in the 1920s.

*Each 18-piece place setting of Palmer China is said to be trimmed in gold and worth an estimated $10,000.

*The hotel is filled with art, including original pieces from Monet and Degas.

*The two bronze Winged Angel statues that guard the stairway to the famous Empire Room were created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The lobby’s 24-karat gold chandeliers are also Tiffany, as are brass door handles, wood hinges and hardware throughout the hotel.

One portion of the Penthouse: Can you see Lake Michigan through the windows?

*All 1,639 guestrooms feature antique-style decor, marble bathrooms and new, Serenity Dreams beds with plush-top mattresses. There are deluxe suites with dining areas; executive rooms with private check-in, private elevators and a private concierge; and one 3,700-square-foot penthouse.

*The hotel includes A 10,000-square-foot health club and is one of the few Chicago hotels that has an indoor pool.

*It’s pet friendly.

*And now, it’s a historic Chicago landmark.

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Tracey

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