The Palmer House Hilton Review - The Grande Dame of Chicago Hotels

Palmer House Hotel in the 1870's

The Palmer House Hilton is North America's longest continually operating hotel. It is 'the Chicago hotel the world knows best,' and is in the heart of Chicago, so a walk to Grant Park, the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the old Shubert Theatre, Carsons, Macy's, the Chagall mosaic, shops, and various restaurants is a lovely experience. Though surrounded by the excitement of the city, there was a feeling of relaxation and ease because all points of interest were five minutes away by foot, cab or bus. The grandeur and graciousness of the hotel was so pleasant and positive that I departed renewed and refreshed. My two-day stay felt like a week away. Everywhere, the staff was observant, friendly and very helpful. I experienced the charm of historic Chicago while enjoying up to the minute facilities that include a state of the art health club, a lovely pool, modern bathrooms, a pillow mattress while encircled by ornate brass handled doors, elegant wood paneling, elaborately designed carpeting, magnificent fixtures, and decorated ceilings.

Bertha Honore Potter and Potter Palmer

The Palmer House history is like a novel. In 1852, 26 year-old Potter Palmer arrived in Chicago. He found a city of about forty eight thousand people and played a major part in shaping what would become a city of more than three million by the end of the twentieth century. In 1866, Palmer sold a dry goods store on State Street to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. It was Marshall Field who introduced Palmer Potter to his future bride, Bertha Honore. The Palmer House opened on September 26,1871, housed 255 guests, and was a wedding present for Bertha Honore Palmer. Thirteen days later, in the moments before the Great Chicago Fire reached the hotel, Chicago's pioneer architect, John Mills Van Osdel, carried all his vital records and plans related to the Palmer House, to the hotel's basement, dug a pit and covered it with two feet of sand and damp clay. This method both preserved the documents and created a new kind of fireproofing.

Twenty one murals were comissioned for the ceiling

The Palmer House Hilton is among 26 grand palace hotels remaining in America today. Much of the design scheme reflects the taste of Bertha Honore Palmer. Her influence in Chicago continues to be felt. She introduced French impressionism to America after meeting Claude Monet and recognizing his talent. The 200 French impressionist paintings she collected for her home were ultimately bequeathed to Chicago's Art Institute and created the foundation of the Museum's French Impressionist Collection.

The ceiling murals were restored by Lido Leppi

Around the turn of the twentieth century Bertha Palmer commissioned twenty-one ceiling paintings for the lobby of the Palmer House. To celebrate the Palmer House's 125th anniversary in 1996, artist Lido Leppi (who helped to restore the Sistine Chapel) was engaged to repair and refresh these paintings.

The grand Empire Room was added in 1933

In October 2006, National Trust Historic Hotels of America added nine new members, including the Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, stating, 'Located in Chicago's famed Loop, the current Palmer House Hilton is the third version of the hotel. The original structure, built by Potter Palmer as a wedding present for his bride, was thirteen days old when it burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Palmer immediately rebuilt the property across the street, sparing no expense and reportedly tiling the floor of the hotel's barber- shop with silver dollars. By 1925, the thriving metropolis was ready for an expanded luxury hotel. The modern Palmer House was built over a three-year period in successive stages so not a single day of operation was lost. At the time it opened, it was billed as the largest hotel in the world (1,639 rooms and suites; from $159).' Opening in 1873, the Palmer House advertised itself as the 'only thoroughly fireproof hotel in the United States.' It was also the first hotel to feature guest elevators, electricity throughout the hotel, and telephones in each room. Conrad N Hilton purchased this hotel in 1945.

The Empire Room's famous chandelier

In August 2005, Joe McCann, president of Optimum Hotel Brokerage negotiated the sale of the 1,639 room Palmer House Hilton from the Hilton Hotels Corporation (who will retain the hotel's management rights) to Thor Properties, stating, 'The Palmer House is an historic, trophy asset located in the heart of one of America's most dynamic cities. From its Renaissance-inspired lobby to the property's magnificent and opulent ballrooms, the Palmer House is truly an irreplaceable asset.' Thor properties plans to invest over $100 Million to refurbish the hotel's guest rooms and public areas, and redesign the property's large retail and office components. The hotels future plans include; a full day spa, a completely redesigned street arcade, remodeling 1.000 rooms and 54 new suites and a 4,000 square foot penthouse suite. The plan also includes returning the Palmer House Hilton to its former grandeur.

Our room was inviting and comfortable

Chicago from our window

We enjoyed lunch at the current hotel restaurant, The Big Downtown. We went to see the Empire Room. This room opened in 1933 coinciding with the World's Fair and is known as 'the most beautiful public space in Chicago' featuring chandeliers purchased by Palmer Potter in France. They were removed for remodeling in 1954, then sold to a junk dealer for $400 each and repurchased at the cost of $4,000 per lamp five years later because patrons wanted them back. Though this room is currently used for meetings and private events, its history includes performances by Carol Channing, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Maurice Chevalier, and Jack Benny.

Morning buffet at the Big Downtown Restaurant

My friend, Kristine currently a California resident, remembers that when she was three years old, she and her grandparents took a train from Pocatello, Idaho to Chicago, Illinois so they could stay at the Palmer House. Even after more than a half century, she remembers the excitement of going there and the elegance of the Palmer House.

The fitness center was upgraded recently

A few months ago, my husband and I had some extra time before the start of a Chicago Symphony concert and chose to enjoy the Palmer House Hilton lobby. We chatted with visitors from Australia attending a conference, and then noticed children and adults dressed in tunics. We asked about their dress. They were attending a traditional Indian wedding in the Empire Room. Hadn't we seen a horse go through the lobby a few minutes earlier carrying the groom to his bride? A truly amazing lobby!

Millennium Park is a block away

The Palmer House Hilton is a city within a city, offering comfort, convenience, and service by retaining the beauty of tradition while adapting to today's modern techniques. All rooms include T.V., coffeemakers, hairdryers, high-speed internet -access, irons, ironing boards, telephones, voicemail, and dataports.

Reservations can be made at , by calling 1-800-HILTONS, the hotel directly at 312-726-7500 or check

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