The seeds of my love affair with Chicago’s Palmer House were sown back in 1969. An anxious and giddy teenager, I was thrilled that the famous hotel had been chosen for my senior prom. I vividly recall stepping into the opulent lobby, with its Tiffany 24-karat gold chandeliers, majestic “Winged Angels” (the largest bronze statues ever made by Tiffany), and its magnificent domed ceiling painted with Grecian frescoes. I was the ugly duckling, suddenly become a lovely swan. I was Cinderella. My handsome, tux-clad prince offered his arm as we promenaded through the glittering lobby and up the staircase to the ballroom, where we danced the night away.
Although I no longer live in Chicago, I recently attended a conference in the Loop and spent a few extra days in the city. Memories came flooding back one afternoon when I turned a corner and found myself in front of the Palmer House. I stood on the sidewalk, debating whether or not to go inside. Perhaps it would be best to remember it the way it was on that fairy-tale night. But the temptation to revisit my past was too strong; I stepped through the front entrance and mounted the stairs to the lobby. And just like that I was 17 again, rendered speechless by the exquisite surroundings.
The original Palmer House, a wedding gift from business magnate Potter Palmer to his socialite wife Bertha, opened its doors in 1871. Thirteen days later it burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. Undaunted, Palmer rebuilt the hotel across the street from the original site, reopening in 1873. Almost immediately, it became the favored spot of the city’s cultural elite and arts community. Famous guests of the hotel have included nearly every U.S. President, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill, and Prince Charles, while the hotel’s famed Empire Room Supper Club, which operated until 1973, featured entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, and Louis Armstrong.
The Palmer House Hilton is the nation’s oldest hotel in continual operation and one of twenty-six surviving grand hotels in the United States. In 2006, the current owners of the property undertook a $170 million renovation that included an exterior face lift, the addition of a gourmet restaurant aside the lobby, and construction of an 18,000 sq. ft. on-site fitness center and full-service spa. A new social space – the Honoré Ballroom – was added to the hotel’s existing Empire Room, Red Lacquer Room, and Grand Ballroom. Most of the 1,639 rooms were updated with a contemporary design, pulling inspiration from the French Baroque style found throughout the hotel, and $1.7 million was allocated to redesign the Palmer House’s new penthouse, which was just named one of the top 100 suites in the world by Elite Traveler Magazine.
The decor, history, and unparalleled customer pampering by the staff are reasons enough to stay at the Palmer House, but its location is an added bonus. Just blocks from Magnificent Mile, the downtown theater district, and right around the corner from Millennium and Grant Parks, the hotel is perfectly situated for walking tours of Chicago. And at the end of the day guests can sink into luxurious armchairs in the lobby, order exotic cocktails from the lobby bar, and drink in what the Saturday Evening Post dubbed one of the “Grandest Entrances In America.”
Article by Barbara Weibel at Hole In The Donut Travels