Palmer House®, A Hilton Hotel
The history of Palmer House®, A Hilton Hotel begins as a true love story. Known for his significant role in the development of Chicago's celebrated State Street, prominent businessman Potter Palmer was introduced to socialite and philanthropist Bertha Honore by former partner Marshall Field. Both strong-willed and respected leaders of Chicago society, Potter and Bertha ignited a romance that led to an eventual engagement and one of the most extravagant wedding gifts of all time: The Palmer House.
Built on the corner of State and Monroe streets in Chicago's notable Loop District, the Palmer opened on September 26, 1871. Unfortunately, just 13 days after it's grand opening, the hotel fell victim to the Great Chicago Fire and burned down. Determined to rebuild his grand hotel, Potter immediately began reconstruction with a $1.7 million signature loan—believed to be the largest individual loan at that time.
On November 8, 1873, The Palmer House reopened, marking what would become the longest continually operating hotel in America. Designed by architect John M. Van Osdel, the new Palmer House was known for its sumptuous accommodations and boasting every luxury amenity of the day; the floor of the Palmer House’s barber shop was said to have been tiled in silver dollars. For fifty years, the hotel was a mecca for Chicago society and visiting luminaries such as Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde.
After befriending Claude Monet, Bertha began decorating the Palmer House with paintings and other French artwork, eventually accumulating the largest collection of impressionist art outside of France. The Palmer House was adorned with garnet-draped chandeliers, Louis Comfort Tiffany masterpieces, and a breathtaking ceiling fresco by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal. The fresco was described by columnist George Will as “a wonderful protest of romance against the everydayness of life.”
By the 1920s, the decision was made to erect a new 25-story building. Between 1924 and 1927, the Palmer House was rebuilt on the same site but in stages, so not to lose a single day of operations. The hotel was purchased in 1945 by legendary hotelier Conrad Hilton and it remains one of the company’s flagship properties.
Throughout the decade, the Palmer House experienced various renovations and restoration projects to optimize luxuries and conveniences while preserving its rich, significant heritage. Today, the Palmer House remains an iconic fixture of Chicago and it's Loop District as the vibrant city continually expands and evolves.
As President of the Board of Lady Managers for the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago, Bertha Palmer charged the pastry chef at the time to create something different. She requested a confection that was smaller than a cake, while still retaining cake-like qualities. The result: the brownie. The first brownies featured an apricot glaze and walnuts, and they are still being made at the hotel according to the original recipe.
Historic Room Rate
In celebration of its long history, Conrad Hilton began a unique tradition whereby a guest who can produce an original receipt at least 50 years old will have that same rate present day. Palmer House spokesman and historian Ken Price said the deal is honored about every two years. The key, he said, is producing a receipt that Palmer House can keep for its archives.
Guest Historian Series
Read more about the history of the Palmer House®, A Hilton Hotel, as told by Historic Hotels of America 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year Stanley Turkel. Excerpt is taken from his latest book Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013).