Return of a Grand Dame

After a multimillion-dollar renovation that removed decades of grime, Chicago’s Historic Palmer House sparkles once again

The interior of the ?Palmer House

Credit: ?Matthew Gilson

I like hotels with ghosts. I like the Monteleone in New Orleans, which is surely haunted by the Sazerac-sipping spirit of Tennessee Williams. I like the Otesaga in Cooperstown, N.Y., where I can almost see Ty Cobb cheating Babe Ruth in a game of hearts. I like the Driskill in Austin, Tex., where I half-expect to find Lyndon B. Johnson tilting on a barstool and twisting somebody's arm about something. I like these old hotels and countless others because, when I go on a trip, I like to travel across time and not merely miles.

That's why, when a historic hotel gets renovated, I get nervous. How much will be lost? Hotels are not like houses, after all. They get trampled by a massive flow of human traffic. They require frequent renovation and modernization to keep up with the competition. They have to make money, or they die. In many ways, maintaining the essence of an old hotel is more difficult than maintaining a home or a cathedral or a museum. How much of the past is going to be stripped away? How much of the story will be painted over?

When renovation began in November 2006 on the Palmer House Hilton, which is just a few miles from my home in Chicago, I was especially apprehensive. I've always thought of the Palmer House as one of the city's neglected jewels, and I've been disappointed in recent years as it lost much of its shine. The elegant Drake Hotel sits atop Michigan Avenue, visible for miles to anyone heading south on Lake Shore Drive toward the beach. The Hilton Chicago, formerly the Stevens, presents its face proudly for everyone in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue to see. But the Palmer House sits deep in the heart of the Loop, with El tracks running down one side, and traffic and commerce all around. More than any hotel, this one seems to beat like a heart within the body of its city. Yet when I closed my eyes and tried to picture the facade, my mind drew a blank, even though I walked past it constantly. Each time I dropped by the hotel for lunch or an after-work drink, I found that I'd made it inside without noticing anything on the exterior but the suspended metal canopy. Even its high-ceilinged lobby struck me as drab and musty, more train station than parlor.  

Joe Sitt, chief executive of Thor Equities LLC, which acquired the hotel in 2005, promised a multi-million dollar renovation and the addition of a retail center. But preservationists expressed doubts. Sitt's plans to develop a large swath of New York's Coney Island into a huge entertainment complex, and his firm's demolition of a historic sugar refinery in Brooklyn, generated substantial negative press. I worried, What would preservation at the Palmer House look like?

The sheer quality of the restoration efforts eased my concerns. "We knew we had a duty to honor the architectural details of the Palmer House," Sitt says. He cites the decision to painstakingly restore architectural elements long overlooked or forgotten by hotel visitors and staff. "I had a strong passion to make the preservation path work, and I'm very proud to say it has."

Potter Palmer built the first Palmer House in 1871, at the corner of State and Quincy, as a wedding gift for his wife, Bertha. Thirteen days after it opened, the Great Chicago Fire reduced it to ash. Less than a year later, he tried again, across the street, trumpeting his new structure as the first fireproof hotel in the world. It instantly became one of the city's most glamorous gathering places. By 1923, the hotel was showing its age, and Potter Palmer Jr. decided to rebuild on the same spot. Half the hotel remained occupied and fully staffed during the renovation; the other half was razed and rebuilt. As a result, the Palmer House today calls itself the oldest continuously operated hotel in the country.

The Palmer House endured the Depression. Even more impressively, it endured the 1960s and 1970s, when State Street lost its glamour and the city's Loop seemed to shut its doors and turn out its lights after dark. Slowly, though, in the mid-1990s, that great street came back, and so did much of Chicago's downtown business district. Theaters were restored and reopened. Shops sprang to life. And when Millennium Park opened on the lakefront in 2004, the rebound was complete. Suddenly, the Palmer House needed to catch up or be left behind.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" says Ken Price, the hotel's director of public relations and unofficial historian, an employee of 25 years. "I come in here, and to me, it's like a church." He is talking about the Empire Room, where bronze statues by Tiffany greet you at the stairs, and doors open to reveal a dazzling room done in shimmering gold and black. The Empire Room, once one of the hottest night spots in the city, was renovated shortly before Thor bought the property. Decades of nicotine were stripped from the chandeliers and mirrors. Friezes were regilded in 24-karat gold. Windows shuttered in 1933 were thrown open again, revealing hand-forged door fittings made by Tiffany craftsmen to match the statues near the stairs. The ghosts of the men and women who performed on the stage here—Maurice Chevalier, Jack Benny, Carol Channing—can now come and go as they please.

This is an excerpt from the print edition of Preservation.

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