Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Apple #409: The Palmer House

This past weekend I was in Chicago attending a wedding. I stayed in the Palmer House.

Like so many places in Chicago, the outside of it doesn't look like much, but the inside is a very different story. Here is more or less what the lobby looks like:

The Palmer House lobby. What's strange about this photo is that it's empty of people. I never saw this room when it wasn't bustling with people -- sitting in the chairs or at the bar, waiting beside luggage for someone else to join them, walking through with luggage or without. It's busy and lively and yet still civil and beautiful.
(Photo from the Pickled Tongue)

The summary: in the end, with tax and parking, it cost me $250 per night to stay here. Some guests have found the rooms to be too small and while I saw their point, that didn't bother me. I was very comfortable. It is possible that if I didn't have a sentimental attachment to the place, I might not have thought the price was worth it. As it was though, I found the whole experience to be enjoyable and if I could, I'd do it again.

The full story

Long ago in my former life as a corporate librarian, I worked a few blocks east of the Palmer House in the financial district. Coming and going off the train I would see people getting out of cars and taxis and going into the Palmer House. To me, having just come from my apartment where I slept on my futon on the floor and had eaten nothing but a few cheese & tomato sandwiches in the past three days, the Palmer House was a place to regard with awe. I said the name to myself in something of an awed whisper, Ooh, the Palmer House. So staying at that hotel this past weekend represented the fulfillment of some long-held desire.

Someone's blurry photo of one of the entrances to the Palmer House, this one on Wabash.
(Photo from IgoUgo)

Not that I'm suddenly enormously wealthy or anything like that. The groom, through the company where he works, was able to get a slightly reduced rate for those attending his wedding. I realized I might never have such a chance again, so I bit that bullet of opportunity and made my reservations.

Ooh, the Palmer House

I'm not the only one who has a sentimental attachment to this hotel. That's because of its history. Here are a few brief facts to put this place in perspective:

  • The hotel was originally built by Potter Palmer, the businessman who developed most of the shops on State Street, in 1871 as a gift for his wife, Bertha HonorĂ©.

Potter Palmer, the Chicago businessman who built the Palmer House hotel.
(Photo from Absolute Astronomy)

Bertha Honoré, for whom the Palmer House was built.
(Photo from Absolute Astronomy)

  • Bertha, by the way, was a socialite, philanthropist, and art collector. After meeting Claude Monet, she purchased 200 Impressionist paintings, which she later bequeathed to the Chicago Institute of Art.
  • Thirteen days after it opened, the hotel burned in the Great Chicago Fire.
  • Not to be dissuaded, Palmer got a loan for $1.7 million -- remember, this is 1871 -- and rebuilt the whole thing even more grandly than before. It was made primarily of iron and brick and was touted as the world's first fire-proof hotel.
  • The hotel re-opened in 1873, though the reconstruction took an two additional years. The hotel has remained open ever since.
  • The famous brass peacock front doors were designed by Tiffany.

Brass peacock front doors on the Monroe Street entrance of the Palmer House.
(Photo by Galen Frysinger)

  • The two 24-karat gold chandeliers in the lobby were also designed by Tiffany. So were the brass door handles, hinges, and hardware still in use throughout the hotel.
  • By the 1920s it was clear that the 7-story hotel simply wasn't big enough. So the Palmer Estate (Potter had died in 1902) decided to rebuild again. This time, they made it 25 stories, they completed the reconstruction in only two years, and they kept the hotel in operation the entire time.
  • It was renovated again in 2007. Redoing the 3,700 square foot penthouse alone cost $1.5 million. One of the artists who helped restore the Sistine Chapel was hired to clean and preserve the lobby ceiling, which includes 21 murals of Greek mythological figures.
  • The hotel has changed hands a few times. As of 2005, Thor Equities owns the hotel but it retains the Hilton name.
  • The Palmer House Hilton currently rings in at 1.7 million square feet, with 1,639 rooms, including 44 deluxe suites and the penthouse. These stats make the Palmer House Hilton the second largest hotel in the city of Chicago. (The two-tower Hyatt Regency on East Wacker is the largest.)
  • Famous people who have stayed in the Palmer House:
  1. Ulysses S. Grant
  2. William Jennings Bryan
  3. William McKinley
  4. Mark Twain
  5. Charles Dickens
  6. Oscar Wilde
  7. Sarah Bernhardt
  8. Buffalo Bill
  9. Prince Charles
  10. Nearly every US President
  11. Barack Obama
  • Entertainers who have played the Empire Room, which no longer hosts shows but is available for private meetings and weddings:
  1. Frank Sinatra
  2. Judy Garland
  3. Jimmy Durante
  4. Maurice Chevalier
  5. Jerry Lewis
  6. Ella Fitzgerald
  7. Harry Belafonte
  8. Louis Armstrong
  • One last historical tidbit: the brownie was invented at the Palmer House. Bertha was asked to create a dessert for the Women's Pavilion at the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition. Working with the Palmer House chef, the two of them came up with the brownie.

My stay

I had read at various websites like Trip Advisor that quite a few people were disappointed in the size of the rooms. So when I entered mine, I was prepared. The Palmer House does offer different sizes of rooms, each one larger and more luxurious and more expensive than the last. My room had a queen size bed and was on the smaller end of the options.

Bed and desk in the room where I stayed
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

I also figured, this is in the heart of downtown. Space is going to be at a premium. So the rooms might be smaller than what most of us are used to in great, sprawling hotels, but you will be assured of a comfortable stay. And I was right.

The bed was very comfortable. Firm but with a plush top. Sometimes mattresses like that give me backaches, but this one did not. The draperies darkened the room very nicely and I slept very well.

I also read that the walls are a bit thin and it is easy to hear one's neighbors. This I found to be true, too. One day I heard a neighbor banging things around in the closet. No idea what that was about, especially since it went on for some time. Another night I heard a different neighbor watching TV for quite a while. But what disturbed my peace the most was morning-waking-up noises. Showers running, toilets flushing, that sort of thing. I prefer to sleep in. So I got a cheap pair of foam earplugs and popped them in before I went to sleep and I was fine.

There was one other noise issue that was even more of a problem. The first room they gave me on the 13th floor seemed to be away from the land of the elevators. Well, first, let me show you what's up with the elevators.

Three sets of elevators on the 15th floor of the Palmer House
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The Palmer House has 23 floors. There isn't one elevator that stops at all 23 floors but rather different elevators that serve different floors. This is a fairly common elevator situation in large buildings in Chicago. Instead of each elevator stopping at each floor and taking forever,the elevator serves only a select number of floors and shoots past the others. In the Palmer House there are three banks of elevators. The set on the left serves floors 1-8 and 13-17, the set in the middle serves floors 1-8 and 18-23, and the set on the right serves floors 1-12.

With all those floors and over a hundred rooms on each floor, those elevators are going all the time. There aren't any guest rooms located right next to this realm of elevators -- at least, there don't seem to be. You walk out of this land of elevators and turn right or left and make a little turn and then you're in a hallway of rooms. So you think you're a safe distance away from the elevators.

But the workings of the elevators are on the backside of this realm. The first room I was given was next to the backside of one of the sets of elevators. As soon as I walked into the room, I could tell it was a no-go. I could hear the workings of the gears, the stopping and starting and the motor of each of the three elevators on that side of the realm. And the stopping and starting was almost continual.

So I called down to the front desk and asked if they would give me a different room that wasn't near the elevator works. Not a problem at all, Miss Apple Lady, they said (well, they said my actual name, but you get the idea). They sent someone up with a new room key and if I had wanted, he would have carried my luggage for me to the next room. I didn't have much so that wasn't necessary. But I did appreciate that I didn't have to go all the way back down to the lobby with my luggage to get a new key and then go back up again to a new room.

As I left that room on the 13th floor for my new room on the 15th floor, I passed a set of three doors. The noises of the elevator works was very loud at that spot and it seemed obvious that those were the service access doors to the backside of the elevators.

This is what the three doors looked like:

If you're put in a room next to doors like these, you will probably want to move. Behind such doors are the workings of the elevators.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

My new room on the 15th floor was a farther distance down one of the hallways away from the elevators.

My hallway on the 15th floor. The photos on the walls are black and white stills of celebrities who have performed in the hotel's Empire Room in the past.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Door to room 15-171, where I stayed. I'm sure it will be very famous in the future and everyone will want to stay there. "Please," future guests will ask, "may I stay in the Apple Lady's room?" Bound to happen.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

I had also read online that several Palmer House guests thought that the bathrooms were much too small. And, yes, my bathroom was cozy. I had to shut the door to get in and out of the tub / shower.

But it was very attractive and everything in it was clean and new and fresh. The towels were thick and white and clean. It was well-lit, which is unusual for hotel bathrooms, and it smelled nice too.

Bathroom sink in the first room they gave me. Toilet is to the right, shower / tub is behind. The make-up mirror on the wall has a magnifying side and a regular side. Beneath the sink are some shelves where they give you the free shampoo, conditioner, soap, etc. There's also a hair dryer and room to put your own stuff, too.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Bathroom sink in the second room. See how clean and shiny it is! I also want to point out the soap dish. It's an actual dish. So many hotel sinks have a little dip in the side where you're supposed to put the soap, but the soap inevitably slides out of there and slips all over the bowl of the sink. This is a dish with little grooves in the bottom of it too, no less. Put down the soap, it stays put.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

I am a fan of baths. Showers, too, but I do enjoy a good bath. I don't have a bathtub in my current residence so I am always hopeful I'll get a relaxing bath when I stay at a hotel. I was very pleased with the bath in my room at the Palmer House.

The tub was long enough that I could lie back comfortably without my kneecaps sticking up. Those of you six footers out there would probably get chilly kneecaps, but I did not. The water heated up very quickly and had no problems staying hot long enough to fill the bath and more.

It did take quite a while to drain, though. I've noticed that about lots of hotel baths. I don't know why that is, if it's because there are so many rooms, or what. Ought to get that Apple Lady to look into that for me.

For those of you who prefer showers, I am happy to report that the shower head was very acceptable. It didn't have massage options on it, but it was big as a dessert plate and the spray was neither scouring nor wimpy but comfortable.

Shower head in a Palmer House bathroom.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The one thing about the bathroom that I had trouble getting used to was a slightly raised strip of marble on the floor of the doorway into the bathroom. I tripped over this thing four or five times before I got used to it. I could see that this could be a potential hazard for people with bifocals or for people like me who don't always look where they're going.

Tripping spot leading into and out of the bathroom
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The rest of the second room was very like the first. Same size bed, same bedclothes, same color pillows, etc.

Desk and chair. Just to the left of the phone is a little black gizmo which provides an internet connection. On the base of the lamp are some outlets, and there are more outlets under the desk. So this would be a good place to set up one's laptop, if one had such a thing and wanted to use it while staying in this hotel.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Television and chest of drawers, which face the bed. On either side of the chest of drawers are little cabinets with open shelves where you could put your stuff if you wanted to. On top of the cabinet on the left was a tray with two glasses and an ice bucket. On the backsplash of the cabinets were two outlets. The photo on the wall is of a couple boating on the Chicago River and a ferris wheel and a lovely plume of some sort of pollution coming from a nearby smokestack.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The view out the window, of other rooms in the Palmer House. You might be staying at the Palmer House, but as this view reminds you, you're still in downtown Chicago, all right.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The fact that this hotel is located downtown brings up another issue: parking. If you can avoid bringing a car into downtown Chicago, do so. The train is very handy and serves all sorts of locations relatively easily. On foot or by train, you don't have to worry about negotiating all the one way streets and figuring out where you're going while the cabs are zipping past you on all sides. But above all you don't have to worry about parking. Metered spots on the street are few and far between, and garages are pricey.

I had planned on taking the Megabus to Chicago -- an express bus which very low fares, sometimes as low as $1 each way -- but I got the pick-up location wrong and I missed the bus. So I drove. Which meant I had to park my car someplace once I got to the hotel. That would cost me beaucoups bucks but it was my fault for missing the bus.

When I pulled up out front of the Palmer House, a helpful valet told me I could have him park my car for $51, which would cover parking for 24 hours, or I could park the car myself in the garage on the next block for $36. "The only difference is the price," he told me.

He could have tried to tell me how much time I would save if I had him park my car for me or some song and dance like that, but he told me the truth up front and without hesitation. Appreciating his candor, I parked my car myself.

Another entrance to the Palmer House, this one on Monroe. The self-park garage is just up the street across Wabash, on the right.
(Photo from Cows and Graveyards)

The $36 covered 24 hours and I could come and go as often as I wanted during that 24 hours. As instructed, I took the ticket to the reception desk and they validated it for me, and the cost was charged to my room. Check-out time is 11 a.m. and the parking was good until 5 p.m. the day of check-out. That was very handy because I was able to check out of the hotel, load my luggage into my car and take care of a few more odds and ends and have lunch in Millennium Park without having to rush off right away.

Because I'm pointing out some shortcomings as well as things I liked, maybe it sounds like I didn't like my stay that much. But I did. I slept very well, I very much enjoyed the bath and the shower, I liked walking along the peacock-feathered carpets and riding the elevators and, once on the street-level floor, walking along the corridors bustling with people and lined with shops. I just plain enjoyed being in the place.

The best part was the people

I want to be sure to mention the people who work for the Palmer House. There were all sorts of bellmen, doormen, people to greet you when you pulled up in your car, and men in uniforms who would hail a cab for you. They were all welcoming and helpful without being officious. The people at the concierge desk who were swamped the day I arrived were unfailingly pleasant, and the people working at the reception desk were friendly, professional, and helpful.

When I called to ask to have my room changed, the woman who answered the phone agreed to take care of that without any hesitation. She was professional and courteous. She was the one who offered to have a room key sent up, and she asked if I needed any help with my luggage.

Everyone I encountered was helpful and courteous, never cold or condescending, but warm and offering to smooth the way if I so desired.

The hotel is full of little gems like this. This is the mail drop, available on each floor. My dad's old office building had chutes like these. You put your mail in the little slot, let go, and feel a little vertigo as you watch your letters whisking down the chute to some mysterious mail collection bin somewhere many stories below. I know it works because I mailed a couple postcards in this very chute, and I have been assured that at least one of them has arrived at its destination.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Here's the link if you want to find out about room rates or make a reservation. Make sure to investigate all the options to find a hotel at the size and price that will suit you.

If you've stayed in the penthouse in the past, you might be able to stay there again for a pretty good rate. One couple who stayed in the penthouse on their honeymoon in 1947 got to stay there again for the same rate: $10.

My own experience
Absolute Astronomy, Palmer House, Potter Palmer
Palmer House Hilton Media Kit


  1. No pictures of the tub bubbles?

  2. This looks wonderful! The old hotels have so much more character than the newer ones.

  3. Thank you, Apple Lady! I kind of have the hots for Bertha Palmer so I really enjoyed this entry.

  4. You missed the Megabus?!!?


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