What did you get your spouse when you wed? We're betting you didn't give them the grandest hotel in the world. Potter Palmer did when he gave his bride the Palmer House in Chicago...
Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, the Palmer House Hilton is the Windy City’s oldest hotel and the oldest continuously operating hotel in the entire country. The first time we stayed at the Palmer House we just stood in the massive lobby for the better part of an hour, absorbing the beauty and grandeur of this gorgeous hotel. It’s hard to imagine this entire palatial hotel was a wedding gift.
Here’s the story…
A famous friendship is formed
In terms of great Chicago businessmen, Potter Palmer is one of the best. Palmer made his fortune in the mid-1800s with his retail endeavors and later partnered with Marshall Field to handle the day-to-day of his operations. The end result was Field buying Palmer’s remaining interest in his retail empire and renaming the retail business a name we all know today: Marshall Field and Company.
After selling to Field, Palmer dug into real estate development, particularly State Street in downtown Chicago.
A love blossoms
While Palmer was certainly a wealthy man, he was also still a bachelor. Marshall Field was about to help Palmer change that… He introduced Palmer to a Louisville, KY socialite named Bertha Hilton Honore. Beautiful, talented, and a whopping 23 years his junior, Bertha caught Potter’s eye, and the two were eventually engaged and married.
And legend says Potter gave his young bride one heck of a wedding gift: the remarkable Palmer House hotel he’d been constructing.
Sadly, the “honeymoon” for Bertha’s new hotel was short lived as the Palmer House burned in the Great Chicago Fire only 2 weeks after its grand opening.
A hotel rises from the ashes
On his signature alone, Potter took out a $1.7 million loan (roughly $30 million in today’s dollars) to rebuild his bride’s beautiful hotel. At the time, it was the largest individual bank loan ever granted.
(Cool fact: architect John Mills Van Osdel buried the plans for the hotel under sand and damp clay in the hotel’s basement so they’d be safe from the fire)
The new Palmer House opened in 1873 and was eventually updated in 1925 to its current 25-story configuration.
French beauty comes to the Palmer House
Bertha’s friendship with Claude Monet and her own French heritage guided the decor of the grand Palmer House as she amassed the largest impressionist art collection outside France. Today, her taste and style still remain, particularly with the huge ceiling fresco by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal.
A hotel becomes legendary
With its opulence and unbeatable location, the Palmer House became the place to be in Chicago. From Oscar Wilde to Frank Sinatra to presidents and dignitaries, the world’s biggest names came through the doors of the Palmer House.
Today, for remarkably reasonable rates, you too can spend a night in the grandest wedding gift in American history. The Palmer House has been completely renovated over the years to ensure guests have every modern amenity, but the style of Bertha still abounds.
We stay here multiple times a year, and it’s the perfect place for a special event, a cocktail after work, or a basecamp for your Chicago adventures.
17 East Monroe St.
Chicago, IL 60603
Cover Photo: Flickr