By Ed Breen
If you are a Midwesterner –and we all are, aren’t we? – Chicago is our Land of Oz, the place to which we went when we were very young and the place to which we like to return when we are very old because it draws us back to those days when we sought something more alive than what we had in Indiana or Minnesota or Iowa or Wisconsin.
“City of the Big Shoulders” Carl Sandburg told us it was. He had come there from Galesburg out on the Illinois prairie. Nelson Algren was there and Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow and so many others.
Eventually, if there was work and we made some dollars, we found ourselves a couple of blocks west of the Magnificent Mile, just off Michigan Avenue, maybe a mile from Lake Michigan. We were there at the corner of Monroe and State streets. Sinatra called it “State Street that Great Street,” when he sang of Chicago as “my kind of town.”
And on the southwest corner of that intersection, a grand place, the Palmer House Hotel, soaring 21 floors into the Chicago sky, dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers, but impressive, stately nonetheless.
Exactly what it looks like depends on your generation. The current iteration is the third on the corner since the first was built in 1871 by Potter Palmer as a wedding gift for his bride Bertha.
It opened during this very week in September 149 years ago and burned to the ground 13 days later when the Great Chicago Fire incinerated all but the water tower in downtown Chicago. Palmer, a man whose wealth was matched only by his will, rebuilt immediately and rebuilt it as one of the finest and fanciest hotels in the world of the late 19th century.
It was seven stories. Oversized rooms, luxurious decor and elegant meals served in the grandest style. The floor of its barbershop was tiled and silver dollars were embedded in a diamond pattern. Built of iron and brick, the Palmer, as it was known, was advertised as, “The World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel.”
Times and tastes change and Chicago became a world-class city. In 1925 the current version of the Palmer House was unveiled and for 95 years it prevailed as the definition of elegance. Rooms, amenities, appearances, everything. One-thousand-six-hundred-thirty-nine rooms.
It endured Prohibition and gangsters and the Depression and Capone and World War II and the Jazz Age and the Swing Era and Rock ‘n Roll. The Hippies and Yippies and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s cops clashed out front in ’68. Why, back in 1879 one of the government hearings to sort out what happened to George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn had been held right there in a room at State and Monroe streets. It endured all until the spring and summer of 2020 and the age of COVID.
It closed in March. The doors are locked. The debt is $338 million. The tourists are gone and it will be a long time before the conventioneers come back to the city.
Inside remains elegant, if a little dusty. The lobby, its chandeliers, its furnishings, its frescoed ceiling, its statuary, all there. Silent, motionless, unalive.
At the northeast corner and up a few steps from that great expanse of elegance are the double doors of the Empire Room, the finest dining room any of us Midwesterners had ever walked into. Nothing like it even in Des Moines or Minneapolis or Omaha or Indianapolis or Kansas City, the big towns of our youth. The kind of place we brought our brides back then. I did. And I recall that on that first night of married life back in the winter of ’65, two dinners, two drinks and a concert by Tony Bennett cost a princely $47.50. Some of us had cars in those days which hadn’t cost much more than that.
Celebrities dined there and celebrities performed there. Presidents had been in an out going back to Garfield. The shape of the Big Ten athletic conference was drawn at one of those tables 125 years ago.
Among those who signed the guest register were Garfield and Grover Cleveland and Ulysses S. Grant and William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain. If you were somebody you had stayed at the Palmer House. If you weren’t, you were, by god, going to find a way to do that someday. Some of us did.
And the entertainers in the Empire Room! If only the sound could be squeezed from the walls and rung from the draperies.
Sinatra, of course. And Tony Bennett. And Judy Garland. Nat King Cole and Lena Horne. Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, Bobbie Darin, Lou Rawls, Frankie Laine. Name a favorite and he, she or they were there, on that floor against the east wall of the Empire Room nestled inside the Palmer House.
Maybe it can be saved. Maybe not. Sure would be a shame to lose it. We just have to wait and see.
By Ed Breen