Residence on Monroe Street East of State Street; Potter Palmer Real Estate Album, Photograph, 1868-69 (ichi-64382)
As Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade explain in Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, until the mid-1860s Lake Street was the retail center of Chicago. In 1867, Potter Palmer, who had made his first fortune in wholesale and retail goods, including wartime speculation in cotton, turned his attention mainly to real estate. Palmer purchased three-quarters of a mile of property along State Street south of Lake with the intention of developing it into the city’s primary retail area. He progressed toward his goal with remarkable speed. Among Palmer’s key steps was to persuade Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, his former partners in the dry goods business (Palmer retired from the partnership in 1867), to abandon Lake Street for a magnificent new store at State and Washington streets. Another was to build a grand hotel, named after himself, on the southeast corner of State and Monroe.
The two-story frame dwelling pictured here, on Monroe Street just east of State Street, was one of the properties that made way for the Palmer House hotel. Note the blurry figure of a woman in the doorway.
Lill's Premiun Stock Ales, 167 State St. (now 101 S. State Street); Potter Palmer Real Estate Album, Photograph, 1868-69 (ichi-39659)
Another of Palmer's recently acquired properties that made way for the Palmer House. Like the previous image, this photograph shows how different this section of State Street was before he transformed it.
The Palmer House before the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871 (ichi-39580)
The first Palmer house was located on the northwest corner of State and Quincy streets. This was a four-story building designed by John M. Van Osdel, who had previously lived in a home on the same site. Pictured here is the second Palmer House, which opened a few blocks north, on the southeast corner of State and Monroe, in March of 1871.
The Palmer House after the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871 (ichi-26749)
The second Palmer House did business for six short months before being leveled by the fire. Its destruction provided a useful lesson, however. In order to protect his plans and records, architect John Van Osdel reportedly buried them in a basement pit covered with sand and clay. Their survival supposedly helped lead the way to the use of clay tile in fireproofing.
Working at Night on Palmer's Grand Hotel, by Calcium Light; Engraving, ca. 1872 (ichi-02930)
Potter Palmer wasted no time in rebuilding his hotel. Calcium lighting, better known as limelight, was invented in 1816 but was not used widely until the 1860s. The illumination is created by heating calcium to incandescence, producing an intensely bright light that can be focused. It was mainly employed in theaters, but Palmer's contractors applied it to extending the working day.
Palmer House Chicago; American Oliograph Company, Lithograph, 1873 (ichi-39476)
This advertising poster is chock-full of information about the hotel's new seven-story building. Along with the Grand Pacific and the Sherman House hotels, the post-fire Palmer House was among the leading palace hotels in the nation, so called because of their scale, amenities, and luxury. Note that the Palmer House presented itself as the “only thoroughly fireproof hotel in the United States.”
Palmer House Grand Dining Room; J. W. Taylor, Photograph, ca. 1880s (ichi-00748)
The floor of the Palmer House barber shop was tiled in part with silver dollars, and, as this photograph of the elegant dining room shows, its service staff consisted of members of Chicago's African American community, which at the time the hotel opened and through the remainder of the nineteenth century constituted between one and two percent of the population of the city.
The Palmer House; Photograph, ca. 1920 (ichi-00750)
While the Palmer House was generally very highly regarded, the praise was not universal. British author Rudyard Kipling, who described turn-of-the-century Chicago as being "inhabited by savages," was equally scornful of this showplace: "They told me to go to the Palmer House, which is a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren,” he sniped, “and there I found a huge hall of tessellated marble, crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere. Other barbarians charged in and out of this inferno with letters and telegrams in their hands, and yet others shouted at each other. A man who had drunk quite as much as was good for him told me that this was 'the finest hotel in the finest city on God Almighty's earth.'"
The life of the third Palmer House lasted about fifty years. It was replaced in the mid-1920s by the current building.