Known as a “heritage hotel” and on the list of Historic Hotels of America, the Palmer House Hilton on the corner of State and Monroe features a beautifully painted lobby and the kitchen that invented the chocolate brownie.
The 145-year history of the Palmer House resembles the story of The Three Little Pigs: There were three buildings, two were destroyed, and one remains.
The first was built on September 26, 1871, and it was named “The Palmer” after Potter Palmer, the businessman who built it as an extravagant wedding present for his newlywed wife, businesswoman Bertha Honoré. Unfortunately for Palmer, just 13 days after being completed The Palmer was burnt down in the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-10, 1871, which left 100,000 Chicagoans homeless.
But Palmer didn’t give up. Days after the fire struck, he was given a signature loan of $1.7 million (modern day $31.8 million), widely regarded as the largest loan ever granted at the time, to remake the building at a total cost of $13 million. Designed by John M. Van Osdel, the man known as “Chicago’s first architect”, the second Palmer House was specifically constructed to be “The World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel” with a “Very Fire-Resistant Design” in order to make up for its fiery history.
The Palmer House Hotel was a hotspot for presidents and celebrities visiting Chicago. It was visited by a long list of names, such as Presidents James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, and William McKinley, authors Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and L. Frank Baum, and a handful of actresses, taxidermists, and equestrians. They were warmly welcomed by oversized rooms, lavish decor, and extravagant meals.
One of these meals was invented in the Palmer House pastry kitchen for the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair: the first ever chocolate brownie. The original recipe of “Bertha’s Famous Brownie” (named after Palmer’s wife) is still served at the Palmer House today.
The second Palmer House also held a few rooms with an incredibly bizarre (and bloody) backstory. The barber shop, for instance, embedded silver dollars into its floor, but was forced to take them out after a 1876 federal law prohibited using American coinage for decor. So, the Palmer House staff simply replaced the American silver dollars with Mexican ones.
However, all of the second Palmer House is now gone. As the city grew and expanded in the early 20th Century, the Palmer House was rebuilt from seven to 25 floors, and it has since been purchased by the Hilton hotel chain. But the hotel still manages to maintain much of its old charm, with chandeliers, statues, gold-plated decor, and a beautifully painted ceiling in the lobby.