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Palmer House Facade Looking Good - interior, not so much






 -by Lynn Becker

[May 27, 2008] - The facade-scarring fire escapes on Chicago's landmark Palmer House are gone. Unfortunately, so is the grand arcade.

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


The hand of Thor - Equities, that is - has been having its way with Holabird & Roche's historic Palmer House, the third hotel of that name to grace its State Street site. (The first Palmer House, costing over $1,700,000 in contemporary dollars, burned down, less than two weeks after its opening, in the great 1871 Chicago Fire.)

Thor Equities acquired the property in 2005, and their legacy is a decidedly mixed bag. The good news is that the State Street facade has been restored to its original grandeur. The fire escapes and the huge multi-story grills that hid them are gone.
Palmer House, chicago, Holabird and Roche, architects
Now, the doors that were placed in former windows are, themselves, being replaced with windows matching those on the rest of the facade. (Thanks to indefatigable Bob Johnson for these photos of the work.)Palmer House, Chicago, facade restoration
At street level, an ugly hodgepodge of storefronts . . .
Palmer House, Chicago, former storefronts
has been replaced.
Palmer House, Chicago, restored storefronts
As part of the negotiations to give the building official landmark designation, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks negotiations had signed off on the installation of "modernized" storefronts, but a campaign led by Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois pressured the Commission to reverse itself and mandate the recreation of the original elegant storefronts that you see here.

Upstairs, the Palmer House lobby, one of the greatest of Chicago's interiors, remains in all its glory, but it's severely compromised by an incredibly inept furnishing plan. It's presumed that the managers wanted to liven up the space. Nothing wrong with that. The previous design was dignified, tired and more than a little funereal. The lobby of a great hotel should be bursting with energy, not a tomb, but the new design is incredibly cluttered, claustrophobic and graceless. Sets of high-backed chairs are lined up in a linear progression that has the vibe of a small town bus station waiting room, but with more expensive furniture. It takes the air out of the space, chokes you off from the elegance above you, leaving you feel less like a glamorous actor moving through your own personal stage set than a rat being pushed through a maze.
Palmer House, Chicago, lobby
At some point, when the Palmer House Hilton comes under a management that appreciates that the value of the lobby is far better realized by encouraging guests to revel in its splendor than by stuffing it like a bargain brand hot dog, the present misfire will be replaced by something better. That will not happen, however, with a Palmer House feature the Landmarks Commission did negotiate away.

The Palmer House's block long concourse linking State Street to Wabash was not only a great - and rare - civic amenity, it was the physical embodiment of the vastness of the hotel and it's welcoming nature. It was the strong spine that held all the lobby spaces together.
Palmer House, Chicago, arcade
Now it's gone, so Thor Equities can pinch pennies reclaiming space for offices. It's truly depressing to remember what was there for over three-quarters of a century and see what's replaced it - a cramped, crimped stub of a service entrance.
Palmer House, Chicago, arcade redesign
As much as any other institution, the Palmer House created State Street. Thanks to Thor Equities - and the Landmarks Commission - it now turns its back on it.
Palmer House, Chicago, State Street entrance


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© 2008 photos (except where otherwise credited) and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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