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Walking into Chicago’s iconic Palmer House Hilton, I imagine it would be impossible for someone not to feel awestruck at the hotel’s splendor. The vaulted lobby ceiling bears a stunning fresco reminiscent of a classic European monument, while soft light from candelabras, elegant furnishings and striking statues transport me to a past era.
Around every corner of the Palmer House is something marvelous — along with an amazing story to go with it. That stunning ceiling? Its 21 paintings by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal were commissioned at the turn of the century and painstakingly restored in 1996 to remove years of stains. Then, there are the fabulous Winged Angel statues that flank one of the lobby staircases. The impressive bronze, marble and gold pieces are by Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose treasures can be found around the hotel.
The hotel’s storied past goes all the way back to 1871, when Potter Palmer opened the original property as a gift to his new bride, Bertha. Sadly, just 13 days later, the hotel was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. The second iteration of the hotel opened in 1873 and continued to welcome guests while the third and present Palmer House was constructed in 1924 — making it the longest continually operational hotel in the country.
Other noteworthy distinctions for the property include being the first hotel with a fireproof building as well as the first hotel to use the light bulb and offer in-house telephone capabilities. Another fun fact: Palmer House invented the brownie in 1893.
During a recent stay at Palmer House, I got a taste of this extensive history on the fascinating and entertaining “History is Hott!” tour, led by the hotel’s director of public relations and resident historian, Ken Price.
An employee of the hotel for more than 30 years, Price has an encyclopedic knowledge of every story, nook and cranny to be found on the property. The tour begins with a three-course lunch in the hotel’s Lockwood Restaurant, followed by a visit to the small on-site museum, bursting with historical memorabilia. During the guided tour portion, Price reveals vintage artifacts, stunning spaces and all the secrets that go along with them.
Guests staying at Palmer House will find even more to love about the property. A recent renovation exceeding $200 million restored the classical aspects of the hotel, while updating it with modern amenities. The 1,641 guestrooms are comfortable and stylish, while suites feature parlor and dining areas for additional space. Those seeking exclusivity should consider the Executive Level Rooms, with key-only access through a private elevator and a dedicated lounge serving complimentary breakfast and evening hors d’oeuvres.
As part of the updates, guestrooms are currently being outfitted with tablets that guests are able to use in their rooms and around the property. The useful devices are programmed so that guests can easily explore the hotel’s many offerings, as well as search for nearby attractions, dining and other areas of interest.
The Palmer House has also invested heavily in its offerings for meetings and event travelers. An impressive 130,000 square feet of meeting space spans seven ballrooms, including the gorgeous Empire Room, which played host to famous performers such as the late pianist Liberace and singer Frank Sinatra during its days as a supper club.
Other noteworthy spaces include the Red Lacquer Ballroom, outfitted with eight Austrian chandeliers, and the Grand and State Ballrooms. Even if you’re not attending a meeting, it’s worth wandering into these rooms (if they are empty) to see the ornate decorations such as gold-painted ceiling friezes and bronze Tiffany window latches.
In addition, the hotel has started a new program called Building a Business Travel Community, which encourages business travelers and meetings groups to mix and mingle at hotel-sponsored events. The once-a-month program ranges from gingerbread house demos to packaging humanitarian meals with nonprofit partner Stop Hunger Now.
Other perks for travelers include the hotel’s prime location, just steps from city landmarks such as Art Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park, as well as a 10- minute walk from Lake Michigan. On the property, guests can also enjoy the spa, a health club with fitness equipment and group exercise classes, the upscale Lockwood Restaurant and Bar and Potter’s cocktail lounge.
Palmer House Hilton’s “History is Hott!” tour is offered Tuesday through Saturday, with reservations, for $65 per person with lunch or $40 without. Room rates vary depending on dates of stay.