THREATENED: Will The Palmer House Survive?

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Palmer House Hilton, 1927, Holabird & Roche, 17 E. Monroe Street. Photo Credit: Ward Miller

“The great Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy lived at the Drake Hotel. Touring Broadway celebrities would dine with Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet at the Pump Room at the Ambassador East. And at the Palmer House’s famed Empire Room, a 250-seat cabaret venue with an elegance like no other, Phyllis Diller told jokes and early-career stars like Liberace, Maurice Chevalier, Carol Channing and Tony Bennett were launched.

“All of that is to say that Chicago’s historic hotels are joined at the hip with our historic and spectacular tradition of live entertainment. All of that is to say further that, for this writer, seeing a locked entrance to the Palmer House Hotel, officially the Palmer House Hilton, is every bit as painful as seeing the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Picasso statue or Buckingham Fountain closed off. To lose this hotel would be a loss of unfathomable proportions. And there is a real danger of the unthinkable happening.

“As the Tribune’s Ryan Ori reported Aug. 31, the owner of the Palmer House, Thor Equities, has been hit with a foreclosure suit alleging unpaid mortgage payments totaling nearly $338 million. Worse, the hotel is now, in real estate parlance, underwater, being as its current valuation is only $305 million, down from $560 million as recently as 2018.

“For a stunning example of how much Chicago’s Loop is losing to the absence of tourists and conventioneers, just consider the size and speed of that drop in valuation. It’s breathtaking.

“That word that could also be used to describe the lobby of the Palmer House, a grand riot of columns, murals, candelabras and a sense of Saturday night urban grandeur that once was the headquarters for the election campaign of Grover Cleveland and, over the years, has hosted enough weddings and conventions to keep half the Loop in business.

“The Palmer House is something else entirely, and there has been enough going on in recent days for preservationists and lovers of retro urban glamor to be very afraid of its future prospects. The Loop, like all urban centers, needs huge hotels in order to function on a 24-hour basis, filling the nearby restaurants, music venues and, of course, the equally historic theaters on the surrounding blocks.

Take, for example, Miller’s Pub, a classic Chicago eatery that has for decades kept its kitchen open late enough that performers, chorus folk, theatergoers, musicians and even the odd hungry critic could grab some late-night-sustenance and conversation. The Palmer House has been a main provider of clientele to that venerable joint, where the balcony is filled with signed showcards from touring Broadway productions of years past. In the long term, I doubt Miller’s could survive without the Palmer House.

“So, Chicago. A grand old hotel, the economic generator of its block and neighborhood, is under serious threat. If it falls to the pandemic, there will be a hole almost impossible to fill

“Potter Palmer’s place has done more for showbiz in the Loop than almost anywhere else. We cannot let it close forever.” (Jones, 9/9/20)

Preservation Chicago worked hard with partner organizations to encourage the Chicago Landmark Designation of the Palmer House and to retain important features of the building at a time when a massive renovation was planned. Fortunately, our advocacy resulted in a Chicago Landmark Designation which guided restoration and protected the State Street facades resulting in a restoration of the storefronts, canopies, and protected interior features of the hotel lobby, ballrooms, and other significant spaces.

Read the full column at the Chicago Tribune

Column: Chicago cannot lose the Palmer House, now locked up and in deep financial trouble, Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 9/9/20

Palmer House hit with $338 million foreclosure suit; The owner of the city’s second-largest hotel is facing one of the largest foreclosure lawsuits for a downtown property in years as COVID-19 hammers the hospitality sector. Danny Ecker, Crain’s Chicago Business, 8/31/20

Owner of Palmer House Hilton sued for $338 million unpaid loan, Ryan Ori, Chicago Tribune, 8/31/20

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