|By Ron Grossman and Blair Kamin, Chicago
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 12, 20069 - The Palmer House Hilton, a lynchpin of the
Loop, took a major step toward landmark status Thursday--but only over
the objections of preservationists who argued that the fine print in
the designation would harm, not protect, its historic character.
With the new owner of the hotel planning to start a $150
million rehab late this year, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted
5-2 to recommend making the 79-year-old hotel, which fronts on State
and Monroe Streets and Wabash Avenue, a city landmark. The City Council
still must approve the designation, though a date for that vote has not
Mayor Richard Daley's administration supports the renovation
plan by New York-based Thor Equities because it will enhance the
economic viability of the historic structure, which carries the last
name of Potter Palmer, the 19th Century real estate magnate who
transformed State Street into Chicago's prime retail corridor.
But the developer's plan to install two-story, steel-and-glass
storefronts along State is meeting objections from preservationists and
even two members of the landmarks commission, who took the unusual step
of casting dissenting votes.
"Storefronts run in fads," said Commissioner John Baird in a
telephone interview after the vote. He remembered when Karroll's Inc.,
the ground-floor menswear shop at the Reliance Building at 32 N. State
St., put up a modern storefront that was later removed as part of the
city-subsidized restoration of the turn-of-the-century skyscraper, now
known as the Hotel Burnham.
"I was sitting there today recalling how much it cost the city
to restore the Reliance, and I could see how much it was going to cost
in the future to undo what we were doing to The Palmer House," he said.
A spokeswoman for the city's Department of Planning and
Development, however, maintained that it is more important to provide a
sound financial footing for the landmark hotel, which has been showing
its age in recent years.
"It was done with the effort to preserve a grand structure,"
said the spokeswoman, Constance Buscemi. The new owner, she added, is
committed to "preserve or rehabilitate parts of the building that are
most historically significant."
Among those elements, the owner said, are the removal of the
fire escapes on the State Street facade as well as the grill-like
screens that try to hide them. The owners plan to redesign the Monroe
Street entrance, using the hand-forged, bronze doors with a peacock
motif that marked the C.D. Peacock jewelry store at the hotel.
The massive bronze doors, the hotel's brick-faced towers, a
barbershop with silver dollars inlaid in its floor, and a magnificent
barrel-vaulted lobby have long been recalled by visitors as a highlight
of a trip to Chicago.
A guidebook to Chicago once hailed the lobby as "the people's
club, men meet to settle political and commercial questions of vast
Preservationists also criticized the owner's plan to narrow
the western portion of the hotel's arcade, which links State and
"A lot of the stuff they're doing is fine," said James Peters,
director of planning for the Landmarks Preservation Council of
Illinois, an advocacy group. But the narrowing of the arcade and the
insertion of the steel-and-glass storefront, he added, "struck us as
both needless and foolhardy."
"They're taking the visible public facade on State Street and
creating this sort of glass base to it, which seems at odds with the
classical design and vision of that building," Peters said.
Jonathan Fine, president of another advocacy group,
Preservation Chicago, was even blunter, characterizing the planned
storefronts as an "'80s shopping mall."
Designed by the renowned Chicago architectural firm of
Holabird & Roche and completed during the boom times of the 1920s
Jazz Age, The Palmer House is rich in Chicago lore.
The hotel is currently in its fourth incarnation. Palmer
opened a predecessor in 1870, dedicating it as a wedding present to his
wife Bertha, the grand dame of Chicago society. He was adding a second
structure the following year, shortly before the Great Chicago Fire of
1871 burned both to the ground. He speedily rebuilt the hotel, which
reopened in 1873.
As the current hotel replaced that building in the 1920s,
guests were moved from the old structure to the new one, allowing the
hotel to remain open even as it grew. Its main entertainment venue, the
Empire Room, featured such performers as Maurice Chevalier, Guy
Lombardo, Jack Benny, Carol Channing and the Merriel Abbott dancers.
Press Release Issued by Owner
THOR EQUITIES, New Owners
of the Palmer House, Says
'All Systems Go' for the Historic Chicago Hotel
May 12, 2006 - The much anticipated restoration of the historic Palmer
since being acquired by THOR EQUITIES last year is moving ahead on
schedule according to Mary Ann Cronin, Director of Development for THOR
"Today's meeting with the City of Chicago's
Commission on Chicago landmarks and the positive votes is an important
first step in THOR EQUITIES exciting restoration plans for the Palmer
House Hilton. THOR couldn't be more pleased or grateful for this vital
demonstration of support and encouragement the city has given us
today," said Margaret Tobin, Executive Vice President of Development,
"The timing of the restoration and rejuvenation
of the Palmer House couldn't be more perfect," according to J. Peter
Lynn, Palmer House Hilton general manager. The Chicago hotel market has
been experiencing a tremendous growth in the past year with a number of
leisure and business-oriented new hotels announced and beginning
construction. "The Palmer House needs to be competitive, and our new
owner's exciting and innovative plans over the next three years will
return the Palmer House to its rightful place as one of the world's
great hotels, and most assuredly one of the top hotels in Chicago.
Hilton Hotels Corporation is delighted with THOR EQUITIES overwhelming
commitment to the rebirth of the Palmer House. We are especially
pleased that with all the new enhancements and upgrades to take place
within and outside the hotel, our new owners are taking great pains to
maintain, even enhance the historical integrity of the property," Lynn
"Plans are in the final stages of development and the
commencement of phase one should begin sometime during the fourth
quarter of the year," Cronin said. Cronin adds that specifics of the
$150 million dollar comprehensive project will be revealed in early
fall -- probably mid-September, but highlights just a few of
restoration project's features: The unsightly exterior fire escapes and
grill-like covers that camouflage them on the State street side of the
hotel, dogging it for decades, will be removed and replaced with
interior fire exit stairwells. Hotel guests can look forward to indoor
parking, thanks to the creation of an interior parking garage that is
part of the rejuvenation portion of the hotel. Further, guests will be
greeted at both the Monroe and Wabash Street entrances of the hotel
under newly reconfigured and lit canopies. Dramatic sky lights will
create an open and inviting feeling.
The redesign of the Monroe
street entrance includes relocating the spectacular hand-forged, bronze
doors with their majestic peacock motif that were the signature of
Chicago's first incorporated business, C.D. Peacock. "The relocation to
the Monroe street entrance of the hotel will put them in a place where
these magnificent doors can be better seen and appreciated," Cronin
said. Being sensitive to the historical significance of the former C.D.
Peacock jewelry emporium (now Ultra Diamonds), the retention and
restoration of the original storefronts will return the corner of
Monroe and State to its original glory and splendor.
Accommodations included in the rejuvenation program are 1,000 remodeled
rooms, and 54 new suites, all with a focus on hospitality functions. A
dramatic 4,000 square foot penthouse suite, costing over $9 million
dollars will be the most luxurious of its kind in the city.
Still further plans include a full day spa, and a totally upgraded
fitness center. Prominent in THOR EQUITIES plans for the Palmer House
Hilton is a completely redesigned street arcade and State street
frontage targeted to attract upscale retail operations more in line
with today's higher retailer expectations. This new design will clearly
make a statement about the Palmer House's entrance into its third
century of operation -- again, being sensitive to its history.
"The restoration of what has been called, 'the Chicago hotel the world
knows best' is truly going to be a labor of love for all those
involved," Joseph J. Sitt, President & CEO of THOR EQUITIES said.
"Moreover, our company's acquisition of the Palmer House and its return
to grandeur is demonstrative of the reawakening of the downtown Chicago
area, particularly the developments taking place south of the Chicago
River. Clearly, a new chapter is being written in downtown Chicago's
history. We believe THOR EQUITIES is leading the charge," Sitt added.
"The Palmer House is a welcome addition to THOR's outstanding portfolio
of properties," said Sitt. "We are excited by the opportunity to
further improve its stature through a $150 million dollar restoration
and renovation program that will include an exciting new retail
component. When the details and specifics of the program are released
in September, the Palmer House will be making news throughout the
world," Sitt said.
Director of Public Relations Department of PalmerHouse Hilton,
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