People & Events: Bertha Honoré Palmer (1849-1918)
Bertha Honoré's family moved to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky when she was six. She met her future husband seven years later, shopping in his store with her mother. When she was twenty-one, with a Catholic education and the only pedigree required in boomtown Chicago -- wealth -- she became engaged to Potter Palmer, then 44, a former dry-goods seller turned real estate magnate turned luxury hotel builder.
Just a year later, as the Palmer House Hotel neared completion, the Chicago Fire of 1871 gutted the city.
the Palmer House was rebuilt, Bertha and her husband moved into a suite there, at the mercantile center of the city. When the Palmers moved again, however, no one could mistake that the social center of Chicago revolved around Bertha. Their North Side residence anchored the new "Gold Coast" neighborhood fronting Lake Shore Drive, and their wealthy friends flocked to build houses nearby.
The Palmers' mansion was designed by Henry Ives Cobb as a castle and was described by one critic as "sumptuous and abominable." Adorned with turrets and minarets on the exterior, the house featured a spiral staircase that rose eighty feet into a tower in the interior. There were two elevators, an Ottoman parlor, a Renaissance library, a Moorish bedroom, a Louis XV drawing room, and an English dining room that could seat fifty. It was the largest private residence in Chicago and the bills were so large that Potter Palmer had to ask his architects to stop showing them to him.
Bertha entertained most frequently in the rooftop ballroom with its adjoining picture gallery. She indulged her art-buying habit on Paris shopping sprees, picking up works by contemporary French artists like the Impressionists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas. The "Gold Coast Queen" also bought works from Mary Cassatt, Camille Pissaro, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Alfred Sisley. Many a guest accepted an invitation to the Palmers' home just to see the paintings.
Although a frequent and spectacular hostess, Bertha also treasured her privacy. There were no doorknobs on the outside of the house.
Bertha was not merely a housewife with an expense account; she belonged to the Chicago Woman's Club, a progressive organization that lobbied for fair treatment of women and children in hospitals, prisons, poorhouses and in the neighborhoods that received too little attention from city government. Bertha used her parlour to organize female factory workers and coordinate a strike.
In 1891, Bertha was named chairwoman of the Columbian Exposition's Board of Lady Managers. This group was charged with creating a pavilion to celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world. Sophia G. Hayden, the first woman graduate of MIT's school of architecture, won the commission for the building.
During the World's Columbian Exposition, Bertha Palmer served as the de facto hostess for the city of Chicago, entertaining royalty and presidents. She was there for opening day, and for the first official ride of the Ferris wheel.
Bertha never did part with any of her paintings during her lifetime, but when she died in 1918, she left them to the Art Institute of Chicago.
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