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Chicago: City of the Century | Article

The Palmers

Bertha Palmer, Chicago Historical Society

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.

When 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.

Potter Palmer (1826-1902)

Potter Palmer, Chicago Historical Society

Potter Palmer made his first millions with a dry-goods store. Among his innovations were "bargain days" (the first "sales"), money back guarantees (for any reason), the policy that the customer is always right, and free home delivery of all purchases. Palmer set out particularly to win female customers. His store was the one place in Chicago where women could go unescorted. Palmer imported high-quality merchandise from Europe and the Orient, taught clerks to remember customers' names and preferences, and instructed them never to pressure visitors into buying. In short, Potter Palmer created "shopping" as we know it.

In 1865, as a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor in poor health, he abruptly gave control of his business to the young Marshall Field and his partner Levi Z. Leiter, but remained their landlord. Then Palmer took a few years off to recuperate in Europe.

Back in Chicago in 1868, he built a ball field for the Chicago White Stockings baseball club (later the Cubs) and spent time at the horse races. When he wasn't enjoying the sporting life, however, he was developing a plan to reshape his city.

Palmer quietly bought up property on State Street, a narrow north-south thoroughfare parallel to the lakeshore. After he had acquired more than a mile of property, he asked the city council to widen the street to create a broad, Parisian-style boulevard. This was no simple task and many State Street neighbors refused to set their buildings back to accommodate a new street. The resulting street cut back and forth between Palmer's new buildings and the older structures. After the Great Fire in 1871, however, the blocks were all regularized and State Street became wide enough to accommodate carriage parking and horse-drawn trolleys.

Potter Palmer had single handedly reoriented Chicago's downtown from Lake Street — an east-west road along the stinking canal — to the new, elegant boulevard that he virtually owned. A massive six-story structure on the corner of State and Washington was leased to Field and Leiter for a new Marshall Field's store.

In 1870, Palmer had announced his marriage to Bertha Honore. As a wedding gift, he presented her with a hotel. The Palmer House was, at eight stories, the tallest building in the city. Its 225 rooms were decorated with Italian marble and French chandeliers. Bertha had agreed to marry, saying she would be satisfied to be the wife of an innkeeper.

The Great Fire destroyed the Palmer House Hotel before it was officially opened, and it was rebuilt quickly. Palmer claimed the new hotel was completely fireproof and backed a guarantee like he did in his old dry goods store. In advertisements, he dared anyone to light a hotel room on fire: "If at the expiration of [one hour], the fire does not spread beyond the room, the person accepting this invitation is to pay for all damages done and for the use of the room. If the fire does extend beyond the room (I claim it will not), there shall be no charge for the damage done."

After the fire, Palmer receded from public life while Bertha blossomed as Chicago's supreme hostess. Potter Palmer died in 1902, leaving a generous bequest in his will for his wife's next husband because, he once said, "He'll need the money."

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