Chicago cannot lose the Palmer House, now boarded up and in deep financial trouble

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.

a sign on the side of a building: Owner of the Palmer House Hilton has been sued for $338 million in missed loan payments, in the largest Chicago foreclosure case to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

© E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Owner of the Palmer House Hilton has been sued for $338 million in missed loan payments, in the largest Chicago foreclosure case to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

a close up of a train station: The entrance of the Palmer House Hilton stands empty on Monroe Street on Sept. 8.

© E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
The entrance of the Palmer House Hilton stands empty on Monroe Street on Sept. 8.

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 boards over the entrance to the Palmer House Hotel, officially the Palmer House Hilton, is every bit as painful as seeing them over the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Picasso statue or Buckingham Fountain.

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 long employed a resident historian, Ken Price, who led hundreds of tours to the backstage areas of the Empire Room, where a lucky guests could see stagebills and headshots of the greats who performed there, all lovingly preserved. Price’s tour was about the most fun I ever had in the Loop. And lots of out-of-towners, especially show-business types, felt the same way.

Michael Riedel, the New York radio personality and longtime Broadway columnist, told me this week of his excitement of staying in “the biggest suite I had ever seen” while covering an out-of-town tryout. And, of course, he took Price’s tour. Chris Baum, a longtime concierge at the Langham Chicago Hotel, told me he sent many a guest to experience the history of the Empire Room.

Over the last several years, one of the Palmer House ballrooms in the warren of public spaces spread across numerous floors hosted the close-up magician Dennis Watkins. Since March, Watkins has been producing his show online, but he told me that he misses working at the Palmer House. On occasion, he said, a corporation or large group would move him and his show to the Empire Room.

“Whenever that happened,” Watkins said, “I would feel giddy.”

For me, the hotel has always been a pre-show or post-show stop, and a place to meet friends from out of town. Like many longtime Chicagoans, I’ve always appreciated how the lobby reveals itself only as you rise from the staircase from Monroe Street or Wacker Drive. The Palmer House was always the most theatrical hotel in town; it had every pretentious roof-top bar in Chicago beaten stone cold. If, that is, you wanted to impress someone of discerning taste.

The Palmer House has been closed since March and it could well be that the latest financial news is, as with so much in this pandemic, a negotiating ploy or a situation that will get sorted out by write-downs, refinancing or some other form of shared fiscal pain. The Palmer House, at press time, had not announced any kind of permanent closing. And it is hardly the only urban hotel in distress: In New York, the Times Square Hilton, a hotel that relied on Broadway for much of its business, has announced that it is going out of business. That’s a shame, but there was not the same history there. Not by a long chalk.

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.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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