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 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.
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.