After deep cleanings and some updates, the Palmer House returns to society
The landmark hotel plans to reopen on Thursday as it gradually adds staff ahead of an autumn its executives hope will look more like normal.
For 15 months, the stately Palmer House has been closed, laid low by the pandemic and the precarious state of its ownership. For a lot of places so expensive to maintain, that would mean neglect. Not so for this regal fixture of Chicago.
The Palmer House has been scrubbed, groomed, repaired and renovated while otherwise at rest. It has put plumbers, roofers and tuckpointers to work, giving the landmark its own spa treatment worth more than $4 million.
And now, this highborn citizen of Chicago hospitality and heritage is ready for its closeup. The hotel at 17 E. Monroe St. reopens Thursday, an event that should mark a checkpoint in Chicago’s gradual reopening.
“I never could get used to seeing the Palmer House totally empty,” said General Manager Dean Lane, as he stood on the mezzanine overlooking the grand lobby, usually bustling with reunions, celebrations and business negotiations. He’s looking forward to Thursday, when it will come alive with patrons dining from a small-plate menu and crowding the bar, perhaps toasting the repeal of pandemic restrictions like their forebears handled the end of Prohibition.
Lane awaits the “cascade effect” of it all. “When we open, restaurants will open, stores will open. When the Palmer House opens in the Loop, State Street starts activating,” he said.
He and a crew of about 50 kept on to manage the place during the suspension used the break to get serious work done. Windows were cleaned, inefficient old light bulbs changed. The ceilings on the Grand and State ballrooms were fixed and, right above them, the hotel arranged for $2.2 million to improve a swimming pool installed in 1963.
Lane said he’s brought back 200 members from a pre-pandemic staff of about 900 and looks forward to more callbacks as business picks up in the fall. The rehires fall under terms negotiated with Local 1 of the hotel workers’ union, Unite Here.
While some hotels have had trouble with restaffing, Lane said the Palmer House has many long-tenured employees eager to return. “It was as if they won the lottery when I would call them. You’d hear them jumping around and telling their loves ones on the phone, ‘I’m going back. I’m going back.’”
Lane said he’d had to remind employees to take it slow. “Many of them haven’t worked for months, and they’ll be tired. So I tell them, ‘Take it easy, check your body, keep hydrated.’” A lot of people don’t realize how physical the work can be,” he said.
Accordingly, the hotel is planning a phased reopening. About half of the 1,641 rooms will be available at the start, and room service will be limited to “grab and go” pickups from a new lobby-level outlet, a nod to the demand for convenience from today’s travelers.
The owner of the Palmer House, New York-based Thor Equities, was among the most prominent business victims of the pandemic. Thor was accused last year of defaulting on a $333.2 million mortgage on the Palmer House as the shutdown hurt the value of the property. A receiver is handling ownership decisions for the Palmer House, which Hilton operates under a management contract.
Lane said the matter has caused no difficulties for Hilton and that the receiver approved financing for work during the closure. The company has been associated with the Palmer House since Conrad Hilton bought it in 1945, and Lane said he expects the relationship to continue for decades more. Thor, which reports an interest in more than 200 properties, did not return a message seeking comment about the foreclosure.
The Palmer House is the second largest hotel in Chicago, after the Hyatt Regency, and its prosperity depends on conventions and business meetings coming back in abundance. Gene Hare, area director of sales and marketing at Hilton, said the signs of a comeback are strong, with brides who want a wedding in the Palmer House’s Empire Room patiently rescheduling once or twice and tours of the property continuing throughout the shutdown.
Many hotels see the Chicago Auto Show in July and Lollapalooza later that month kicking off a heavier demand for lodging. Hare said another test will be the Fabtech show for the metalworking industry, an event still on McCormick Place’s September calendar.
Meanwhile, Lane is just glad the hotel can look ahead to its 150th anniversary on Sept. 26. It marks the date when the first Palmer House opened on the property in 1871, an unfortunate wedding present Potter Palmer devised for his wife, Bertha. The Great Chicago Fire consumed it 13 days later. A replacement opened in 1875 and the current version dates from 1925 in a staged construction that allowed the hotel to operate without interruption.
The Palmer House claimed the title of the nation’s oldest continuously operated hotel, but the COVID-19 closure calls that into question.
To draw leisure travelers, the hotel is quoting rates of about $170 a night. There are cheaper places to stay, but none so layered in Chicago history. The Palmer House includes an archive and museum available for small-group visits.
“It’s not as much about pricing. It’s still about the experience,” Hare said.
Yes, the Palmer House is back, and with some swagger.