Chicago's merchant prince, Potter Palmer, did the unthinkable on this date: He crossed north of the Chicago River and bought part of a filled-in frog pond on what would become Lake Shore Drive, forever changing the fashionable address for chic Chicago. This would be the site of his castle, he proclaimed, as opposed to his house; the Palmer House was the name of his $3.5 million luxury hotel, rebuilt and fireproofed after the Chicago Fire had made ashes of his first such inn, just a year after it opened. Anybody could stay at his House; his castle would be for himself and his wife, Bertha, the queen of Chicago society.
Palmer had confounded expectations almost from the day he arrived in town from upstate New York. He had built the nation's most talked about dry goods store, with its revolutionary practices of extending credit and offering money-back guarantees. He had single-handedly shifted the commercial axis of the boom town from east-west Lake Street to north-south State Street.When the Father of State Street, as he came to be known, spotted the frog pond on the North Side, there was reason for the doyens of the Prairie Avenue district on the Near South Side, until then the best address in town, to wonder whether they would soon be migrating north. By the turn of the century, many of them had.
University of Chicago its quadrangles, and Charles Sumner Frost, who would give Navy Pier to Chicago, to design a three-story manse.
Modeled after the castles of the Milwaukee beer barons, the turreted brownstone mansion rapidly overshot its $90,000 budget. When the bill reached $1 million, Palmer told his bookkeeper to stop entering charges against his new home. He had no wish to know the final reckoning. "The age of Pericles seems to be dawning," the Chicago Inter-Ocean said of the imposing building. "It belongs in a fishbowl," sniffed others.
All Chicago speculated on the interior until one day, in 1885, Bertha Palmer gave the first of the many fabled receptions that would be held at the castle. From its gold-leaf outer entrance, visitors stepped into the octagonal great hall, three stories high and domed in stained glass. Cupids in eternal pursuit drifted across the drawing room ceiling. The dining room, which seated 50, was paneled in San Domingo mahogany. Nearly every one of the 42 rooms boasted a huge fireplace of marble and oak. The castle was the first home in the city to have passenger elevators, and no door had a doorknob that could be turned from the outside, which let it be known that a small army of footmen and other servants was there to cater to guests. Chicago's Gold Coast was born.
February 22, 1880
Chicago's Palmer Castle
An imposing mansion on the North Side gives fashionable Chicago a new address