clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Here Now, Two of Chicago's Most Historic, Trailblazing Hotels

New, 4 comments


With Hotels Week 2013 in full-swing, we've opted to turn back the clock and spotlight two of the city's most historic hotels: the old Sauganash Hotel and the Palmer House Hilton. The Sauganash Hotel enjoys the distinction of being Chicago's very first hotel. The wooden, Greek Revival structure was built in 1831 by French-Indian trader Mark Beaubien. After living for a time at Fort Dearborn, Beaubien eventually moved into a log cabin at Wolf Point on the east side of the Chicago River's south branch, where he erected the Eagle Exchange Tavern. The Sauganash was later built as a frame addition to the tavern. The hotel takes its name from Billy Caldwell "Sauganash", a British-Potawatomi fur trader who acted as a translator and negotiator between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. During its heyday, the Sauganash was a popular haunt for travelers and locals alike. Dancing was common (we've really stiffened up since) and Beaubien was known to entertain guests late into the night with his lively violin play.

In 1833, the hotel bore witness to one of the city's most historic events when the recently-founded Town of Chicago elected its first-ever board of trustees at the Sauganash. Four years later, the hotel had a short-lived career as Chicago's first theater, hosting performances by the Chicago Theatre Company in a vacant dining room. Beaubien would eventually transfer ownership of the Sauganash in 1834. It was operated thereafter by a number of proprietors until gutted by an 1851 inferno that took several neighboring buildings along with it (there is speculation the blaze was the work of an arsonist). After the fire, the hotel was torn down, and a two-story convention center, known as the Wigwam, was constructed on the site. The Wigwam played host to the 1860 Republican National Convention and the nomination of Abraham Lincoln as the Republican candidate for U.S. President. Today, the site of both historic structures is marked by a special commemorative plaque.

Another historic gem, the famed Palmer House Hilton, has been in operation for over 140 years, making it the nation's longest-running hotel. The 25-story building, designed by Holabird & Roche, is actually the last of three Palmer House hotels constructed in Chicago. The original hotel, known as "The Palmer," was built by millionaire businessman Potter Palmer as a wedding gift for his bride-to-be, philanthropist and socialite Bertha Honoré. It opened on September 26, 1871, only to burn down less than two weeks later during the Great Chicago Fire. The second iteration, a seven-story building designed by John M. Van Osdel, was completed in 1875 and subsequently replaced by the existing Beaux-Arts style building on State and Monroe. Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel in 1945 for $20 million, and decades later it took the official name Palmer House Hilton. Real estate investment firm Thor Equities is the latest owner.

Over the years, the hotel's iconic Empire Dining Room, opened in 1925, has played host to a who's who of famous guests, including Frank Sinatra, Oscar Wilde, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace, and a number of U.S. Presidents. The elegant, two-story dining room is regaled with marbled-topped tables, velvet seats, and a luminous ceiling fresco by French muralist Louis Pierre Riga. In 2006, the Palmer House Hilton joined a distinguished group of hotels and was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Hotels of America (HHA). From 2007 to 2009, the hotel underwent a $170 million renovation, which included improvements to more than 900 guest rooms and construction of a new 200-seat restaurant, the Lockwood Restaurant & Bar. In late May, the Palmer House was put on the market by Thor Equities, which purchased the hotel for $230 million in 2005. The 1,639-room hotel, the city's second largest, is poised to fetch as much as $500 million.
·Sauganash Hotel [Wikipedia]
·History of Chicago by Alfred Theodore Andreas [Google Books]
·The Palmer House Hilton [Wikipedia]
·Palmer House Hilton Hotel [Official site]