GRAND PRIZE: INTERIOR DESIGN
Palmer House, Chicago
Originally built by Potter Palmer as a wedding gift for his wife, Bertha Honoré Palmer, in the late 19th century, the Palmer House is one of 26 grand palace hotels in the world. Both luxurious and modern, the original hotel featured the latest technology of the time, including the first “vertical steam railroad” (the elevator); Edison’s new invention, the light bulb; and Bell’s new communication device, the telephone.
Later, in 1923, the present Palmer House was built in two sections so that it never had to close its doors, making it the longest continuously operating hotel in North America. Over the years, particularly after 1945 with the advent of air-conditioning and sprinklers, renovations gave the hotel a different sort of design that, according to Jim Pritchett, principal in charge at Loebl Schlossman & Hackl, the architect of record for the restoration project, “had a negative impact on the historical quality of the building as a landmark.”
By 2006, the Palmer House had become the oldest hotel in its class, and when a new owner acquired the 1.6 million-square-foot hotel, they wanted to capture the growing Chicago convention market by restoring the building to its original grandeur. The owner recognized the Palmer House as a historical icon for the city of Chicago, and as a vibrant economic asset for the downtown area.
Significant improvements were required in the guestrooms, public spaces, and infrastructure of the Palmer House Hilton to convert the building’s landmark status into an added investment value: guestroom floors had not been renovated in over a decade, the building’s plumbing and mechanical systems had been in place since 1925, the most prominent State Street façade retained antiquated exterior fire escapes, and the electrical work was in worse condition than anticipated and had to be replaced.
The design team planned to enhance the hotel’s classic French revival interiors to provide a new, modern guest experience, as well as to work with city agencies to qualify the complex restoration project for landmark certification. The renovation included over 900 guestrooms, 54 suites, and a new penthouse, in addition to several new venues, including the Lockwood restaurant and a 1920s chic night lounge named after Potter Palmer. Additionally, the previously hidden historic ornamentation of the Honoré Ballroom was uncovered, and the design team enhanced the building’s façade by removing the antiquated fire escapes and restoring castings, stone work, and entries. The City of Chicago Landmarks Division was particularly concerned that the integrity of the stone work at the entrance be preserved.
A significant challenge of the restoration project was keeping the hotel in operation during the renovation and construction. “[Because] this hotel has been in continuous operation since its inception, we had to have at least 85 percent occupancy every day,” says Pritchett. “We had to phase the project, and we had to work with the contractor and all of the concealed and hidden conditions that were going to emerge. We took out 21 bays of concrete in a concrete building, which creates a great deal of noise and dust, and we have people sleeping.” Additionally, the design team had to restore architectural features that had been forgotten or covered up and restore the Palmer House’s historical elegance while creating a hotel that would appeal to contemporary clientele. The design also had to protect the hotel’s landmarked spaces.
Despite these challenges, the restoration of the Palmer House was completed ahead of schedule and on budget. Special attention was given to revitalizing the hotel’s 80,000 square feet of interior retail space – bronze and travertine columns illuminated by energy-efficient LEDs were installed, and a unified storefront was recreated in polished bronze. A major spa, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, and a sublevel 200-car parking garage were also added with the restoration, as well as new windows with insulating glass and frames; consolidated air-handling units; high-efficiency base building equipment; a new, high-efficiency commercial kitchen; new lighting and dimming equipment with standards for compact fluorescents in 2,000 rooms; and fixtures with reduced water flow.
Additionally, the landmark-status Peacock Doors, originally designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, were refinished and stand inside the Monroe Street entrance as an architectural feature. The peacock color palette and classical motifs are carried throughout the hotel to unify the restoration, and the Honoré Ballroom was preserved and restored to its classical 1920s elegance.
“It’s a beautiful restoration,” says Pritchett. “You have to understand that Potter Palmer and his wife, Bertha Palmer, had a great deal of taste. They brought a sensibility to America of European elegance and grandeur. So, being able to restore the landmark with a certain flair and elegance that Potter and Bertha Palmer would have originally wanted to create as a backdrop for Chicago was the essence of the greatest, best part of the project for everybody involved.”