Thursday, September 10, 2020

Flashback 2010: Palmer House marks 140th

Palmer House general manager Dean Lane speaks at a Palmer House event

     Friends on Facebook are mourning the Palmer House, a bit prematurely, I believe. Yes, the venerable Chicago hotel has been closed since mid-March, but there's a lot of that going around. Yes, its owners are being sued by creditors who claim it has defaulted on $333.2 million in mortgage payments, which is a lot. 
     But it isn't as if anybody is taking a wrecking ball to the place. Not yet anyway. The Palmer House has seen a lot of ups and downs: a Great Depression, a Great Recession, two World Wars and any number of plagues and panics. Remember, this is the third version—the first burned to the ground two weeks after it opened, in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I like to think the current Palmer House will survive the current conflagration too.
      When I think of the Palmer House, I thought, not so much of the enormous, ornate rectangular box of a lobby, with its lush ceiling. Nor of its elegant restaurant, Lockwood, or the way-cool Mertz pharmacy. Nor stores of the past—there used to be a Church's shoes at the Palmer House, a Pendleton store. 
     No, I think of the people, the proud, longtime Palmer House workers I've met over the years, and spotlight in the 2010 column. Four out of 10 hotel employees are out-of-work, and I hope they know that they are being thought of with gratitude and hope that they'll be back, doing what they love to do, very soon, when the world finally wakes up from this endless nightmare.
    This column is in two parts, and I left on the second part, a riff on Restoration Hardware, for those who have time to kill today.  

     Luxury is in the details. It requires a certain genius, like an artist adding dabs of color to a canvas. Arriving at the ceremony marking the 140th anniversary of the Palmer House Hilton, I admired the gold and maroon bunting draped over the facade for the occasion—a nice touch.
     Of course they'd mix in Mayor Daley. Bill Kurtis as host is another easy call. And yes, add "Chicago" played by the Carl Sandburg High School Marching Band.
     Owner Joe Sitt offered a classic success story: How he started out with a dress shop in the Palmer House and ended up owning one of America's great hotels.
     General manager Dean Lane outlined historical highlights: presidents from Garfield to Obama and a fancy dinner for Ulysses S. Grant with master of ceremonies duties performed by Mark Twain.
     But that isn't what charmed me. What really charmed me—and I knew right away this was the handiwork of Ken Price, the Palmer House's longtime PR director, a Picasso at this kind of thing—were the three dozen hotel employees lined up on stage behind the dignitaries: chefs in their white toques, doormen with peaked caps and gold epaulets, electricians with their names embroidered on patches, maids and busboys, desk clerks and painters, bellmen and janitors. They had to stand there a while, waiting for the ceremony to start. Their expressions never wavered from beaming, bursting pride.
     Afterward, the staff scattered to go back to cooking and cleaning and carrying and computer-tapping. But I caught up with a man wearing an embroidered nametag with "Bill V.—Locksmith" on it.
     "I'm very proud," said Bill Vollmer, who has worked at the Palmer House for 31 years. "It's a terrific place to work, a lot of good and kind people to work for and with. To take care of the guests who come here—it's the difference between working at a job and having a career."
     Vollmer said his father, Augie, worked for the Palmer House as a carpenter.
     "I was just a little kid, but I remember coming downtown to pick him up from work," he said.
     By then we were near the lobby. People crowded around the huge cake shaped like the hotel. I did what I did the first day I arrived in Chicago at age 15: I dropped my head back and gazed in wonder at the Wedgewood ceiling. In a world of constant change, some things stay the same.

     You enter the cave, the flashlight beam falls upon the glittering treasure, and the tendency is to fall to your knees and begin scooping rubies and gold doubloons into your pockets with both hands.
     The idea of stopping, standing up and pushing on to see what the caverns beyond might hold doesn't cross your mind.
     Thus Wednesday, when I shared the fortune in sun-bleached pomposity harvested from the Restoration Hardware store and catalog, my central challenge was cramming all the bounty to fit into limited space. I never considered something readers leapt to point out.
     "I went to their website," wrote Doug Criner. "If anything, you understated the situation."
     Jason Moran drew attention to Item 40400524 and sent me a link, and I must admit, when I clicked on it, I was sure this had to be parody. This couldn't be real.
     The item, "Handwoven Rope—$89," and to the right, a coil sitting on a table.
     "The humble rope," the catalog copy begins. "Both utilitarian and artistic in its own right—dates back to antiquity and the ancient Egyptians."
     So does snot, but let's keep going.
     "Our hand-twisted, 2"-thick jute rope makes a simple, textural statement, whether hanging in a coil or unfurled over a mantel."
     And what kind of simple statement would that be? I believe it is a bold declaration of: I paid 90 bucks for a length of rope. Not only that, a length of rope that I can't even use. For there, in small print, "For decorative use only."
     Here, though, I want to change course a bit. Because the Restoration Hardware rope, well, it looks like a really nice rope. I do understand decorative objects. In my office at home, there's my dad's Vibroplex telegraph key. An old globe with lion's paw feet. A Haitian rum bottle, covered in black sequins, with a skull and crossbones in silver sequins. Three busts of Dante.
     But these are items from MY life, not something expensively purchased and set out to suggest a life I might have led.
     Yes, beautiful things can cost money. Mounted on the office wall is an antique catcher's mitt—it wasn't my catcher's mitt, but from the 1940s, big and round and perfect, the color of caramel. I was trolling eBay for catcher's mitts for my son, and saw this, and thought it would look great and for $25, why not?
     Is there a big difference between $25 for a catcher's mitt you don't use and $89 for some rope you can't use? I don't know.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 17, 2010


  1. I appreciate fine art as much as the next poorly informed art lover so as I strolled through the Art Institute, some of the pieces baffled me. That 90 dollar piece of rope could have hung there and blended right in with some of the other, considerably more "valuable" exhibits.

  2. I can't count the number of times I've walked through the Palmer House lobby, just to walk through the Palmer House lobby. Gorgeous. (Well, sometimes to use the restroom, too!) A nice shout-out to the folks who make a place like that what it is. I certainly hope it can make it through this conflagration.

    "Is there a big difference between $25 for a catcher's mitt you don't use and $89 for some rope you can't use?" Yeah, $64 and a different aesthetic come to mind. Restoration Hardware helps to demonstrate that people with large, disposable incomes like to dispose of their incomes, it seems. In a similar vein, a $250 shirt may made better than a $35 shirt, but not 7 times better.

    That description of the rope reminds me of J. Peterman.

  3. Does the rum bottle have New Orleans origins? What's the story?


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