Preserving a Bertha Palmer Legacy


Possibly Chicago’s most spectacular room.




By Megan McKinney



When Potter Palmer married the dazzling Bertha Honoré in 1870, his wedding present to the bride was to be a brand new hotel, known as The Palmer, at the corner of State and Monroe Streets. Potter was then in the process of transforming State Street from a ragged former Indian trail into the city’s finest commercial thoroughfare, for which Marshall Field’s new store and Bertha’s hotel would be the highlights (but that’s a story for another issue).

Thirteen days after the hotel’s 1871 grand opening, Chicago burned and took with it Bertha’s hotel. When the fire cooled, Potter began planning a second magnificent hotel for Bertha in its ashes. The architect was the great John M. Van Osdel.


Bertha’s second hotel.


Potter Palmer died in 1902 and Bertha followed 16 years later; however the force of their personalities remains in both Chicago and the Palmer House today. Diners in the existing hotel continue to order brownies baked according to Bertha’s 1893 directions and guests visit a museum devoted to her within the hotel, conveying an enduring sense of her presence.


Bertha Palmer.


When the third Palmer House, designed by the eminent architectural firm Holabird & Roche, was being constructed during the 1920’s, it was with Bertha’s unseen guidance.   


The Sistine Chapel, with its magnificent Michelangelo ceiling.


As her admirers well know, Bertha was an incomparable connoisseur of art. And, although we think of her as a specialist in French Impressionism, whose magnificent canvases are the basis of the Art Institute collection, Bertha had an unerring eye for all art. Shortly before her 1918 death she visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome and realized how a unified collection of murals, stretching the 50 foot long ceiling of the new hotel’s great lobby, would resonate with all those within the space. She even determined the theme for the 21 murals—Love and Romance—and selected the artist, French Art Deco painter Louis Pierre Rigal.  


                                                                                                                                       Photo by Anthony La Penna


It has been a century since Bertha set in motion the creation of the current lobby ceiling, which the Palmer House has maintained with great care.

If you visit the hotel during the next month, you will see evidence of its latest restoration, a great scaffold in the lobby and an attractive couple, Anthony and Mata Kartsonas, working at its top, skillfully restoring the intricate murals.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Photo by Anthony La Penna


Architectural conservators Anthony and Mata Kartsonas are historic finishes specialists, who provide restoration and conservation to a broad spectrum of surfaces.


Photo by Anthony La Penna 


                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Photo by Anthony La Penna

A closer look reveals the importance of ongoing maintenance of the murals.


Anthony and Mata are also restoring the pair of  24-karat gold Winged Angels candelabra statues by Louis Comfort Tiffany.


One of the pair of Tiffany Winged Angels flanking the Empire Room  staircase at the lobby’s north end.



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Anthony La Penna   


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Anthony La Penna


Altogether, it is quite a package conceived by Bertha Palmer and scrupulously maintained by the Palmer House Hilton through the skilled hands of the Kartsonas.




Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl