The Potter Palmer “castle” which stood at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive for more than half a century remains one of the most legendary houses ever built in Chicago, despite the fact it was razed in 1950. Likewise, the builders, Potter and Bertha Honoré Palmer, are names that remain well-known to anyone with even a passing interest in Chicago history. This Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:30pm, WTTW Channel 11 presents a 30-minute documentary entitled Love Under Fire: The Story of Bertha and Potter Palmer.
The Palmers, in completing their mansion on Lake Shore Drive in 1884, established the North Side Gold Coast which eventually drew many of the families away from Prairie Avenue and the South Side. Their decision to build where they did was bold – when Potter Palmer purchased a half mile of undeveloped lakefront property north of downtown, many considered it of little value and not worthy of development. But Palmer saw the potential and soon acquired additional property, eventually amassing an impressive portfolio of real estate upon which he built dozens of homes that he resold to members of Chicago’s social elite, establishing the character of the neighborhood.
The Palmers’ own house, the largest ever built in Chicago, was designed by Cobb & Frost, and although originally budgeted at “just” $90,000, cost more than a million dollars by the time it was finished three years after construction began. The opulent interiors were designed by Herter & Company of New York in a variety of styles from Renaissance to Gothic and Moorish to Eastlake, and served as a showcase for the Palmer’s collection of paintings and other art objects. In preparation for the 1893 World’s Fair, the Palmers hired Henry Hardenberg (architect of New York’s Plaza Hotel) to build a huge art gallery addition to the house. Famously, the house had no exterior doorknobs or locks, so that entry was possible only when admitted by a servant.
The Glessners, although preferring a far less ostentatious way of living, were guests at the Palmer mansion on a number of occasions and Frances Glessner and Bertha Palmer collaborated on various projects, and were members of various clubs together including the Fortnightly. The letter below, sent to Frances Glessner in May 1888, is typical of the letters from Bertha Palmer now preserved in the Glessner House Museum archives:
100 Lake Shore Drive
My dear Mrs. Glessner:
I regret very much that I was not at home to accept your kind invitation to meet Mrs. Ashton Dilke. I am sure it was a charming occasion and that I missed a great treat.
May I ask if you would like to make one of five ladies to open your house for readings by Mrs. Sherwood of New York? She would be here the latter part of May I think, that has not been definitely determined.
You of course know of the great success she has had in New York, especially this season. She wishes to have at least one hundred ladies at ten dollars each for the five readings and I think your rooms open so charmingly that they could be accommodated. Please do not think of saying “Yes” if you are tired out with all you have been doing to give pleasure to your friends. I would understand fully that there is a limit to human endurance and that you have possibly reached it.
Thanking you again for your kind invitation and begging an early reply to my importunate request – by telephone if possible –
Your sincere friend
Bertha M. H. Palmer
(Notes: The letter bears the original address of the Palmer house, 100 Lake Shore Drive. Mrs. Glessner did consent to host one of Mrs. Sherwood’s readings at her home, which took place on May 22, 1888 with 150 ladies present).
Potter Palmer died in 1902 and Bertha Palmer in 1918. The castle remained vacant until 1921 when Potter Palmer Jr. moved in, hiring architect David Adler to make significant alterations. It was sold to Vincent Bendix in 1928 but reacquired by Palmer Jr. in 1933, standing largely unused, and finally succumbing to the wrecking ball in 1950.
Note regarding photographs: The photo of the castle shown at the top of the article was taken about 1888 by the Glessners’ son George, a talented amateur photograph. The portrait of Bertha Palmer is a cabinet card given by her to Frances Glessner. It was taken at M. J. Steffens Atelier, located at the time at the southeast corner of Prairie Avenue and 22nd Street (now Cermak Road).