Many people don’t realize that Chicago is a major destination for tourists: in the summer, particularly, you are likely to run into people from almost anywhere strolling through the parks, shopping on Michigan Avenue, or investigating our museums and art galleries. One reason for this is that Chicago has a long tradition of fine hotels, catering not only to conventioneers but to others from all walks of life. Joan Green, in Hotels and Hospitality and Marshall Field’s Food and Fashion, two guidebooks published by Pomegranate, investigates some of that tradition.
Tourism in Chicago dates from the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and seems never to have slowed down very much, give or take some slack times during two World Wars and a major depression. Greene focuses on four of Chicago’s finest hotels, beginning with the Palmer House, first opened in the Loop by Potter Palmer on September 26, 1871. Less than two weeks later, it was a smoldering ruin, another victim of the Great Chicago Fire. Undeterred, Palmer built a second and even grander hotel across the street, which opened in 1873. It was one of the most lavish hotels of its time, with ceilings painted by Pierre Louis Rigal, wool and silk carpets, the Empire Room, which opened in 1925 and was host to the foremost performers in the world for decades (it is now available only for private parties), and just about any amenity you can think of. It claims the oldest continuous operation of any hotel in the United States, and has had only two owners: Potter Palmer, and the Hilton Corporation.
The Peninsula, one of Chicago’s newest hotels, is widely considered the country’s best. It is, to say the least, lavish: children and pets are welcome, the hotel offers page service (anything from fetching a caffe latte to walking the dog), several highly rated eateries, and even a $458,000 weekend package that includes a suite larger than most people’s apartments, a private Jacuzzi, a 2,000 square foot terrace (which is certainly larger than most apartments), in-room massages, and, as keepsakes, a five-carat diamond ring for her, eight-carat Pratesi diamond cufflinks for him, and a Bentley. (It is not reported that anyone has taken advantage of this special offer yet.)
By comparison, the Drake, one of Chicago’s legendary landmarks, seems almost modest. The Drake Hotel began, believe it or not, as a summer resort on the shore of Lake Michigan in 1920. (The city has grown a bit.) It contains two of Chicago’s most famous restaurants, the Gold Coast Room and the Cape Cod Room, has survived being converted to military lodging, and hosted royalty, diplomats, politicians, and movie stars. The Drake is now the Grand Lady of the Gold Coast, next door to North Michigan Avenue shopping and across Lake Shore Drive from the beaches and parks of the lakefront.
And of course, there is the Hilton. The Hilton was quite possibly the largest hotel ever built at its opening in 1927. (It may still be.) The amenities are somewhat staggering: a 1,200 seat movie theater, a five-lane bowling alley, a fully staffed hospital, a twenty-five-thousand volume library, and a retail concourse that was really its own mall. It has been a favorite location for movies (when you see a helicopter landing on a roof, it was probably shot at the Hilton), has hosted any number of luminaries, and was a makeshift triage theater during what the book somewhat ironically calls the “unrest” at the 1968 Democratic Convention — the riots were across the street.
In 1866, Potter Palmer sold a dry goods store on Lake Street to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. In 1881, Field bought out Leiter and renamed the business Marshall Field and Company.
Marshall Field’s has often been considered the best department store in the world. In reading Greene’s account of its history, it’s amazing to discover how much of what we take for granted in fine retail operations started in Chicago at Marshall Field’s. It was the first retail store oriented toward women, who spend most of the retail dollars. It was the first to provide a suitable place for women to relax and have lunch while downtown (there are many who still consider that you have not really been to Field’s until you’ve had lunch in the Walnut Room). Marshall Field’s window displays, which are legends themselves, were the first to utilize carefully arranged examples of one or two items, rather than a mix of everything. Marshall Field’s was the first to open a separate Store for Men, devoted entirely to men’s clothing and furnishings, and providing a place where the men, too, could relax and have a bite — or something. Field’s was the first to feature designer boutiques within the store, in the 28 Shop; in the early years, the designers featured included Hattie Carnegie, Norman Norell, and Omar Kiam. It is still known for carrying the best designers in the world.
Food is another area where Marshall Field’s has been a leader. In addition to its restaurants, it is renowned for the famous Frango Mints, and in the fall of 2003 it introduced Field’s culinary council, an advisory committee composed of twelve of the country’s top chefs. One can take cooking classes at Field’s, and the Marketplace on the lower level displays a wealth of fine kitchenware and gourmet foods, some of which are prepared on the spot.
Customer service has long been the hallmark of Marshall Field’s, and an area in which it has also been a leader. It may be urban legend, but I have heard stories of people returning goods 25 years after purchase: they were accepted for a refund with a smile. At any rate, Marshall Field’s is one of the finest places in Chicago to shop, where one can find quality goods at prices for just about any budget, cordial and efficient service, and a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. The irony of this guidebook at this point is that it has recently been announced that Marshall Field’s will no longer bear the name — I’m not really sure who owns it now, since it has passed through one of those domino-effect sort of consolidations that are so common these days, but it may wind up being Macy’s — unless someone has bought Macy’s. (An update: Marshall Field’s has, indeed, become Macy’s, which is not the same thing at all.)
These are wonderful little books, beautifully done and informative, rich in history and colorfully illustrated, and this pair has an added advantage: they include recipes, from Marshall Field’s Frango Mint Chocolate Cheesecake and Mrs. Hering’s Chicken Pot Pie to the Palmer House’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie (created under the direction of Mrs. Potter Palmer herself), the Hilton’s Baked Alaska, the Peninsula’s Tomato Soup, and the Drake’s famous Bookbinder Soup. So, if you’re coming to Chicago, avail yourself of one or two of these handy guides to highlights of the city.