The Palmer Mansion, a home that topped them all

The Palmer Mansion, a home that topped them all

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Drive past 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago today and you’ll see a 22-story red brick apartment complex that’s home to about 740 units.

But this bland looking set of buildings obscures what used to be on the site: one of the most luxurious and ostentatious private homes in Chicago history.

Palmer Mansion once stood at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive. (Library of Congress/Wikipedia Commons)

Palmer Mansion graced the site beginning with its construction in 1882, and was home to Potter Palmer, the great retail titan who helped establish State Street as the city’s premier shopping corridor. He shared the home with his socialite wife, Bertha Honoré Palmer, for whom he’d also erected the luxurious Palmer House hotel.

The Palmer’s a-historical pastiche of a home was a faux-European turreted castle of brick and sandstone that cost $20,000,000 in today’s money and was the first home constructed on the near North Side, in what would later become the Gold Coast neighborhood.

The estate featured, among other things: a three-story central hall with a glass dome an 80 ft. spiral staircase, a Spanish music room, an Ottoman parlour, a 75 ft. long grand ballroom, and a gallery for Mrs. Palmer’s extensive collection of Impressionist paintings.

One of Bertha Palmer's art salons in Palmer Mansion. (Library of Congress/Chicago Daily News)
Mrs. Palmer later left her collection to the Art Institute of Chicago. (Library of Congress/Chicago Daily News)

The opulence of the building reflected Mrs. Palmer’s tastes. An early celebrity pursued by 19th century paparazzi and ardent fans, she was queen of Chicago’s gilded age glitterati - a smart, shrewd woman who helped to organize and boost the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and doubled her late husband’s fortune in the years after his death.

Bertha Honore Palmer with husband Potter Palmer. (Library of Congress/Chicago Daily News)

Developers tore down the mansion in 1951, because, as one Wikipedia commenter put it, “people are idiots.” (Also because historic preservation was less robust in the ‘50s.) But you can hear Mrs. Palmer, as played by historian and actress Leslie Goddard, describe the mansion - and its less than favorable reception by the press - in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Leslie Goddard performed at an event presented by Culinary Historians of Chicago in October. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.