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Designed by Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Sumner Frost, the 50-room Potter Mansion was built in 1885 at a cost of more than $1 million, or $25 million in 2012 dollars.

The library. The Potter Mansion also featured an Ottoman parlor, a Renaissance library, a French drawing room and an English dining room that seated 50.

The main art gallery. Bertha Palmer was an early collector of Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas.

Solid Gold

In 1885 Palmer and Bertha Potter unveiled the grandest residence Chicago would ever see, and established the Gold Coast as the city’s most desirable neighborhood.

It would live on in city lore forever: The most luxurious residence Chicago had ever seen, a veritable castle on Lake Shore Drive designed by famed architects Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Sumner Frost, and built for a then-unheard of cost of more than $1 million. In its heyday, the singular mansion would house one of the world’s great art collections, serve as host to presidents and royalty, and transform the Gold Coast from a swamp into the city’s most desirable neighborhood. But the story of the Palmer Mansion starts long before it was built in 1885.

In 1862 Potter Palmer, a Quaker dry goods merchant who had moved to Chicago from Lockport, N.Y., a decade earlier, first laid eyes on the beauteous Bertha Honoré. Bertha came from wealth in Louisville, and she reeked of grace and refinement. Potter was lovestruck. But he was 36 and she was 13, and that was a stretch even back then.

“He said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl someday,’” says Ken Price, public relations director for the Palmer House Hilton and historian of all things Palmer. “He told her father, ‘One day, when your daughter is of age, I would like to take her to church and tea.’ Honoré thought he was crazy. He slammed the door in his face.”

Crazy in love, maybe. He focused his passion on his business, catered to female consumers, developed the first window displays and instituted a “customer is always right” policy. Many historians contend Potter invented shopping as we know it. He made millions. When Bertha turned 21, the now-prominent 44-year-old tried again.

Bertha, who attended college in a post-Civil War age when most people barely made it through seventh grade, was won over. The two married in July 1870 at her parents’ home on Michigan Avenue, across from what today is the Art Institute of Chicago. (You’ll see the irony in this later.)
Potter had wearied of dry goods, selling his business to a consortium that became Marshall Field & Company, and shifted his interests to real estate development. As his wedding present to Bertha, he constructed the spectacular Palmer House, the grandest hotel in Chicago.

The Palmer House opened on Sept. 26, 1871. Thirteen days later, the Great Chicago Fire roared through the city and left the hotel a pile of smoldering rubble.

Some gift.

“Potter reportedly wanted to move back to New York,” says Price. According to a New York Times piece of the period, Bertha replied, “Mr. Palmer, it is the duty of every Chicagoan to stay here and devote his fortune and energies to rebuilding this stricken city.”

So Potter rebuilt the Palmer House, fireproof this time. The couple lived in a suite there. But Potter knew Bertha expected more for their private residence. He had been buying up land along Lake Michigan, to the howls of his contemporaries. The swampland, known as “Frog Pond,” was all mud and willows; Lake Shore Drive was a road. But an undeterred Potter Palmer chose that area for what undoubtedly became the most famous house in Chicago history: Palmer Mansion, or “The Castle.”

While detractors branded it “Frog’s Folly,” Potter began hauling tons of sand from the lake to fill his marshes. In 1882 he began building, hiring celebrated architects Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Sumner Frost to design the structure and another design team to create the interior. He pledged to give Bertha everything she desired in her new home: Budgeted at less than $100,000, the total cost soared past $1 million. At one point, Potter asked the architects to stop showing him the bills.

The brownstone palace at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive was completed in 1885. Described by one wag as “sumptuous and abominable,” it was studded with balconies, turrets and minarets. Like most castles, it was a fortress of privacy: There were no exterior doorknobs or locks anywhere on the building. Even the Palmer sons, Honoré and Potter Jr., had to knock to gain entrance.

The 50 interior rooms resembled some bizarre world history lesson. There was an Ottoman parlor, a Renaissance library, a Moorish bedroom, a French drawing room and an English dining room seating 50. Bertha slept on a Louis XVI bed 10 feet high. The eastle included two private elevators, a Chicago first. Potter, a reclusive sort with few social graces, would use one to escape to his 80-foot ivy-covered tower whenever Bertha was entertaining guests.

And oh, how she entertained. Bertha opened her rooftop ballroom to U.S. presidents (notably Ulysses S. Grant, whose son married her sister), European royalty and the crustiest of Chicago’s upper crust. A passionate crusader for women’s equality, she regularly hosted feminist meetings and, when Chicago won the bid to host the 1893 World’s Fair, was instrumental in erecting the pavilion to celebrate the accomplishments of women.

From frequent Paris shopping trips, Bertha became enamored with the Impressionist works of such artists as Monet, Renoir and Degas. Many Chicagoans angled for an invitation just to see the Palmers’ three-story castle gallery overflowing with paintings. Others purchased Potter’s lakefront parcels near the mansion in hopes of making the list for Bertha’s New Year’s Day reception, the city’s hoity-toitiest social event. In the process, the Palmers established the beachhead for the Gold Coast: By the 1890s Chicago’s elite had forsaken Prairie Avenue, the previous Millionaire’s Row, and migrated north to rub elbows with them along Lake Shore Drive.

Bertha never relinquished a single painting while she lived, but upon her death in May 1918 she left them to the Art Institute of Chicago, giving it one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist art. (See the irony?) The Palmer sons sold the mansion to an auto magnate who vowed to build the world’s largest hotel on the site. That never happened: Instead, The Castle stood vacant for years until being demolished in 1950 to make way for two 22-story apartment buildings.

Perhaps writer David Garrad Lowe put it best when he said, in his classic work Lost Chicago, “If one could magically reconstruct any of Chicago’s lost, great houses, the first choice would have to be the castle designed in 1882 for the merchant, real estate tycoon and hotelman Palmer Potter and his dazzling consort, Berthe Honoré.”