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Return of a Grand Dame
Preservation Magazine, by Jonathan Eig

I like hotels with ghosts. I like the Monteleone in New Orleans, which is surely haunted by the Sazerac-sipping spirit of Tennessee Williams. I like the Otesaga in Cooperstown, N.Y., where I can almost see Ty Cobb cheating Babe Ruth in a game of hearts. I like the Driskill in Austin, Tex., where I half-expect to find Lyndon B. Johnson tilting on a barstool and twisting somebody's arm about something. I like these old hotels and countless others because, when I go on a trip, I like to travel across time and not merely miles.

That's why, when a historic hotel gets renovated, I get nervous. How much will be lost? Hotels are not like houses, after all. They get trampled by a massive flow of human traffic. They require frequent renovation and modernization to keep up with the competition. They have to make money, or they die. In many ways, maintaining the essence of an old hotel is more difficult than maintaining a home or a cathedral or a museum. How much of the past is going to be stripped away? How much of the story will be painted over?

When renovation began in November 2006 on the Palmer House Hilton, which is just a few miles from my home in Chicago, I was especially apprehensive. I've always thought of the Palmer House as one of the city's neglected jewels, and I've been disappointed in recent years as it lost much of its shine. The elegant Drake Hotel sits atop Michigan Avenue, visible for miles to anyone heading south on Lake Shore Drive toward the beach. The Hilton Chicago, formerly the Stevens, presents its face proudly for everyone in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue to see. But the Palmer House sits deep in the heart of the Loop, with El tracks running down one side, and traffic and commerce all around. More than any hotel, this one seems to beat like a heart within the body of its city. Yet when I closed my eyes and tried to picture the facade, my mind drew a blank, even though I walked past it constantly. Each time I dropped by the hotel for lunch or an after-work drink, I found that I'd made it inside without noticing anything on the exterior but the suspended metal canopy. Even its high-ceilinged lobby struck me as drab and musty, more train station than parlor. Full Article