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Potter and Bertha Palmer

Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
Potter Palmer Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
Bertha Palmer Photo credit: Chicago History Museum

If cities had royalty, then Potter and Bertha Palmer would certainly have qualified as Chicago’s merchant king and queen.

State Street became an early retail destination largely through Potter Palmer’s savvy investment and promotion. Among his many business interests, he opened a dry goods store that would later expand into Marshall Field and Company. He built the original Palmer House Hotel in 1870, and when it was destroyed in the Great Fire, he built an even more opulent, “fire-proof” replacement.

His stylish wife, Bertha, led Chicago society and patronized the arts, returning from trips to Europe with impressionist masterpieces. She adorned the Palmer House lobby extravagantly, including works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Palmer also pioneered development in the area north of downtown that became Chicago’s Gold Coast. His own home, since demolished, was a veritable castle on Lake Shore Drive.