Travelogue: Part 5 — On to Chicago and the grand Palmer House Hotel

New York City’s Moynihan Train Hall: Marble, marble everywhere and not a spot to sit! – Rhyme of the Ancient Train Passenger. (Nathaniel Brown photo)

Publisher’s note: After a pandemic hiatus, Nathaniel Brown of Edmonds is on another train trip adventure, and will share reports about his travels. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here and Part 4 here.

In New York, the Algonquin was kind enough to allow me a late checkout, which made for a relaxing morning writing the previous travelogue, then off by taxi to the new Moynihan Train Hall, which opened just last year to relieve the horrible congestion in Pennsylvania Station. It is certainly an enormous improvement – clean, spacious, efficient.  The hall is a thorough  renovation of the old Beaux-Arts Farley Building, with the happy addition of a central atrium with a glass roof. The hall includes retail space, and, according to Wikipedia,  a 320-seat waiting area. Except: no 320 seats, and owing to the size and construction, an echo that would do St. Paul’s in London credit, and jumbles all announcements beyond any chance of comprehension. This is especially true with the New Yowk-accented, fast-delivery experts holding the mic and, apparently, keeping most information a dark secret. Think airport announcements, only with added accent and reverberation. Still, of all the stations I’ve traversed, it is the cleanest and easiest to use.

Only slightly late on arrival in Chicago (”slight” in Amtrak terms, around two hours in real time), we did the by-now-traditional long wait on the elevated line that leads to Union Station, where I  observed a fascinating local tradition: directly below us was a fairly busy street at right angles to the train, with a stop sign. Not one car that I observed actually stopped, though a few did slow down. This would appear to be a local custom, like the time-hallowed practice in Boston of the driver behind you blowing his horn within a nanosecond of a traffic light turning green. (Apologies to the pronoun sensitive, but it’s not “they;” it is always male drivers who do this.) Edmonds should take heart – we seem to be developing our own indigenous convention: On two successive days before I left, I saw cars go through the 3rd and Main intersection red light with sublime indifference to traffic or pedestrians. In neither case was anyone hurt, which reinforces the theory that stop lights and stop signs are only a weary imposition on drivers.

In Chicago, the old Palmer House Hotel, now a Hilton, is back in action after 18 months of COVID, closure, and looking for a buyer. And it’s certainly hopping! The grand old lobby was full and noisy, and every staff person I  spoke to glowed with delight when I mentioned this. Clearly, there is a great “family” feeling among those who work at the hotel: an elderly but enthusiastic doorman told me that a group of employees used to gather by the main entrance during the closure, to reminisce and take comfort from the shared memories. At the end of the day, the Palmer House is my favorite hotel anywhere, and I cheerfully admit to preferring the old hotels; if they’re of good stock, like people, they age well and have character, and staff adhere proudly to an inherited and shared wisdom, which makes for a genuine welcome, unlike the oh-so-glamorous and fashionable chrome-and-glass ice palaces. The Palmer House will never age for me, nor fade, nor die… Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.  (With thanks to Shakespeare, who always says it better).

The Palmer House bar and lobby. Note Art Deco accents. (Photo courtesy Palmer House website)

The last time I  was here, the Arctic Vortex hit, driving temperatures down as low as -40F.  (See my 2019 Travelogue column here.) Some hotel employees made it home before transportation closed down; others were stranded and stayed in rooms in the hotel. My train home was canceled, flights were canceled, and I was stranded in the Palmer House for two extra days; still, it would be hard to find a better place to be stranded than in Chicago’s oldest and most stately grand hotel.

Though Amtrak was three hours late arriving in Chicago, my check-in time was still later in the afternoon. However, the front desk very kindly allowed me have my room three hours before check-in time, especially after it came to light that both the clerk and I were both veterans of the Vortex. By now it was lunch time and I  had not eaten since the night before. The hotel dining room has not reopened yet except for breakfast, but the Lockwood Express, something like a Pret a Manger, was open and serves very good house-produced sandwiches, salads, various drinks and espresso. Here again, I  was greeted as  brother-in-arms when I  mentioned experiencing the Vortex.

(I hasten to point out that the lobby bar has opened,  and that evening provided me with a “Tammany Hall,” a Manhattan made with Irish whisky, and much the better for it, as far as I’m concerned!)

The bedrooms at the Palmer have a nice, solid, old-fashioned feel to them (they should – the hotel, the third on the site, was built in 1923). And it’s vast – 23 stories, and halls a mile long! I had to ask directions once I arrived on the 20th floor, because the main halls seem to have an infinite number of identical tributaries leading off in every direction.

A Palmer House hall: Catch the shuttle to the end of the hall, and turn left – into another hall! (Nathaniel Brown photo)

By the time I was into my room I was  exhausted from  travel, lack of sleep on the train, and lingering sore spots from the Escalator Escapade, so rather than allowing myself to feel it a duty to do something, I unpacked a bit and read and napped till dinner time. Dinner was at the Berghoff German restaurant, “100% family-owned and family-operated for more than 123 years,” as the website proudly declares. (It’s also Chicago’s oldest restaurant.) And it was packed! Last time I was here was during the Vortex, and there was only one other lonely party rattling around the dining empty dining room. The Berghoff serves decent German-style (not imported) food, good in-house produced beers — and no salsa music! The restaurant is situated less than a block from the hotel, a very good thing for tired feet and those fleeing braving polar vortexes.

The Berghoff, with its very own built-in, brewery. (Photo courtesy the Berghoff website)

— By Nathaniel Brown

Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden.  He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation.  He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement. 

 

 

  1. Reading Nat Brown’s travel by train saga evokes a bygone age of comfortable, slow, cross country travel that did not require being lined up and jammed into airlines’ cramped seating. The fact the cross country journey could still begin or end here in Edmonds at the city’s Amtrak station adds to it appeal. I hope Mr Brown will write more about his adventures.

    1. I spent a week at the Palmer House when we lived in Iowa. Went to Chicago for fun. The Palmer house is or was so beautiful. The ceiling was amazing. We were young and silly so we would ride the elevator to every floor at go look as the elevator getting off points were gorgeous too. We would sneak around and go into rooms with pianos etc. Just a great place. The Shed Aquarium was awesome as was the Museum of History. I have forgotten took about 12 rolls of film ha in there. And the Lake with the beach and the mostly older men playing chess along the walk way. THE fountain oh yeah. Great Bar B Q. Say the King and I there with Yule Brenner sp. It was spectacular. Also Avita also spectacular. The Ribs to die for. The Blues a Club that was there then was so good. I hope all of it is still there for you. Have fun. The architecure of those old big buildings is amazing.

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