That Toddlin’ Town

“We saved our money ($400) and made plans to take a trip to Chicago and other points in the summer of 1948. G. D. and Helen [Russell’s oldest brother and sister-in-law] were to be there for the furniture mart at the same time, so we all stayed at the Palmer House, which was considered one of the best hotels in the city. We drove up in July (no air conditioning in the car) and enjoyed seeing the countryside. It was my first experience in hotels and restaurants that were not totally segregated and it seemed strange seeing black people checking in at the same time we were.

G.D., Birch and Helen Criss, 1943.

“We thought we were smart enough to just follow highway signs into Chicago and straight on to downtown to the Palmer House. No one had told us to avoid the south side of Chicago, which was predominately black and not considered safe. So on a Sunday morning we were driving down the street when a carload of blacks spotted our Mississippi tag and puled up beside us and started calling us names I had never heard. I was scared to death because there was not a white face in sight, even all the police were black. I was afraid Russell would decide to say something back to them (they were in a convertible), so I told him to put the window up and get out of there as fast as he could. That was our introduction to Chicago. The Democratic Convention was going on in Pennsylvania at the same time, and the States Rights group from Mississippi had walked out, which did not help the way many of the northerners felt about us anyway.

Ad for the second Palmer House

“We lived it up and went to the Boulevard Room at the Stevens Hotel, the Aragon Ballroom and to the Chez Paree, where we saw Dick Haymes and Danny Thomas.

The Aragon ballroom dance floor

We tried all the good restaurants and went to museums and to the Trade Mart. We were there about five days and just about wore ourselves out. Then you did not dress comfortably when you went to a city but wore high heels, a hat and dress-up clothes. Walking the streets of Chicago in new green shoes with very high heels did not help make my vacation any more pleasant.

“G.D. got us into the huge Furniture Mart by telling them we were representing a Greenwood furniture store, since it was only open to authorized buyers. There were floors and floors of furniture of every description, and G.D. told us we could order anything we wanted at cost (half price) and have it shipped through a local store. We would never again have such an opportunity, but unfortunately our little apartment was full and we had spent all our money on the trip. We did order our coffee table which was different than any we had ever seen, with a built-in bar. Later they wrote that they had quiet making this model, but let us have the sample.”

The living room furniture they bought on that trip is still in the house on East Adams, where it belongs. My son and daughter-in-law have the intriguing little coffee table, complete with a secret bar that was just tailor-made for a child’s imagination. The glass top disappeared somewhere in their transition from Charleston to Madison. I just hope whoever has it (the president of Jackson State, maybe? She shared the moving van to Mississippi…..) appreciates all those faded moisture rings from 5 o’clock Scotch-and-waters.

$400? That might buy enough gas now to get you up through Tennessee and one night at the Motel 6, coming and going.

Ed. note: from the Palmer House site on Wikipedia:

There have been three Palmer House Hotels at the corner of State and Monroe Streets in Chicago.

The first (known as “The Palmer”) was built as a wedding present from Potter Palmer to his bride Bertha Honoré. It opened on September 26, 1871, but burned down just thirteen days later October 9, 1871 in the Great Chicago Fire. Palmer immediately set to work rebuilding, and with a $1.7 million signature loan (believed to be the largest individual loan ever secured at the time) constructed one of the fanciest hotels in post-fire Chicago.

Designed by architect John M. Van Osdel, the secondPalmer House Hotel was seven stories. Its amenities included oversized rooms, luxurious decor, and sumptuous meals served in grand style. The floor of its barber shop was reputedly tiled with silver dollars. Constructed mainly of iron and brick, the hotel was widely advertised as, “The World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel.”[1] Famous visitors included presidential hopefuls James GarfieldGrover ClevelandUlysses S. GrantWilliam Jennings Bryan and William McKinley; writers Mark TwainL. Frank Baum, and Oscar Wilde; and actresses Sarah Bernhardt andEleanora Duse.[citation needed] It was completed in 1875.

By the 1920s, the business in downtown Chicago could support a much larger facility and the Palmer Estate decided to erect a new 25-story hotel. They hired Holabird & Roche to design the building. Between 1923 and 1925, the hotel was rebuilt on the same site — in stages so not a single day of business was lost. At the time it was touted as the largest hotel in the world.[2]

In December 1945, Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House for $20 million. In 2005 it was sold to Thor Equities, but it remains part of the Hilton chain.[3]

From 2007 to 2009 the hotel, now known as The Palmer House Hilton, was completely renovated and restored, at a cost of over $170 Million. [4] It has a total of 1,639 guest rooms in the hotel, making it the second largest hotel in the city after the Hyatt Regency Chicago.[

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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