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Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, Where Big Ten Conference was Founded, Has Closed

By Mark Schipper


The empty paving stones beneath the golden awning of the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. photo by Mark Schipper

A strange sort of desolation has settled over the legendary Palmer House in the heart of Chicago’s downtown Loop, the hotel where the Big Ten Conference was founded one-hundred twenty-six years ago.


When life is as it ought be, that turn east from State Street onto Monroe, where the colossal hotel rises up twenty-five stories in the shape of a blunted brick trident, the traveler is accosted by a tumultuous, Big City scene that looks set-dressed and choreographed for a movie. But in these days of Covid all that's left is the fast, restive vehicle traffic and the solitary mask-people, striding through with their heads down, no longer worried about dodging a bellhop or slipping around a voyager from the Great Plains staring up into the buildings and trying to get their bearings without benefit of open sky.

The taxis and ride-shares no longer jam their way onto the curb and, tragically, there is nothing left for them to honk at. The gilded, heavy metal and glass doors catch hard against their locks, while inside the building, the bright bustling passages full of shops that funnel guests to an ornate lobby out of the French Empire, with corinthian columns and a vaulted ceiling covered in frescoes that could decorate a palace—everything that makes you feel the romance and adventure of traveling in a great city—are darkened by shadows.

The blunted trident of the Palmer House as seen from State Street. photo by Mark Schipper

It feels like an important light has failed and that something essential depends on its firing back up. After all, the Palmer House is where, in January of 1895, seven faculty representatives from a group of Midwestern universities met to write policy for regulating the increasingly anarchic culture of college football and bringing it to heel.


Those meetings, held in the opulence of the hotel’s high-ceilinged, wood-paneled conference rooms, led to the birth of the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. The future of major college athletics, its organization and philosophical underpinnings, were seeded right alongside the new league.

The Palmer also is the hotel where, in November of 1905, a decade after those seminal meetings, an agent of the hotel—the fellow responsible for procuring show tickets for guests—was clapped in irons for scalping seats to the undefeated showdown between Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Chicago Maroons and Fielding Yost’s Michigan Wolverines. The game, which carried the already portentous title of the Western Championship, would become known as college football's first Game of the Century, and the decisive battle for that year's retroactively awarded national championship.


The hotel agent, who was nothing if not unlucky, was made an example of by authorities after the secondary market for the game had mushroomed out of control. After being taken into custody he told his tormentors he'd been providing destitute college students charity when he bought tickets off them at an inflated cost. Just who the agent believed he was providing charity for when he moved to re-sell the seats at another healthy markup was not recorded for posterity.


The 1905 Championship of the West as the mighty Michigan Wolverines visited Chicago to take on Amos Alonzo Stagg's Maroons

The massive, sixteen-hundred room landmark from the golden age of Chicago, which can claim a list of celebrity performers covering half the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, went into foreclosure last March at the outset of the global pandemic. It is unthinkable that one of the city’s iconic buildings—built by an early titan of the metropolis as a wedding present to his wife—could close forever, but these are dark and blighted days and the hotel’s owners, who are underwater on a massive mortgage, are declining to make a public statement.

In 1895, and then again in 1896, when the faculty meetings were held, the Midwest's major metropolis was the obvious spot. Had James H. Smart, president at Purdue University and the man who'd organized the sessions, drawn lines from the campuses of the invited schools toward an idealized middle, the result would have looked like uneven spokes on a wheel with Chicago at the hub.


Not only were there plenty of nice hotels to pick from, but two of the participating universities in the University of Chicago, and Northwestern in Evanston at the city’s northern border, were already there. The rest of the quorum were dotted around the Great Lakes and upper Midwest, in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Champaign, Illinois; West Lafayette, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, each an easy train ride over the quiet northern prairies and through the heavy timber-country to the Windy City.

And while it could have been another hotel, the Palmer House was the class option. The first edition had been built in 1871 by Potter Palmer as a wedding present for his wife, Berthe Honore, a wealthy woman who liked to purchase art and other expensive things and make gifts of them to the city. They called her a philanthropist and a socialite before the latter term was turned into an insult reserved for the addled third-generation heiresses to old fortunes.


Palmer was a retail revolutionary and an innovative salesman, the business partner of another American Titan in Marshall Field, who made a fortune selling practical wares to the city’s massive population. He poured much of his wealth back into his adopted hometown in the form of buildings and infrastructure along State Street, which was the commercial center of the city.

That first hotel had been an instant landmark, built in the high-style, and enjoyed a heralded period of usefulness to the city that lasted thirteen days. In the early October of a warm and dry autumn—fine football weather—a hurricane of fire that roared and thundered up from Mrs. O’Leary’s cow barn on the near South Side engulfed the hotel in a raging inferno and burnt it to the ground. What was left after the fire could barely be called rubble. The hotel had been annihilated from the earth, alongside nearly 18,000 other buildings.

Palmer House Rubble after the Great Fire of 1871.

But Palmer seemed to regard that act of God as a kind of challenge to his own powers of creation. After securing a massive, nearly two million dollar loan with no collateral beyond his signature on the term sheet, he began rebuilding his wife’s present almost immediately. Just two years later, in 1873, as Chicago continued to clear the streets to make room for a massive recovery, Palmer re-opened the hotel in the same spot. His wife filled it up with new art, including the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of France, and twelve years later representatives from seven prestige Midwestern universities checked in to build something new of their own.

The rebuilt Palmer House Hotel.


THE MEETINGS

College football was oldest in the East where it had been created and built by Ivy League schools and a smattering of early American universities. But their piecemeal and tempestuous attempts to author a nationally binding set of rules and regulations to govern the fast-spreading, and already unwieldy, game had bogged down badly. The Midwestern group was younger and, in their beginner’s eyes, saw a way past the paralysis the Eastern group had struggled to envision.


In addition to that, the Western set had focused on very specific, as opposed to general, outcomes. The administrative leadership of these universities had spotted several serious issues with the amateur enterprise that could cause the already tenuous ideal of big-time, university-based athletic competition to blow up in their faces, and wanted to defuse them as fast as possible.

The group’s primary purpose in Chicago was to build a command structure from which tenured faculty could take control of college athletics while protecting the health and prerogatives of the university. They wanted a formal charter and a set of institutionalized rules to govern each member school and, over two sets of meetings at the Palmer House in 1895 and 1896, they got them.

By the end of those meetings the concept of faculty control had been christened as the sacred ideal. If organized athletics and intercollegiate competition were part of a complete education, as their supporters swore oaths upon any time their legitimacy was doubted by some bemused academic chair at a planning meeting, then those who ran the university would command and control them.


In the main—and these would become the concepts and underlying philosophies that set college athletics on their course for the next hundred-twenty-five years—the group designed and set standards in three primary areas:


  1. Spectator Reform

  2. Coaching Reform

  3. Player Reform


Spectator reform, even in the 19th Century, included the now-ancient battle over the number of home games a team could play and how to split the house take between schools. It also included an ironic, but familiar, attempt to render profits for staging athletic events on campus a secondary concern. Universities' split-brain relationship with football's revenue-generating potential, and their philosophical and ethical anxiety over the matter, have bedeviled the sport almost from its birth.


In an effort to control profiteering, ceilings were set related to box-office ticket sales and surplus revenues were to be earmarked for permanent university-wide improvements. The faculty at this moment assumed full control over the financial management of their athletic departments, permanently fusing together their diverse missions, for both good and ill.


On coaching reform the faculty resolved to set a uniform date for fall practices to begin. Prior to this the more ambitious coaches were calling in players weeks and months before school started, ordering them to keep to certain training schedules after the season had ended, and in the process turning the sport into an increasingly overbearing, year-round commitment in the lives of its athletes. Faculty wanted to reduce intercollegiate football to a more traditional extra-curricular activity.


The faculty took this ambition even further, abolishing the training table, dedicated training quarters, and required coaches, who were becoming professional program managers on campus solely to coach football, to take academic appointments and modest salaries inline with the rest of the school’s faculty. This last rule was skirted easily by alumni and booster clubs that found alternate routes for getting their favorite coaches paid.

Amos Alonzo Stagg at Yale.

As for the player reform the nebulous concept of the “amateur ideal", adopted by the Founding Fathers of the East straight from the old English ruling class, was cited as the appropriate precedent. The awarding of payments, gifts, enticements, or remuneration of any kind related to athletic services—a common practice in an era of ringers and so-called tramp athletes—were outlawed on penalty of permanent ineligibility and expulsion. Intercollegiate athletes had to be both bona fide university students in good standing, and enrolled in full-time course work toward a degree.


Stricter rules on recruiting and academic eligibility also were written, but because protecting and enshrining institutional autonomy was another mission-critical goal at the meetings, each school remained privileged to set standards for the admission of athletes, often pushing the spirit and letter of the charter to its limit and well beyond, depending on who was in charge. This difficult compromise, universal collegiate standards and the rights of Home Rule, would lead to intense confrontations and multiple major controversies across the sport as the twentieth century played out.

At the close of the 1896 meetings the group decamped from Chicago with a new name: The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, making it doubtful that a professor of poetry had been present at the sessions. This group had more real control over its athletic departments and athletes than any university or group of universities in the country, and a singular guiding philosophy for how they wanted to proceed. It was a brand-new model for college athletics as the three-decade-old enterprise headed into the twentieth century.

In short order, due to a fleeting existence at the western edge of the organized sport, this collection of universities became known as the Western Conference. By 1916, after Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State had joined during the preceding years, they were called the Big Ten. This now-famous brand name has maintained through several subtractions and additions across the decades.

A young Fielding Yost.

The Western Conference had been living under its charter for a decade by 1905 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association was created. The new NCAA took as its own lodestar many of the amateur ideals and faculty-control principals from the Western Conference charter. But in that same year, as the rest of the country was preparing for the advent of the new national association, two Western football kingpins were playing against each other for all the glory the sport had to offer, and the site once again was Chicago.


THE WESTERN CHAMPIONSHIP

The Thanksgiving Day 1905 game at Marshal Field between Michigan and Chicago was billed as the Championship of the West. Already, forty-seven years before the NCAA would put together its first television package for NBC, the future of college football as a big-circus, big-money spectacle was apparent, and the conference’s charter was being bent up and tossed onto a pile.


The game was a nationally touted, media-hyped battle between two authoritative program chiefs in Amos Alonzo Stagg and Fielding Yost, coaches who, in conflict with the spirit and letter of their league's rules, were better paid and better known than any faculty member on campus. Behind them stood two sets of nearly-professionalized athletes ready to put it all on the line for the school colors, and a few extra benefits dealt out on the side. Before there was Michigan and Ohio State, and Bo versus Woody, there had been Chicago versus Michigan, with Stagg going toe-to-toe against Yost.


Yost’s blue-blooded Wolverines, the perpetual champions of the West according to their fight song, had not lost a football game in four seasons, while Stagg’s new-money dynamo in Chicago had gone undefeated over its last nine games. The Maroons were led by the All-American school-boy hero in quarterback Walter Eckersall, who was one of college football's first combined national stars and troubled personalities. But Eckersall was so great on the field in his own time that in 1969, sixty-six years after he'd last played, he was named a backfield starter on the Football Writer’s Association's All-Time All-America team for the first hundred years of the sport.


The demand for seats at Marshall Field had outstripped supply by at least a hundred-thousand customers, and the exorbitant ticket prices on the black market lurched skyward to meet the market. The ticketing agent at the Palmer House, mentioned earlier, was arrested for scalping during a quick tempest of public outrage after the going rates had been exposed in the local newspapers. The Palmer agent was one of many well-connected salesmen hocking seats, but the authorities had picked the nicest hotel in town to make their point.

A Wolverines' contingent three-thousand strong had loaded up and boarded trains for Chicago to watch the battle in person. The matchup between these schools, now regularly scheduled for Thanksgiving Day after the fashion of early Harvard-Yale-Princeton games in the East, was becoming the big-rivalry showdown to end the season. The college game by 1905 had completed the metamorphosis from a society social event, something like a big picnic with entertainment for the college smart set, to a large-scale, big-money spectacle with a broad public interest.

It was a frigid, granite-skied November day, with a creeping frost hardening the turf by the hour as Stagg’s Maroons shut down and shut out a Michigan offense that had scored more than fifty-points per game in a rolling average over four seasons. A surprise safety scored by Chicago late in the contest brought the half-frozen, sold-out crowd to its feet in a thunderous cheer. Chicago was able to protect its fragile lead as the clock ticked out and won the game, 2-0, snapping both the Point-A-Minute Wolverines fifty-six game winning streak and their run of four consecutive conference and national titles.


At 10-0 Chicago was the Western Conference champion and, thirteen years after building the program from scratch, the Great Stagg had his first title as a head coach. At some point that battle between the Maroons and Wolverines would be branded The First Greatest Game of the Century, to be joined by handful of other epic contests over the next ten decades. Thirty years later, when a new product called rankings were applied all the way back to college football's first campaign, the game became the mythical national championship for the 1905 season, and Stagg’s Maroons were awarded their crown.


For Chicago, 1905 was the beginning of a two-decade run of honor and glory. The Maroons had been built into both a Big Ten heavyweight and a national contender by one of the sport's first legendary coaches. By 1913, a castellated, stone stadium that held fifty-thousand souls had been built and re-named Stagg Field. This ballpark, with stone watchtowers at the end of medieval grandstands, served as the Maroons vaunted home venue all the way until their final season in 1939, when they dropped major college football and never looked back.

Now the Palmer House hotel has been closed and Stagg Field knocked to rubble and carried off more than sixty years ago. A massive, Brutalist-style library was built over the site of the old ballpark, with the ghosts and legends of ancient battles buried beneath a monstrosity of gray concrete that looks like it was stolen from the outskirts of Stalingrad.


It cannot be much longer before we learn the ultimate fate of the legendary Palmer House, where the Big Ten Conference was born back at the turn of the twentieth century.

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