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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

An out-of-place desolation has settled over the legendary Palmer House hotel in the heart of Chicago’s Loop.


When things are as they should 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 choreographed and set-dressed for a movie. But instead of the typical excitement, color, and commotion, all that remains is the fast, restive vehicle traffic, and solitary mask-people on the sidewalk, striding past with their heads down as they stalk through the former hive of human activity without having to dodge a uniformed bellhop hauling luggage, or a voyager from the great plains staring up into the buildings and trying to get their bearings without benefit of open sky.

The stolid gold awning that hangs out over the smooth-patted sidewalk all the way to the edge of the street, always bright and warm and spangled with little bulbs that glow like jewels, has gone dark. The taxis and ride-shares no longer jam their way onto the curb and, tragically, have nothing left to honk at. The gilded, heavy metal and glass entry 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 temple—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 hotel is where, in January of 1895, seven faculty representatives from a group of Midwestern universities met to write policy for regulating the fast-snowballing culture of college football. 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, which soon became the Western Conference before settling on the name its known by today, the Big Ten, and the future of major college athletics was seeded right alongside it.

This also is the hotel where, in November of 1905, a decade after the seminal meetings, an agent of the Palmer House—the fellow responsible for procuring 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 big title of the Western Championship, later became known as college football's first Game of the Century, and the decisive battle for that year's retroactively awarded national championship.


The agent, who was nothing more than an unlucky soul made an example of by the authorities after the secondary market for the contest had mushroomed out of control, told his tormentors he was providing destitute college students charity when he bought tickets off them at an inflated cost. Just who precisely the agent believed he was providing charity for when he moved to re-sell those seats at yet 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 hotel from the golden age of Chicago, with a list of celebrity performers that covers approximately half the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, went into foreclosure last March at the outset of the global pandemic and there has been no word on a coming resurrection. 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, who was president at Purdue University and organized the sessions, drawn lines on a map from the campuses of the invited schools toward an idealized middle, the result would have looked like uneven spokes on a wheel with Chicago the apparent hub. Not only were there plenty of nice hotels to use, but two of the participating universities in Stagg’s Chicago, and Northwestern University in Evanston, just beyond the city’s northern border, were already there.


The rest of the quorum was dotted around the Great Lakes and upper Midwest, in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Champaign, Illinois; West Lafayette, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, each just an easy train ride over the quiet northern prairies and through the heavy timber-country to the Windy City.

While it could have been another hotel, the Palmer House was the class option. The first edition of the building had been built in 1871 by Potter Palmer as a wedding present for his wife, Berthe Honore, a wealthy woman who liked to buy 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 became an insult reserved for ditzy and addled third-generation heirs and 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 and poured much of his wealth back into his adopted hometown.

That first hotel was an instant landmark, built in high-style, and had a lifespan of thirteen days. In the early October of a warm and dry autumn—fine football weather—the 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 was doused and sent back to the netherworld 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, first created by the Ivy League schools and a smattering of early American universities, but their haphazard 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 that the eastern group had struggled to envision.


In addition to that, the Western set was focused on specific 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.

The group’s primary objective in Chicago was to build a command structure through which tenured faculty could take control of college athletics, while also 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 complete faculty control over campus athletics had been christened as the sacred ideal. If organized athletics and intercollegiate competition were part of a complete education, as their supporters swore oaths on any time their legitimacy was questioned 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 rules and underlying the philosophies that set college athletics on their course—the group reformed and set standards in three main areas:


  1. Spectator Reform

  2. Coaching Reform

  3. Player Reform


Spectator reform included the now-ancient battle over the number of home games teams got to play, and how to split the house take between schools. But while talking over the cash rake, this group also attempted to make profits from the competitions a secondary concern, and not a primary motivator for staging athletic events—a philosophical and ethical issue that has bedeviled the sport almost from its birth.


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, fusing together for the long haul their diverse missions, for good and ill.


On coaching reform, the faculty determined to set a uniform date for fall practices to begin. Prior to this decree, the more ambitious coaches were calling in players weeks and months before school started, and ordering them to keep to certain training schedules after the season had ended, making the sport an increasingly overbearing, year-round commitment in the lives of its athletes.


The faculty then went a lot further, abolishing the training table, dedicated training quarters on campus, and required coaches, who even at this time had become professional program managers on campus solely to coach football, to take an academic appointment and a modest salary inline with the school’s faculty. This last rule was skirted easily by ambitious alumni and booster clubs who found alternate ways to get their favorite coaches paid.

Amos Alonzo Stagg at Yale.

As for the player reform, the nebulous old “amateur ideal," adopted straight from the old English ruling class, was installed as 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 players, were outlawed on penalty of permanent ineligibility. Athletes had to be 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 individual institutional autonomy was another essential goal at the meetings, each school was privileged to set different 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.

At the close of the 1896 meetings the group decamped from Chicago with a brand new name: The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, making it unlikely 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 guiding philosophy for how they wanted to proceed. It was a brand-new model for college athletics as the three-decade-old enterprise headed toward 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 signed on, they were called the Big Ten. This now-famous name has held on through several subtractions and additions of schools across the decades.

A young Fielding Yost.

The conference had been living under its charter for a decade in 1905 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association was created. The new NCAA took as their 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 powerhouses were playing against each other for all the glory the young sport had to offer, and the site once more was Chicago.


THE WESTERN CHAMPIONSHIP

The Thanksgiving-day 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 stretched and bent into unusual shapes.


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 of their conference's rules, were better paid and better known than any faculty member on campus. Behind them stood two sets of nearly-professionalized student-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 nine games. The Maroons were led by the All-American, school-boy hero in quarterback Walter Eckersall, who was one of college football's early national stars and household names. Eckersall was so great in his own time that in 1969 he would be named a backfield starter on the Football Writer’s Association's All-Time All-America team for the first hundred years of the game.


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

A Wolverines contingent three-thousand strong had loaded up and boarded trains set for Chicago, where they would watch the battle in person. The matchup of these schools, now regularly scheduled for Thanksgiving day after the fashion of the 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 a certain class of people, to a large-scale, big-money athletic spectacle with a broad public interest.

It was a frigid, granite-skied November day, with frost hardening the turf, as Stagg’s Maroons shut down and shut out a Michigan offense that had scored more than fifty-points a game in a rolling average over four seasons. A surprise safety late in the contest brought the 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 titles.


At 10-0, Chicago was the Western Conference champion, and the Great Stagg had won his first championship. A short time later that battle between the Maroons and Wolverines was branded The First Greatest Game of the Century, to be joined by a choice handful of contests over the next ten decades. Thirty years later, when a new product called rankings were retroactively applied all the way back to college football's first season in 1869, it became the de-facto mythical national championship for the 1905 season, and Stagg’s Maroons were named the champions.


For Chicago, 1905 was the beginning of a two-decade run of honor and glory, as the Maroons were both a Big Ten heavyweight and a national contender behind one of the league'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 the 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, and the ghosts and legends of ancient battles buried beneath a monstrosity of gray concrete that would look better on the outskirts of Leningrad.


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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