Crystal chandeliers dangle from gold-leaf ceilings, brass wall sconces illuminate the marble walls and hand-painted French murals brighten the lobby of the historic Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.

The 131-year-old hotel, the first with electric light bulbs, elevators and telephones, dates back to 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire. The original hotel burst into flames just 13 days after it opened its doors, but owner Potter Palmer secured a $17 million loan and built a second Palmer House across the street less than a year later. Laborers worked through the night to finish the country's first fireproof hotel.

“Palmer used to bet his friends that if they started a fire in any of the guest rooms, it wouldn't spread to any other room because of the thick plaster walls,” said Tom Considine, a journeyman electrician who has worked for the Palmer House for the past 27 years. “I don't think anyone ever took him up on it.”

Today, the Palmer House Hilton is not only still standing, but has been dubbed the longest continuously operating hotel in North America. While tourists from around the world visit the 23.5-million-cubic-ft hotel and Chicagoans throw parties in the grand ballrooms, a team of 11 electricians work quietly behind the scenes to maintain the first hotel with electricity.

“I never thought of it when I started here, but when you are working on the oldest hotel in the U.S., you get the old wiring,” said Considine, who was dressed in a navy blue uniform embroidered with ‘Tom C. Electrician.’ “There are all types of wiring runs across the ceiling and things are closed up and you can't get at them anymore. If you do run into a problem, short of destroying the ceilings, you don't know where it's going. It's guesswork.”

The team of electricians works around the clock to set up meeting rooms, install outlets and rewire guest rooms. In every assignment, they must find ways to hide the cable behind the plaster and marble walls or gold-laced ceilings.

“Our customers want an outlet in a certain place, but they don't want to see the wire or a cable,” he said. “We can't tear up the floor and channel the conduit. As soon as they invent wireless electricity, a lot of managers here would be extremely happy.”

The electricians also run into a lot of surprises in a building with as much history as the Palmer House Hilton, said Considine, a native of Chicago.

“I remember when I was an apprentice working in the Grand Ballroom on the fire escape sign,” he said. “I took it down, and you could still smell the gas. I remember calling to my boss saying, ‘This is gas!’ He laughed and said that they used some of the old gas lines as conduit for the wire.”

Electricians have come and gone over the nearly three decades that Considine has worked at the hotel. Sometimes, the Palmer House crew has to find out where the electricians took the shortcut during a short-term assignment.

“If they're only here for two months, they may just cut off the pipes, put in a junction box and plaster or drywall over it and leave,” he said. “Then it becomes our problem.”

RENOVATING A LANDMARK

The 131-year-old Palmer House has undergone a $140 million facelift over the past seven years. Considine, who was in charge of the electrical renovation, said the hotel has remodeled the rooms on 14 floors, but he and the other electricians have never rewired the hotel completely.

“In 1978, when I was an apprentice, they started on all the guest floors, which had all the old wiring,” he said. “The wiring was completely replaced from the sixth floor all the way up to the 25th floor. Even the elevator penthouse has been redone.”

Ceiling fixtures lit up all the guest rooms, but during the renovation of 1978, the crew dropped the ceilings for the sprinkler system and installed switched outlets. At the flip of a switch, hotel guests could turn on a floor lamp and illuminate their room. When the Palmer House Hilton decided the lamp wasn't giving off enough light, they asked the electricians to install energy-efficient ceiling lights in all the rooms and hallways.

The construction crew also transformed the Palmer House's 2,000 guest rooms into 1,639 more spacious quarters during the renovation. Because no two rooms were exactly the same, the team of electricians had a lot of work ahead of them.

“When they've knocked out walls and made one room into two, we had to try to figure out where the center was and what wall was removed,” he said. “We found all kinds of things such as buried boxes in the ceilings. You would never know they were there until you had to find something.”

Some of the crawlspaces are tight; some are extremely tight; and some are so gargantuan that Considine and his crew can literally stand up in them.

“You can almost walk on the lobby ceiling from one side to the other,” he said. “In most of the ballrooms, you're crawling and sliding along on your stomach on the ducts. When I was younger, I used to get a kick out of crawling through the ceilings so I could see the structure of the building and imagine how they built the plaster.”

Considine couldn't fathom the amount of labor that it took to build the hotel.

“I'm sure they didn't have elevators running their equipment,” he said. “I can't imagine how much work they had to do just to drag the equipment up.”

Considine has found knob-and-tube wiring lying throughout the ceiling of the hotel as well as hidden treasures.

“If you go up to run cable to the original ceiling, the crown molding is still up there and painted from back in the 1930s,” he said. “The French Quarter also has an ornate ceiling, which is now covered up by a skylight. Some of the original decor is still there, but it has been covered up to run sprinkler lines throughout the hotel.”

When Considine ran cabling above the Wabash Room, he discovered that it has three different ceilings above it.

“There's a big cove up there,” he said. “I think if anyone knew about it, they would think about restoring it back to its original state.”

THE REBIRTH OF THE EMPIRE ROOM

Black-and-white wall portraits of Broadway, radio, TV and film stars such as Maurice Chevalier, Jimmy Durante and Eartha Kitt grace the dressing room of the world-famous Empire Room in the Palmer House Hilton.

“This dressing room has pictures of all the great names that used to play here,” said Electrician Terry Murphy, who has been working at the Palmer House for the past eight years. “These are a few of the greats — the old names from the 1940s and the ‘50s.”

The Empire Room opened for dining and dancing in 1925 after the aging Palmer House was torn down and rebuilt on the same property. The hotel never closed its doors for more than an hour, and the guests were moved into the newly-built half while wrecking crews demolished the old hotel. Then in 1933, during the World Expo in Chicago, the Empire Room's Gas Light Club started featuring weekly performances by top-name entertainers, and the tradition continued until the mid 1970s.

“Thirty-five stage lights in the ceiling lit the dance floor,” he said. “Every night at midnight, the electricians would come in until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to refocus the lights for the show the next day.”

Considine said his first week on the job was the last week of shows at the Empire Room's Gas Light Club. Phyllis Diller, a comedian and film, stage and TV actress, delivered the final performance in 1978. As part of the hotel's $140 million renovation, the Palmer House restored the Empire Room to its 1925 splendor with its 24-karat gold leaf finishes, mirrored walls and French crystal and gold chandeliers. Considine said he learned the hard way that the light fixtures were all originals.

“When I was an apprentice, I started working on them, and one of the guys who was here for many years said, ‘You better watch what you're doing,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because each piece is handmade and they only go together a certain way.’ I had a couple of them apart and sure enough, every piece was numbered.”

He said some of the chandeliers and wall brackets in the Empire Room have never been rewired.

“The old wiring is from 1920 and is cloth-covered,” he said. “Once you take a bracket off the wall, you don't know what you're going to find. We don't have the best set of blueprint drawings, because a lot of them have deteriorated. It's hard to find the conduit and the cabling from one fixture to another.”

The electrical crew doesn't want to disturb the original finishes.

“We could tear off a piece of drywall in a newer building and see exactly where it goes and why it shorted out and replace it,” he said. “But here, you have to cut off the whole wall, which ruins the decor. We are hopefully going to get them to drop the chandeliers and wall brackets and get them all sent out to be rewired, polished, cleaned up to their original state and then rehang them.”

PROMINENT GUESTS, TIGHTENED SECURITY AND WORKING WITH OUTSIDE CONTRACTORS

Nearly all of America's presidents, from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton, have registered as hotel guests at the Palmer House Hilton during their stays in the Windy City. Each time a president or dignitary visits the hotel, the electricians have to prepare well in advance.

“Presidents come here all the time,” Considine said. “Every one of them since I started — Reagan, Ford, Carter, Bush and Clinton — has stayed here.”

Special security and equipment has to be brought when presidents stay at the Palmer House. Presidents often take an entire wing, and the Secret Service takes a floor above and a floor below that wing. Unlike other Palmer House guests, the presidents can't plug all their equipment into the standard outlets. All the phone lines also have to be secure.

If the president has a speaking engagement at the hotel, the electricians also have to take Secret Service agents to all the electrical vaults to show them what gets shut off.

“Basically, when you open and close the vault, they put their seal on it,” he said. “If the president is speaking in the Grand Ballroom, no one can come back in here unless there's a major problem.”

One such glitch happened when President Clinton was staying at the Palmer House.

“We had a problem with some of our switchgear,” Considine said. “It went out twice the night he was here, and it happened to be his floor.”

A 2,000A main blew a 2,000A fuse, and Terry Kuh, the chief electrician at the Palmer House, had to address the issue. Considine said he had that day off work.

“They came in and got the fuse changed with the Secret Service looking over their shoulder,” Considine said. “It blew again a couple hours later. Then in order to change it, they had to shut the power down.”

The Secret Service, however, ordered the electricians to not shut off any more power. For security reasons, they didn't want the president to be in the dark. The electrical crew had to wait a few hours and then change the fuse when the president left the building. The general manager of the Palmer House Hilton was even involved in the issue.

“They said, ‘No, you have to wait until he leaves the building, and you can't shut the power off,’” Considine said. “One-third of the section of the building where he was staying was black.”

For tightened security following the 9-11 attacks, the Palmer House hired a security firm to install additional security cameras.

“Every entrance door has a camera and they want to get a lot of the public space done throughout the hotel,” he said.

When the security firm arrives on site, Considine will give the employees a tour of the hotel and show them all the wiring runs. As an apprentice, Considine worked with some of the original Palmer House electricians who helped rebuild the hotel in 1925. He said he learned a lot from the old-time electricians, and his knowledge of the wiring runs can save the outside contractors a lot of time.

“They could be here for months trying to get the cable from one place to another,” he said. “We'll help them on the conduit runs and show them the easiest routes. For example, one shaft of the building runs from the boiler room to the 25th floor.”

Chicago requires that a building the size of the Palmer House has backup power, so Considine will also help another electrical contractor install emergency generators later this year. Along with installing the generators in the boiler room, the contractor will equip the hotel with energy-efficient motors and starters, which could save on the Palmer House's energy costs.

“They don't start at full-force where your amperage runs up to 300A or 400A,” Considine said. “If it doesn't require that load, it can run at a quarter of its speed.”

MODERN CONVENIENCES IN A HISTORIC HOTEL

Throughout the history of the Palmer House, the hotel has been updated without losing its historical charm. Murphy, who has worked on electrical upgrades at the Palmer House for the past eight years, said wiring a historical hotel is not like working with new construction.

“There are a lot of surprises and things that I wasn't used to seeing,” he said. “It was all put in long before I was born.”

Murphy said a majority of his on-the-job knowledge comes from one man — the Palmer House's chief electrician Terry Kuh, who has worked at the hotel for 30 years.

“He's been really instrumental and showed me everything I know here,” he said. “He thinks of the hotel as his own house and takes care of us so that we are able to do our job better.”

Kuh and Considine, who have almost 60 years of experience between them, have taught Murphy how to make electrical improvements without destroying the plaster walls or ruining the decor.

“The hotel has been able to make updates to make it more modern but keep the old-style look, which is important,” Murphy said. “By doing that, people get that old nostalgic feeling, but they still get the conveniences of the modern-day traveler and the hotel experience.”

For example, hotel guests and business travelers are greeted with seven plasma screens that show all the activities going on throughout the hotel. The screens, which are in the entrance to the lobby, the sixth floor and the fourth floor, can be updated automatically with a computer. Murphy said plasma screens have made it much easier for the hotel guests to find a meeting or function.

“It still gives it a nice look, but it's not overbearing like a sign on the road flashing, ‘construction ahead,’” he said. “It's dressed up nicely.”

All the cabling from the plasma screens has to snake back to one central location. In a building as old as the Palmer House, there's no easy way to get from one spot to another, Considine said.

“It sounds a lot easier than it actually is,” he said. “There are marble walls and plaster ceilings and walls. Right now, I have two guys in the lobby just trying to get some speakers in the ceiling for two plasma screens for the guest check-in and they are having a difficult time getting them in.”

The electricians have to fish wiring behind the marble, which presents a true challenge.

“They don't want to see any wiring,” Considine said. “In some areas, we literally had to chop holes in the ceiling so we could see if we can get anything down in behind the marble. Then we'll have plasterers come back and plaster the ceiling out. Knock on wood, we've been pretty lucky so far.”

A few spots were so tight, however, that the electricians couldn't get in behind the ¾-in. to 1¼-in. thick marble wall. When the electricians were asked to make the plasma screens look like they were a permanent part of the hotel, they had to come up with a solution. Removing the marble wall was not an option. Instead, they installed some surface raceway and the painters matched the color of the raceway with the marble wall.

The electricians not only blended the plasma TV screens into the decor of the historic hotel, but they also modernized the guest rooms with wall hairdryers and hooked up the wiring for the headphones in the fitness center.

“You can watch TV or listen to five different radio stations while you're exercising,” Murphy said. “If a person doesn't watch TV, they can listen to some music. It's a nice convenience.”

The Palmer House also caters to the business traveler with in-room voice mail, data ports and fax machines. This translates into a lot of work for the electricians, who have to wire the rooms for Internet access. The electrical team also works with the owners of the restaurants, shops and offices within the hotel.

“With the age of the computers, everything needs computer cables,” Considine said. “You do it once and then you do it again and again. They add another computer or an office, and we have to get all the wiring back to the central hub.”

The electricians at the hotel not only need to update the historic building with modern wiring, but they also have to meet customers' needs and go beyond their expectations.

“You know how the market is with hotels nowadays,” he said. “There's a lot to choose from. If someone wants to offer me a tip, I tell him or her, ‘As long as you come back, that's a good enough tip for me. If you're not here, we're not here.’”

Murphy said as a hotel electrician, he enjoys working with people.

“I get to meet people from all over the world and help them with their meeting-room needs,” he said. “It's never a dull time. I've made a lot of contacts over the years.”

When he bumps into return guests, they said they came back because of the personable service.

“It's a big plus,” Murphy said. “You can go to a nice place and get a cold shoulder. Do you know that saying, ‘Just like downtown’? When people say that, they're talking about this place. It's the heart of downtown Chicago.”

TIMELINE

1673 Discovery of Chicago.
1850 Steam and hydraulic elevators are introduced.
1861 The Civil War begins.
1871 Opening of the original Palmer House Hotel and the Great Chicago Fire.
1872 Palmer builds a second Palmer House across the street from the original site.
1876 Bell invents the phone.
1879 Edison exhibits his light bulb; Twain entertains at a banquet for Grant at the Palmer House.
1882 Edison develops and installs the world's first large central electric power station.
1885 Chicago's first skyscraper is completed.
1900 The flow of Chicago River is reversed.
1903 The Wright Brothers introduce the first gas-motored and manned airplane.
1914 World War I begins.
1925 The Palmer House is torn down and rebuilt on the same site.
1929 Stock market crashes.
1930 The Great Depression begins.
1933 World's Fair in Chicago; Palmer House opens the “Gas Light Club”
1935 Residential circuit breaker panels are introduced.
1941 The United States enters World War II.
1942 Commercial TV is first broadcast.
1945 Hilton buys the Palmer House for $20 million.

HISTORICAL RENOVATION

One of the many interesting challenges that comes with being an electrician at the Palmer House is maintaining the one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures, such as the bronze wall sconce (left). Here are some other challenges that you may encounter on your next historical renovation project.

  • Thick plaster walls
  • Knob-and-tube wiring
  • Gas lines used for conduit
  • Buried junction boxes
  • Original lighting fixtures
  • Tight crawlspaces and hidden ceilings
  • Missing or deteriorated blueprints

FAST FACTS ABOUT THE COUNTRY'S LONGEST CONTINUOUSLY RUNNING HOTEL

  • Famous writers and personalities including Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Buffalo Bill, have registered at the Palmer House. Mark Twain even entertained at an 1879 banquet for General Ulysses Grant when he returned from a trip around the world.

  • Before the Palmer House burned down in the Great Chicago Fire, Architect John Mills Van Osdel carried all of this construction plans to the hotel basement. He then dug a pit, covered it with 2 ft of sand and damp clay and preserved the documents. His preservation technique led to a method of fireproofing with clay tile.

  • The Palmer House, on Monroe Street between State and Wabash, was considered one of the fanciest hotels in post-fire Chicago. Its amenities included oversized rooms and luxurious decor.

  • The floor of the Palmer House barbershop was tiled with $300 worth of silver dollars. When a treasury law prohibited the use of U.S. minted coins, the Palmer House substituted Mexican silver dollars. By 1925, however, the use of monies was considered illegal and the silver dollar tradition was discontinued.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Journeyman Electrician Terry Murphy took time out of his busy schedule to give CEE News a tour of the world-famous Palmer House hotel.

He began the tour in the historic Empire Room, which had such world-famous entertainers as Liberace and Jimmy Durante. He then showed off the Grand Ballroom, where presidents and celebrities have meetings, banquets and special events. The ballroom opens up into another room with a colorful hand-painted ceiling.

“I don't get to go outside during the day, but if I'm here for awhile, I feel like I'm in a garden,” Murphy said.

Along with showing the meeting rooms, convention hall and fitness center, Murphy also gave CEE News a peek at the Red Lacquer Room, a black, red and gold ballroom. Painted-on drapes that look like velvet curtains greet the visitors at the entrance.

“The funny thing is that I thought these were drapes when I first started working here,” he said. “I wasn't paying attention and I went to move them.”

Murphy faced a similar optical illusion when he bumped into a mirror in the lobby.

“I thought it was more of the building and I almost walked right into it,” he said.

ELECTRICAL STATS

  • If the electrical wire used in the hotel was stretched out in a single strand, it would reach completely around the earth at the equator.

  • The Palmer House Hilton has two 480V transformers and six 208V transformers.

  • 12,000V comes into the building and the hotel runs on 480V, 208V and 110V. The hotel uses 208V for three-phase motors, kitchen appliances and air conditioning units and 480V for the chillers, boilers and pump motors.

  • To get more power into the building, the electricians installed additional switchgear on the fifth floor.

  • An outside electrical contractor will install emergency generators later in the year to provide backup power to the Palmer House Hilton.

CONTRACTOR CORNER

Considine and Murphy offer the following tips for CEE News readers wiring a historic landmark.

“Sometimes your first method of going about it is not always the best way, and you need to look at it from more than one angle.”

Tom Considine, journeyman electrician for 27 years

“Remember that you're taking over the responsibility of an established name. With the slowing economy, the commitment is probably a little stronger than the people before you. Newer is not always better because people like to enjoy the newer conveniences, but still have the feel of the way things used to be.”

Terry Murphy, journeyman electrician for eight years

HISTORY LESSON ON THE CHICAGO FIRE

  • By 1871, Chicago had become one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Because it was a boomtown, construction standards were loose. Most of the working-class neighborhoods consisted of wooden cottages and tenement houses, all of which made for dangerous fuel in the event of a fire.

  • A month before the Great Fire, the Chicago Tribune said because of the shabby construction of the brick and stone downtown buildings, if the city didn't fall down, it was liable to burn. “The absence of rain for three weeks,” reported the Tribune, “has left everything in so flammable a condition that a spark might set a fire that would sweep from end to end of the city.”

  • After eight days, steady rain began to fall on Chicago and the Great Chicago Fire finally came to an end. More than 300 people were dead, 100,000 were left without homes or shelter and more than $200 million in property had been destroyed.

24/7 SUPPORT

From sundown to sunrise, electricians are busy working around the clock at the Palmer House Hilton.

“The shifts are basically established according to the amount of manpower and what we have to cover,” Considine said. “If they decide to reduce the staff, we have to change shifts and if we lose someone from the day, we have to rework the shift. You put the shifts up for bid. Basically it works on seniority.”

Journeyman Tom Considine said the 11 electricians work three shifts — 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Those with the most seniority get to select their shift and their days off during the week. As a 27-year veteran of the Palmer House, Considine said he wanted to work days and get the weekends off. At 4:30 a.m., he jumps on the “L,” takes the half-hour train ride into the city and then works out in the hotel's health club on the eighth floor. By 6:30 or 6:45 a.m., he's ready to start the day.

He and the other electricians usually know a day ahead of time what they will be doing the next day. The team of electricians then spends the eight-hour shift working on kitchen equipment, helping to move an office or running a computer line. Considine said two electricians work in the afternoon and then one works the midnight to 7 a.m. shift.

“He does all the relamping in the public areas where you can't be dragging ladders and lifts around during the day because of all the traffic,” he said. “He'll also do some of the kitchen maintenance. They don't want to take down an oven during the day, so it's done at night.”

For the afternoon shift, one electrician answers any house and guest calls and the other handles all the meeting room space. Terry Murphy said he often works on the light fixtures.

“The fixtures weigh a ton,” he said. “You have to change the light bulbs with a big ladder or lift.”

He said the light fixtures have a regular maintenance schedule.

“We go through and check all three rooms and make sure everything is up to par,” he said. “We like to make it flawless for the people having a meeting.”

Murphy said the hotel is packed most of the time.

“This is the calm before the storm,” said Murphy as he started his afternoon shift.

On busy days, as many as five electricians work on maintenance throughout the building changing fan motors, troubleshooting the electric motors or fixing a chilled water valve. “We work on everything from A to Z,” Considine said. “If it's electrical, we do it.”