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From Free Cigarettes to the ‘Penthouse Gang’: How the Palmer House Became the Academy’s Home Away From Home
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You cannot be the longest continuously operating hotel in North America and not have some amazing stories hidden within your walls. And the Palmer House in Chicago — site of this year's Orbital Gala and a host of Annual Meetings past — has stories to spare.

Not only has the Palmer House welcomed every American president since Ulysses S. Grant, as well as world leaders, dignitaries and celebrities, but it was also the home of the Academy’s Annual Meeting from 1942 until 1969 (with the exception of 1954 and 1963, when the meeting was held in New York City).

Palmer House Houses Annual Meeting
Back when the Academy was the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology, a large, centrally located hotel was needed to hold its yearly meeting.

1947 Program Committee meal at the Palmer House
A 1947 Program Committee meal at the
Palmer House. For more background, visit
the History of Ophthalmology group on the
Academy Online Community.
Chicago was the natural choice, according to David Noonan, who retired from the position of deputy executive vice president in 2009 after 37 years with the Academy and serves as an unofficial Academy historian. “Remember, back in the 1940s, the primary source of transportation was the train,” says Noonan. “With its central location, Chicago was perfect from a transportation standpoint. Plus, at that time, the largest number of practitioners was in the Midwest and east coast, which also made Chicago ideal.”

At the time, the Palmer House was the largest hotel in Chicago. It was large enough to hold the educational sessions, exhibition hall, lecture rooms, banquets, ballroom dinners and more. Given all this, it’s no wonder the Palmer House served as the primary meeting location for 26 years.

Reflections on the Palmer House Meetings
Especially for those whose first meeting was at the Palmer House, it holds fond memories. Stanley M. Truhlsen, MD, whom the YO Committee honored with the inaugural EnergEyes Award in 2009, was one such young ophthalmologist. “I remember the first time I walked into the Palmer House as a resident,” recalls Dr. Truhlsen. “I was amazed at the size of the lobby. It would have held several houses where I grew up.”

Stanley Truhlsen, MD
Stanley Truhlsen, MD

Dr. Truhlsen also recalls how the ophthalmologists and otolaryngologists would flip-flop the use of the meeting rooms and large ballroom. “In the mornings, we would hear the scientific presentations in the ballroom, then in the afternoon, we would go to the south floor for the instruction courses. Meanwhile, the otolaryngologists would have their instruction courses in the morning, then head down to the ballroom for their presentations in the afternoon,” says Dr. Truhlsen.

“The Palmer House also had the Green Room and Red Room, both of which were adjacent to the lecture hall and served as exhibition halls,” says Dr. Truhlsen. “Of course, they were very small by today’s standards, about 100 feet by 50 feet. In addition to showcasing instruments and new innovations in ophthalmology, they also had free cigarettes and Coca-Cola. Can you imagine!?!”

The Group Within the Group
During the time of the Palmer House meetings, the Academy was smaller than it is now and was a tight-knit group. Everyone knew everyone. And within this group, was an even smaller group known as the “Penthouse Gang.”

A hotel card for guests from the 1937 Annual Meeting at the Palmer House A 1937 room reservation card from the Palmer House, which would have been filled out by members when they registered for the meeting. Academy meetings were so small in those days that the meeting took place in the same hotel you slept at.

Back in 1945, Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House and had his own penthouse on the top floor. During the meeting, a group of ophthalmology instructors from New York City would rent out the penthouse (and its servants!) for the duration of the meeting. This group quickly became known as the Penthouse Gang.

“The Penthouse Gang was a special group. They would have open houses in the penthouse, as well as lunches and dinners in the suite,” says Dr. Truhlsen. “After several years, I was invited to join the group. It was wonderful to have a home within the meeting to relax, invite friends to socialize, and yet still be within the hotel.”

Time Moves On
But by the late 1960s, Academy membership was exploding and the meeting was starting to outgrow the Palmer House. To accommodate this new growth, then-executive vice president Michael Kos, MD, began searching for a new place to hold the meeting.

“Dr. Kos went to Las Vegas to explore holding the meeting there,” says Noonan. “He saw the Las Vegas convention center had potential, but needed more instruction rooms. In an effort to get the Academy’s business, the convention center built additional rooms specifically for the Academy, and, to this day, the rooms are called the O&O rooms.”

In 1970, the Academy left the Palmer House for the first time in more than two decades and held the meeting in Las Vegas. And, in 1979, after continued growth with ophthalmology members and changes in training, the Academy separated from the otolaryngologists and formed their own academy.

“Now, we are headed back to Chicago and back to the Palmer House,” says Dr. Truhlsen. “It’s almost like going home.”

Meeting Critical for Young Ophthalmologists
Of all his great memories of the meetings held at the Palmer House, the first meeting is still the most special to Dr. Truhlsen. “I attended my first meeting in 1949 and haven’t missed one since,” says Dr. Truhlsen. “At the time, only senior residents attended the meeting, but I had the chance to attend as a resident.

“It was a tremendous experience for a young member in training. I think the biggest thrill was the people I was able to meet. I was surrounded by the people I was reading and studying in school: the giants in ophthalmology. The editor of the American Journal of Ophthalmology, the editor of Archives of Ophthalmology, authors of the textbooks I was studying, the president and executive vice president of the Academy. It was, and still is, the jewel of education.”

Visit the Palmer House
While the meeting itself is no longer held at the Palmer House, it is one of the hotels that houses Academy members during the meeting. But don’t fret if this doesn’t include you. You can still enjoy a piece of history by attending the Orbital Gala, which will be held in the Empire Room at the Palmer House, a space that has hosted legendary entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace, Louis Armstrong and former Foundation board member Harry Belafonte. The gala directly follows the global YO reception hosted by the YO Committee, which kicks off at 5:30 p.m. at the Hyatt McCormick Place. And, residents and physicians in their first five years of practice enjoy a 50% discount on gala tickets.

Whether or not you make it to the Orbital Gala, don’t be afraid to stop a senior Academy member and ask them about their experiences at the Palmer House. I’m sure they have some great stories to share! And, in the words of Dr. Truhlsen, we’ll see you at the Academy.

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About the author: Kimberly Day is a freelance health writer and medical editor and a frequent contributor to YO Info. She is the co-author of Hormone Revolution and ghost writer of Eat Papayas Naked.

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