The Old High-tech Hotel
A CENTURY AND a half ago a new luxury hotel in America had to have not only the finest appointments but also the latest technology. It’s been true ever since.
IN 1877 A SAN FRANCISCO reporter, evidently weary of the endless hoopla over the city’s new Palace Hotel, described the hotel’s remote signaling device. Twenty-five thousand numbered bellboys, he wrote, one for each guest room, waited in a basement for lodgers to ring. “Down goes the clerk’s foot on a corresponding pedal and up shoots the bellboy.… He is put in a box, shut up in a pneumatic tube and whisked right into the room designated by the bell-dial. A door in the wall opens to receive him, an automatic clamp catches him by the coat-collar, and he is quietly dropped to the floor.” This whimsy satirized a very real tradition of technological innovation in the hotel industry. In fact, the idea of luxury in a hotel had already come to be defined as much by plumbing, heating, and machinery as by rich fabrics, furniture, and architecture.
THE FIRST-CLASS LUXURY HOTEL has been called an American invention. The concept took shape in the 1820s, when indoor plumbing and other technological conveniences of modern living were virtually unheard of; Americans could encounter them in public lodgings long before they ever could hope to enjoy them in their homes. By the 1820s several large city inns were winning notice for their size, opulence, and service. In 1827 the editor of the National Intelligencer called such hotels “palaces of the public,” a phrase designed to appeal to a fledgling nation of republicans.
Unlike staid British inns, and most certainly unlike actual aristocratic palaces, American hotels embodied hallmarks of the American character: love of both bigness and rationality, ambivalence toward refinement and luxury, idealization of universal accessibility, and fascination with inventions and new technological systems. The builders of big new luxury hotels eagerly embraced the modern age, measuring their success in annunciators, gas lighting, plumbing, steam heat, and elevators. To be truly firstclass, a hotel had to be truly high-tech.
The Tremont House, in Boston, designed by Isaiah Rogers and opened in 1829, has been called the first modern hotel. Its sheer architectural monumentality and the incorporation of technological innovations into its design set it apart from hotels like the City, in New York, and Barnum’s, in Baltimore. In a world of taverns that announced themselves with fanciful signs and city inns that blended in with the neighboring residences, the Tremont proclaimed itself with a 205-foot facade of Quincy granite and a Doric portico supported by four 20-foot columns. It had been built to accommodate “gentlemen of fortune who travel for pleasure” and that “class of men who render aid in transacting the business of the … country,” and it offered furnishings more elaborate than in all but a few of the finest homes.
Behind its imposing exterior the Tremont’s raised central lobby and offices separated business functions from the barroom, allowing guests to avoid the congestion and unpleasantness associated with public drinking establishments. The front of the hotel contained two ladies’ parlors, a gentlemen’s drawing room, a reading room, and a receiving room, all lit by gas. The elegant dining room could serve two hundred guests. Each of the more than a hundred single and double bedrooms had its own lock and key, offering privacy and security unavailable at any tavern or inn. A newly patented Seth Fuller annunciator, or bell system, enabled guests to call “rotunda men” to their rooms. The building’s endless corridors elicited awed commentary from travelers. One suggested that a “few light omnibuses might run on the different lines of passage with much profit.”
The Tremont’s most sensational novelty, however, was indoor plumbing, a convenience in its infancy and as yet unavailable at home to any but the very wealthy. Cold running water was piped from hotel cisterns to the kitchen, laundry, bathing rooms, and—most appreciated of all- eight enclosed first-floor water closets, the first public facilities of their kind in America. Until then hotels had offered their guests only privies and chamber pots. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison recounted in his memoir One Boy’s Boston that in the 1840s his grandmother and her siblings were taken to the Tremont House for a bath every week, having no “plumbing of any description” in the great Bulfinch mansion they lived in on Beacon Street.
The success of the Tremont House set in motion a century of luxury-hotel construction and technological one-upmanship. Holt’s Hotel, opened in New York City in 1833, was noted for its steam engine, which pumped water throughout the building, turned the spit in the kitchen, hoisted baggage (and its owners too, if they chose), and aided gentlemen in polishing their boots. Unfortunately for Mrs. Holt the sewing machine was not yet perfected; she spent six years painstakingly stitching the hotel’s linens by hand.
John Jacob Astor’s Astor House, designed by Isaiah Rogers and opened in 1836, became a mecca for fashionable New York, and Rogers in turn became known as the father of the American hotel. The Astor House expanded on the Tremont’s innovations to establish itself as “the most extensive and commodious hotel in the world” (providing lodging for “the whiskered dandy and the dashing belle” but not for “vulgar pedestrians, mechanics and bustling men of business”). It had its own gas plant, which furnished lighting throughout the house (not just in the public rooms); hot and cold running water “all the year,” as one French visitor remarked; water closets on every floor; and the essential steam engine to run the plumbing system, kitchen equipment, and laundry. The use of steam engines for domestic work drew comment from newspaper editors and travelers alike. The contrast between the Astor’s steam-powered commercial laundry equipment and the arduous hand labor of home washing was indeed breathtaking.
BY THE LATE 1850S EARGE HOTEES WERE COMMON in larger cities, especially in New York. Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion remarked that “hotel life [was] one of the most striking characteristics of American society.” As the rise of consumer capitalism overwhelmed the old republican censure of luxury, the luxury hotel became a symbol of cosmopolitanism and progress. Gleason’s Pictorial proclaimed in 1852 that “in nothing does our country show its growing prosperity and increasing excellence of public conveniences than in its hotels. Nearly every city in this Union boasts of its first class hotel, which, though devoted to the accommodation of the public, is yet equal to a European palace.”
As New York took over the political and commercial primacy that Philadelphia had once enjoyed, in the late 1850s one concerned Philadelphian warned that “if we wish to emulate the vast increase of New York, we must have the same facilities.” Civic leaders proposed building a mammoth hotel with more than seven hundred rooms, designed to be palatial in every respect. The hotel would draw travelers and business to the city and promote civic pride and public spirit while serving as a national showcase for local mechanical and decorative products. When the hotel—the Continental—went ahead, controversies over some of its innovations plagued construction.
The most interesting battle was over its passenger elevator. Although platform elevators had been in use in factories and other businesses for some time, safety mechanisms weren’t developed for the transport of people until the early 1850s. New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel opened in 1859 with a passenger elevator called the vertical screw railway and was becoming known as the most modern and luxurious hotel in the nation, if not the world. The Continental was specifically planned to eclipse the Fifth Avenue. It would be managed by the same man, Paran Stevens, known (to people who knew these things) as the Napoleon of hotelkeepers.
Stevens had commissioned Otis Tufts, a Boston engineer, to install the Fifth Avenue’s elevator, in which a beautifully appointed passenger car, the “nut of the screw,” rode atop a wood-sheathed iron screw ninety feet high and eighteen inches in diameter inside a ten-foot-square vertical space that extended through all the floors of the building. In the basement steam-driven gears rotated the screw to lift the car, a guideway at one corner of the well preventing it from turning. At the top of the shaft, automatic mechanisms switched the car to a piston-controlled gravity descent.
STEVENS ARRANGED TO HAVE THE SAME ELEVATOR IN stalled in the Continental, but its $11,000 price made the directors reconsider. The corporation called in three engineers to survey Tufts’s machine and recommend an alternative. They chose a design by William Sellers of Philadelphia that would, they determined, “make less noise … it will not get out of order, [will] be less expensive in repairs, require less power, can be run at a much greater rate of speed and be equally safe.” Evidently the vertical screw left room for refinement. Not only did Sellers’s machine cost significantly less, but it included a no-risk guarantee; if the hotel’s management was not entirely satisfied, he would take it out. Nonetheless Stevens, the largest shareholder, prevailed over his fellow directors, and the hotel got the pricier Tufts machine. But it remained clear to everyone throughout the ordeal that the elevator was essential for the hotel to achieve its goal of world-class luxury.
Beyond the elevator the hotel was a marvel of steam power. The kitchen in particular was said to have “many new inventions known only to this establishment.” Steam worked a carving table, boilers for meat, fish, vegetables, and soups, spits for roasting joints of meat, coffee grinders, jelly and candy kettles, and ice-cream freezers. Even the dairy farm that supplied the hotel had a new patent milking machine. All washing, wringing, and mangling were done by steam power, with clean and soiled laundry transported via a steam-powered elevator. Five and a half miles of steam tubing delivered heat throughout the building—again a luxury found only in the mansions of the upper class.
Americans were coming to think of their best hotels as the finest achievement of an inventive, democratic, mobile civilization and the embodiment of local greatness, enterprise, and hospitality. As people moved westward, prosperous Western entrepreneurs built fancy hotels as monuments to their success. Anthony Trollope was not being entirely facetious when he wrote in 1862 that “the first sign of an incipient settlement is an hotel five stories high, with an office, a bar, a cloak-room, three gentlemen’s parlours, two ladies’ parlours, a ladies’ entrance, and two hundred bedrooms.”
Perhaps the most dramatic hotel of the whole century was the Palace, in San Francisco, which opened in 1875. It was the pet project of William Chapman Ralston, president of the Bank of California, who creatively financed its construction and furnishing on a scale that ultimately resulted in the bank’s failure, a financial panic, and his own death. Ralston was determined to show that San Francisco had grown from its gold-rush infancy into a metropolis as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as any in the world. The biographer H. H. Bancroft wrote of Ralston, “In the study of humanity, in California rather more than elsewhere, we encounter man in his most fantastic mood.” The Palace was truly the product of one man thinking fantastically.
It was enormous, covering a full city block—two and a quarter acres—and rising seven stories. It contained 755 guest rooms, plus public rooms, retail stores, and service areas. A special tabloid section of the San Francisco NewsLetter devoted to it trumpeted: “The Greatest Caravansary in the World—Its Wonders—Its Promenades Amidst Tropical Verdure—Its Enormous Proportions—Splendid Appointments—Richly Furnished Apartments—The Glorious View from Its Summit—Electric Bells Everywhere —The Genius of W. C. Ralston Illustrated. Warren Leland as the Prince of Hotel Managers.”
The hotel was as sumptuously decorated as any, but the tabloid devoted its coverage almost exclusively to its technology. From its up-to-the-minute water closets (“the water is carried off without producing the horrid noise one usually hears”) to the wiring for its electrical signaling system (125 miles), the hotel was clearly “the Greatest Caravansary in the World.” It secured its guests’ comfort and safety with the most elaborate and modern devices yet.
THE PALACE IS PROB ably best known for its safeguards against earthquake and fire. Impressed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1868, Ralston gave his hotel walls of solid brick three feet thick, reinforced by iron bands that formed a “basket” within the brickwork that completely encircled the building every few feet. The hotel’s six rooftop tanks and 358,000gallon subbasement reservoir fed a set of water pipes reserved for fighting fire. Ralston also installed on the street twelve hydrants connected to the rooftop tanks. When the 1906 earthquake hit, eyewitness accounts at the Palace described some of the most violent shaking anywhere, with one eyewitness describing the hotel turning on its axis and back. Yet it stood firm—only to be gutted by the ensuing fire that engulfed the city. The fire department tapped the hotel’s hydrants to fight the fire as it approached at Battery and Market streets and completely drained the hotel’s water reserves, leaving the Palace defenseless when the fire finally arrived.
As the century wore on, nearly every community came to have a hotel that at least hoped to be considered firstclass. Many of them served the growing armies of traveling salesmen. A typical hotel advertised its comforts for the traveling man on its stationery and envelopes: not only steam heat, gas, electric call bells, and baths and closets on all floors but also billiard and sample rooms, barbershops, liveries, and low rates.
Hotels in smaller towns had trouble keeping up. Sinclair Lewis captured the problem in his novel Work of Art , in which a turn-of-the-century salesman registered at the American House in Black Thread Center, Connecticut, and requested a private bath. “The bath,” Lewis wrote, “was really one of the four public tubs, a ‘down-the-hall bath’ as it was called. But it did have an entrance not only from the hall but from Double Room 4, and some six or eight times a year it was demanded as a private bath, it was called a private bath, and thereby, magically, as in theology, it became a private bath.”
Just as small-town hotels lagged far behind those in big cities, so did almost every private home. The Tremont House had both water closets and bathtubs with running water in 1829, but toilets and tubs were still a rare luxury for middle-class households thirty years later. Indoor plumbing remained a privilege well into this century. Gas lighting, steam heat, and later electricity similarly were essential for top hotels decades before they found their way into any but a minority of homes.
By the 1890s steel-frame construction was revolutionizing hotel construction, allowing them to grow higher on smaller valuable plots of urban land. When the St. Regis opened, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street in New York City in 1904, it set new standards for opulence, mechanization, and height. Its owners boasted that it was the tallest hotel in the city “at the moment”—recognizing how fleeting that title might be—and “the solution of a social problem forced on us by the conditions of the present day.” That meant the “servant problem.” The hotel was meant to appeal not just to transients but also to “people with good homes, who frequently find it convenient to close their houses for a week or a few months … and to whom the thought of dispensing with home comforts, good service and cuisine, and the atmosphere of taste and refinement has ever been a hardship.” It was decorated in a style described as “exemplified particularly at Versailles,” with heavy woods, marbles, mirrors, ornate bronze and brass trim, gilt furniture, and sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries, and yet, the hotel claimed, “nowhere can the charge be made of over ostentation.”
WHEN THE NEW HOTEL PUBLISHED A FORTY eight-page book about itself, it devoted the first half to its utilitarian features. The hotel was “the most complicated piece of mechanism which the invention and ingenuity of men have ever been called upon to devise … comparable only to the human body in the complexity and interdependence of the processes that go on within them.” The ventilating system and a central vacuuming device received particular attention. Fresh air was filtered through cheesecloth, warmed by passing over steam coils, and then circulated by electric motors to the rooms, where guests could regulate the temperature with automatic thermostats. Maids dusted and vacuumed using a centralized pneumatic system. In each room the maid attached a flexible hose to an outlet that connected to a vacuum pump in the basement, and the dust and debris so gathered went into a central tank for disposal. All told, the hotel’s mechanical plant filled three underground floors.
In 1913, as Henry Ford’s moving assembly line turned out its first Model T’s, a new type of hotel appeared, one that stood as the very essence of twentieth-century efficiency and consumerism. Introduced by E. M. Statler, it was run according to new professionalized management principles and tied in closely with national transportation and communication networks. Statler’s Cleveland, Ohio, hotel became a model for the industry. Designed by George B. Post (the second “father of the American hotel…), the Statler Hotel had a thousand rooms, each with a private bath, above several floors of monumental chambers arranged to produce maximum income through the leasing of shops and concessions.
Similar Statlers followed in Detroit and St. Louis. This standardization was carried further when the Hotel Pennsylvania opened in 1919 in New York City with twenty-two hundred rooms and further still eight years later, when Ernest J. Stevens opened the three-thousand-room Stevens Hotel in Chicago.
THESE HOTELS WERE FILLED with inventions lavishly described in their promotional literature. Guests were assured that the air they breathed was the freshest possible, thanks to novel ventilating systems. Doors closed quietly on nonslamming hinges. Services were provided unobtrusively via the “servidor,” a compartment in the room door accessible by small doors on either side. Communication from rooms became increasingly sophisticated with telegraph devices, such as the Herzog Teleseme and the Telautograph, and finally with room telephones. The kitchens and laundries, steam engines, and dynamos all were fully described to a public fascinated with innovation and with living like royalty at a daily rate.
The drawback to all this novelty in new hotels was that they became obsolete very quickly. A hotel often survived thirty years or less. The original Plaza Hotel in New York City was considered one of the finest hotels in the world when it was built, in 1890, at a cost of $3 million. When its owners lunched at the new St. Regis in 1904, surrounded by even greater opulence and better technology, they decided to tear down the Plaza and rebuild it. The Hardenbergh French château that replaced it, today a historic landmark, cost $12.5 million—the equivalent of well over $100 million today—prompting one writer to suggest that the familiar rampant lion on the coat of arms be replaced with a shapely dollar sign.
The Depression brought an end to a century of tireless luxury-hotel construction. Fortunately many of the masterpieces of that era have survived and been carefully restored. The St. Regis recently underwent a $100-million renovation almost ninety years after it first opened, and once again it ranks among the most expensive hotels in New York City. Meanwhile new hotels still advertise their conveniences and technological achievements. A 1993 headline in The New York Times announced the “New Tallest Hotel in New York.” The article described the Four Seasons Hotel, its business center loaded with computer terminals and fax machines, color TV in the bathrooms, tubs that fill themselves in one minute, and bedside switches to raise and lower the window blinds. As a showcase for new technology, the American luxury hotel continues a historical tradition that began with the Tremont House.
And haven’t you yourself played video checkout?