New book looks at U.S. luxury hotels’ emergence, effect on cities

Luxury hotels had a prominent place in America’s 19th-century urban landscape.

In Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929 (Johns Hopkins University Press), Molly Berger, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and a history instructor, tells how luxury hotels helped shape the American scene from the 1820s to 1929, when the Great Depression marked the beginning of a new era.

Endowed with some of the grandeur of European palaces, luxury hotels were made possible by the expansion of urban centers, improvements in transportation, new building technologies and the accumulation of wealth. Over time, they came to symbolize and promote a variety of social, cultural and technological changes.

When America’s first luxury hotel, Boston’s Tremont, opened in 1829, it was front-page news, and soon, Berger noted, “Every city had to have its hotel.”

The nation’s enthusiasm for erecting these complex, extravagant buildings culminated with Chicago’s Stevens Hotel, which had 3,000 rooms and public spaces large enough to hold a circus. Yet hotel projects also inspired public controversy, often generating heated debate about urban and economic development.

Business dealings, society events and political activities found a place in these grand American palaces. Eventually, they became mini cities offering a range of services, from restaurants to shops to ticket offices.

Hotel developers were also quick to adopt new technologies—such as indoor plumbing, steam heat and electric lighting—sometimes decades before they were available in homes. As a result, enjoying the benefits of the latest technology became part of what Americans meant by “luxury,” Berger said.

Owners soon found it a business necessity to attract people of different classes to their hotels. Affluent families would stay in opulent suites on the lower floors, while a bachelor salesman might climb seven flights of stairs to a so-called “sky parlor” with fewer amenities. Still, all of the guests dined together in public parlors.

As Berger read travel books and diaries from the period, she was amused by foreign travelers’ remarks about this “promiscuous mixing of social classes.” Some visitors objected to other diners’ table manners; British journalist George Sala, visiting America in the 1860s, registered his disapproval of a female guest devouring a stack of pancakes. Sala declared that she had defied all dietetic laws, both “human and divine.”

Berger’s research for the book took her to major cities around the country. Many of the original luxury hotels were razed long ago, but she found architectural plans, business records, artist’s drawings and photographs in the archives of local historical societies.

In her concluding chapter, Berger tells the story of the Hotel Cleveland, which was built in 1918 by the Van Sweringen brothers, railroad magnates and developers whose projects included the light rail system linking Shaker Heights to downtown Cleveland. The Hotel Cleveland stood on Public Square, where the Van Sweringens also hoped to build a train station.

In her book, Berger reproduces a Plain Dealer advertisement that celebrated the hotel’s opening and called on voters to approve the brothers’ plans for a future “Union Station.” In the ad, Uncle Sam himself calls for bringing “this long-needed and splendid improvement to Cleveland.”

Today, when guests check into what is now the Renaissance Hotel in the Terminal Tower complex, they may not be aware of this rich history. But it will become more widely known with the publication of Hotel Dreams.