Hotels Become Distinct Places

As America became accustomed to independence in the 19th century, there emerged a system of distinct hotel types: luxury, commercial, middle class, and marginal. Entrepreneurs created this tiered system to respond to an increase in demand by an increasingly mobile American populace, and designed each space to suit their customers…and their ability to pay.

Luxury hotels were the first distinct class to emerge. They were large, ornate, expensive, and intended for a well-to-do clientele. Luxury hotels like the Exchange Coffee House were so visually impressive and elicited so much commentary that two centuries later they still capture the imagination and stand for “hoteldom.”

luxuryBut for every privileged family that stayed in the luxury hotel, there were a dozen businessmen that could not afford more than a clean bed. Thus the emergence of commercial hotels in 1820. These were for business travelers: the salesman, account clerks, wholesale agents, shopkeepers, and buyers whose ranks were growing as the economy expanded. They started in New York City and expanded nationwide.

Middle class hotels were hotels constructed to provide cheaper alternatives to luxury hotels for men, women and children rather than commercial travelers.

In time, even the poor could find a hotel to stay the night. Some marginal hotels were considered outside the bounds of respectability simply because they operated in a seedy part of own or served low-income clientele. They had numerous beds in single rooms. Some resembled boarding houses for day laborers, vagrants and the semi-homeless.

A fifth type of hotel emerged in the 1790s–resort hotels. The early resort hotels were the latest addition to a long standing tradition of visits to mineral springs and other sites to improve health. Spa towns drew visitors in Europe for centuries, and Americans organized spa trips at least as far back as the 1760s.

resortSoon, these resorts developed unique social scenes that replaced scenery and health as their main draw. They were unique enough to draw seasonal patrons and generated a standing community. While the guest of a city hotel would stay an average of three days, resort hotel patrons stayed for weeks and months at a time. Prosperous families could reserve rooms for an entire summer, with the husband returning to work during he week and the wife and children staying continuously. In order to occupy guestsʼ abundant time, resort hotels sponsored concerts, lectures, nature walks, plays, recitals, masquarade balls, and countless other forms of entertainment.

Resort hotels emerged out of the same conditions that had given rise to other hotels: commercial capitalism, rapid urbanization, and improved transportation. Despite the common origins, resorts played a very different role in the hotel system.

Resorts were not in the crossroads of networks of travel: they were in the nature of terminal points, places that people arrived rather tan moved through. They formed a refuge from the heterogeneity and hubbub of city life. In this sense, they stood in opposition to the democratizing trends that characterized other American hotels. Basically aristocratic, resorts were descendants of the British resorts.

nationalparkhotelMany resorts offered visitors “exotic” surroundings and experiences. The Fred Harvey Company, among others, built hotels within National Parks following their establishment and connection by car or railroads.

Americans invented the large urban luxury hotel in the early 19th century, and since that time these buildings have proven to be a source of fascination for the worldʼs traveling public. We tend to think of our citiesʼ gilded palaces as democratic imitations of the aristocratic palace homes of England and Europe, and like them, something beyond the realm of “real” life. The wealthy mansions of New York inspired the apartment hotels down the street.

The original Waldorf Astoria was a typical New York luxury hotel in the European style. The modern Classical style of this new 1920 hotel was called “Art Deco” and became fashionable in New York following the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et industiel Modern in Paris.


New markets provided major opportunities for hotel operators that had previously been confined to one city or region. Thus began the hotel franchise through which chains began to appear across the country. This paved the way not only for standardization in service and quality, but also in aesthetic and design.

By the 1950s and 60s, corporate chains dominated the market. Their primary audience was the traveling businessman, and modernism was the dominant aesthetic.

Modernism was a perfect match for the corporate hotels, it has no individual style, it had a stripped down pragmatic feeling. These hotels have been more concerned with reflecting style rather than setting it. The prevailing trend is one of trying to square the circle between complete brand and corporate control to those hotels that are more informal and independent looking. Unfortunately, this trend has resulted in a series of sterile hotels that are mostly benign, and free of character and fantasy.

Next up: Modern hotel design and what we can learn from these entirely choreographed spaces.

2 Responses to “Hotels Become Distinct Places”

  1. Bill Fisher says:

    Janko – You are a Hoot! Look at you blogging – and in a pink wig no less! Richard passed this along via Fecebook, so I guess I owe him a drink!
    But seriously, I loved the blog – it’s so true – working in hotels for years I would overhear conversations of people wanting to replicate the same look in everything from homes to businesses and beyond…keep up the good work Tiger!

  2. Kevin Murphy says:

    Excellent article, Jan.

    Naturally, I thought again about Biltmore, in Asheville, NC. One of these days . . .

Leave a Reply