The Hotel Is Born In America

For my inaugural blog posts, I want to talk about the evolution of the hotel and how hotels can influence museum and exhibit designers. This will be the first post of three based off of a presentation I gave earlier this year at the Exhibitor conference in Las Vegas. First, some history on the hotel and where it got its start. I’ll include important research references in part three on Friday.

American hotels are some of the worldʼs most significant buildings. The most basic hotels–buildings divided into separate guest rooms–began to appear shortly after our countryʼs founding.

innBefore independence, American society was really quite different. Like in Europe (and elsewhere) public authority had been deeply invested in policing peopleʼs comings and goings closely–particularly out town strangers. Colonial communities generally discouraged visits from strangers and kept close watch on those who came into town. Certain approved travelers–such as circuit riding judges and other officials–were welcomed, but most others–-itinerant peddlers and preachers, fortune tellers, and especially people without–were viewed with suspicion.

Towns often passed laws scrutinizing outsiders upon their arrival, and local innkeepers were vital for this effort. Innkeepers were assigned the role of both guardian and sentry; they not only were responsible for sheltering visitors and their possessions but were also expected to notify authorities of the arrival of any and all outsiders.

Following the American Revolution, travel increased for commercial, administrative and religious reasons. Trade and trust are intertwined. The American revolution codified new political and economic beliefs and demanded a new system for housing visitors.

drinkingAs our countryʼs first president, George Washington devised a grand national tour on which he would make personal visits to cities and towns. He intended to use his extraordinary popularity to solidify public support for the fragile new federal government. Not wanting to be accused of taking advantage of favors, Washington refused private hospitality and decided to stay in public houses and inns.

Washingtonʼs 2000 mile tour from New Hampshire to Georgia fostered popular faith in the government and prestige in the presidency. He stayed in early inns that resembled houses and were not purposefully built. They did not contain individual rooms–only individual beds. Sometimes travelers would have to sleep in the same bed with another person.

Economic development and an infant government put pressure on this restrictive system. Travel increased for commercial, administrative and religious reasons. Trade and trust are intertwined. The American revolution codified new political and economic beliefs and demanded a new system for housing visitors.

When Washington took office in 1789 the finest public houses were 3 story, 20 room inns. Two decades later, the first 7 story, 200 room hotel was built.

bellThe hotel was born.

The country’s new hotels were deliberate attempts to create a new class of public houses that would stand apart from their predecessors. As the rise of market economies and social mobility began to erode the importance of aristocratic titles and other kinds of hereditary status, people turned to style, decor, and other visual cues to demonstrate their social standing.

Luxury, commercial, middle-class and resort hotels emerged over time and across the space of the country to create a number of outlets for designers and architects to experiment with the usage of space, color, lighting and decor.

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 be-gan to appear across the country. This paved the way not only for standardization in service and quality, but also in aesthetic and design.

The invention of the hotel was more than just a milestone in the history of the public house. It reflected important changes in the way Americans defined their communities, engaged in politics, organized their economic activities, and socialized.

Hotels were truly an American phenomenon.

The countryʼs new hotels were deliberate attempts to create a new class of public houses that would stand apart from their predecessors. As the rise of market economies and social mobility began to erode the importance of aristocratic titles and other kinds of hereditary status, people turned to style, decor, and other visual cues to demonstrate their social standing.

unionpublicThe Philadelphia City Tavern (1770) was one factor that contributed to Philadelphia becoming our countryʼs first capital city. The city had the capacity to comfortably host guests from throughout the colonies.

The Union Public Hotel (1793, pictured) was the first hotel built specifically for the new capital of Washington D.C. A contemporary journalist wrote this new hotel would the most significant building in America. White House architect James Hoban designed the structure–you can see the similarities between the two buildings. The building was such a feature that Congress convened inside for nearly two years when the British burned Washington in 1814.

The City Hotel (1794) was the first amenity hotel. It included ballrooms, public parlors, a bar, stores, offices and the largest circulating library in the U.S. It contained 137 rooms and remained the grandest building in New York City for over 40 years.

bostonexchangeThe Boston Exchange Coffee House (1809) required half a million dollars for its construction and was the largest building in the U.S. in its time. People flocked to the hotel, and it became the preeminent place to see and be seen. It was used for balls, concerts and other occasions. It was a center of Boston finance. A fire started in the attic, and because Boston did not have a ladder tall enough, the fire destroyed the building.

The hotel provided an improved standard of hospitality and established the necessary infrastructure of a new age pubic commercial and human mobility. Hotels symbolized the desires of a nation that was becoming more urban and commercial.

They supplied space for social display, and were designed to reallocate political power by restructuring political space.

Next up: Luxury, commercial, middle-class and marginal hotels jump onto the scene…and they look (and feel) different.

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