Skip to main content

Palaces Of The People

June 2024
17min read

Americans invented the grand hotel in the 183Os and during the next century brought it to a zenith of democratic luxury that makes a visit to the surviving examples the most agreeable of historic pilgrimages

At the turn of the eighteenth century, a story went around Connecticut about a pious old woman who was berating her nephew for being such a rake. And an aging rake, at that. “But we’re not so very different,” he insisted. “Suppose that in traveling, you came to an inn where all the beds were full except two, and in one of those was a man and in the other was a woman. Which would you take? The woman’s, to be sure. Well, madam, so would I—”

Before 1829 Americans on the road stayed at inns, sleeping without privacy in the same room and even in the same bed. One timid foreigner complained that he would lie awake all night worrying about who might slide into bed with him. An Englishman, on the contrary, recalled a late night when five young ladies came into the room and began to undress for bed. “I raised my head,” he said, “and desired to be informed which of them intended me the honor of her company.” But they arranged a bedroll on the floor.

The era of jumbled accommodations closed on October 16, 1829, with the gala opening of the Tremont House in Boston. It was so radically new throughout that the most succinct description came from an English minister who hated it. Everyone else just gushed.


The Tremont House was one of the first buildings ever constructed as a hotel, and it was certainly the first one so carefully planned, with 170 guest rooms, all of them private. Breaking with the custom of receiving overnight guests in a barroom, it met them with a spacious lobby, alongside other public rooms—a massive dining room and even a library—in a classical style. Then there were the gadgets: The Tremont started a hotel tradition by making an attraction out of itself, an exposition of brand-new technology. The public rooms shone with gaslight. The guest rooms had locks on the doors. There were eight indoor toilets. And in the rooms guests could call for either water or a bellboy just by pushing one of two buttons in the “electro-magnetic annunciator.” The electromagnetic annunciator tripped a small disk in the main office, indicating the room and the request.

The Plaza, an improbable château that dominates a neighborhood as does no other New York hotel, opened in 1907

The Reverend George Lewis, however, looked past the clever parts of the Tremont House and recognized the even more cunning sum of its achievement: “You live in a crowd —eat in a crowd, sitting down with fifty, a hundred, sometimes two hundred at table, to which you are summoned by a sonorous Chinese gong. The only place of retirement is your room, to which you have your key.”

The Tremont House calculated an effect and then controlled it, artificially stirring the activity in the public rooms, even while offering a respite above. It was the world’s first hotel in the modern definition: You lived in a crowd, but your room had a key. That suited the nineteenth century so well that a generation of hotels unabashedly copied it and even made sure of the details by adhering to a book called A Description of the Tremont House With Architectural Illustrations.

The Tremont outlasted most of its imitators, and then outlasted its era; it was demolished in 1895. Of all of the hotels that have been torn down, burned down, or blown up in this country, the Tremont House is the one that I wish had been saved. I’d be there when they turned on the lights at dusk; I’d wait around one sitting room or another for the sonorous Chinese gong, but mostly I’d be in my room, annunciating for water every two minutes or so, electro-magnetically.

Even in 1994 the Tremont House would seem new; ambition that powerful can’t age. It would have a good chance of surviving today because historic hotels matter as they rarely have before. They matter to their cities, which regard them proudly as permanent figureheads, “palaces of the people,” in the phrase coined in the 1830s. They matter to investors because it costs less to restore a luxury hotel than to build a new one, especially with the benefit of tax credits put in place in the early 1980s. Most of all, they matter to travelers, who can find in them just about anything, good or bad, except that blend of the two, standardization.

Little towns, too, could hold a palace of the people, though they might not describe it quite that way. On November 11, 1836, the Cazenovia (New York) Democrat announced: “The Lincklaen House is now finished and open for the reception of company. … The building is spacious, durably constructed and elegantly furnished.” It is still all three of those things.

From the outside the three-story brick building has barely changed at all; just about the most glaring difference is that the signpost that once faced north-south now faces east-west. Recruits collected at the Lincklaen House to leave for the Civil War. The actual outbreak inspired 24 enlistees, but in the summer of 1862, when the President needed 300,000 more soldiers, 101 of them came from Cazenovia, which raised enough money to offer a twenty-five-dollar bonus to each man. They showed up at the Lincklaen House on August 14, went outside, formed a line at the signpost, prayed, said good-bye, and headed south to the ringing of bells.

The Lincklaen followed the Tremont example in many respects, including the one that allowed American hotels to develop so much faster than European ones: It was built by a group of investors operating as a stock company, capitalized at twenty-three thousand dollars (the Astor Hotel, opened the same year in New York City, cost four hundred thousand dollars). In all these years the ground floor has had only one major renovation, resulting in a comfortable 1916 version of 1836.

Someone I know stopped in the Lincklaen House years ago with her elderly mother. It was an odd, empty hour in the afternoon. The desk clerk said that the dining room was closed but showed them to a place next to the fire, in the sitting room off the lobby. They ordered tea, which arrived in an impressive English service. A few minutes later the clerk brought them a plate of brownies, just out of the oven. It was altogether more than they asked for or even expected—the artful part in the workings of a grand hotel.

In 1836, the year that Lincklaen House made its entrance into the village life of upstate New York, the Mexican Army marched into Texas: “Full seven thousand, in pomp and parade; The chivalry, flower of Mexico; And a gaunt two hundred in the Alamo,” according to a poem of the day. The lines forfeited strict numerical accuracy to the meter but indicated the basic inequity. Having secured the fort, the Mexicans executed the handful of prisoners that they took. To Texans ever since, it seemed a reprehensible way to win a battle and a glorious way to lose one.

Eventually the battle site became a major tourist attraction. In the 189Os an Army officer stopping at San Antonio’s Menger Hotel walked outside and asked a cabby to take him to the Alamo; three hours later they arrived, and the officer paid the fare. A few minutes after that he noticed that the Menger is across the street from the Alamo.

The Menger opened as a luxury hotel in 1859, when Alamo Plaza was still lined with mud huts. The Menger was square and solid, reflecting the German immigrants who founded it, with accents of the region in its delicate ironwork railings and red tile—and the lone star in the gable. It has expanded numerous times, though the oldest section and the patio garden have remained in remarkably original shape, perhaps because the hotel has had only three owners in 135 years.

In May of 1898, at the outset of the Spanish-American War, the Menger was the unofficial headquarters for high-society members of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, which was better known as the Rough Riders and best known for its second-in-command, Theodore Roosevelt. The Rough Riders camped in San Antonio. The “Fifth Avenue Crowd,” according to the San Antonio dailies, made a tradition of having a big breakfast at the Menger before acceding to the regimental allowance of eighteen cents a day for food. Even Colonel Roosevelt couldn’t resist a last stop at the Menger for breakfast, on his way to join the regiment. (He stayed at the Menger on other occasions, but then, Roosevelt is to historic hotels what George Washington was to inns; it’s hard to find the place at which he didn’t stay.)

For years, just before lunch was served in the Menger dining room, the waiters and busboys had to walk in a line from one end of the room to the other, fanning the flies toward the windows, and shooing them out. The men sang as they performed this chore, a treat for guests to hear, according to Aaron Townsend, who started at the Menger in 1894 and retired as headwaiter more than fifty years later. “These boys here now can sing too,” he told a reporter in 1946, “but now we get no flies.”


Long before the unsinkable Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean, the “absolutely fire-proof” Palmer House opened for business in Chicago. The date was October 1, 1871, eight days before the hotel disappeared in the flames of the Great Chicago Fire. Fortunately no one at the hotel was hurt. The next absolutely fireproof Palmer House opened two years later, setting a new hotel standard for size, ostentation, and amenities. One of those who were most impressed with the Palmer House was Henry C. Brown, who determined that Denver must also have a grand hotel, on a par or better.


Brown worked as a builder in Denver even before the massive gold and silver strikes in the region. When they hit, tempting others up the mountains, Brown made a business decision to stay put and wait for the mountains to come to him, in the pockets of successful miners. The hotel he would build, the Brown Palace, had to be so spectacular that new millionaires would not have to strut any farther east, if what they wanted to do was strut.

The only way to ensure such quality in Denver in 1892 was to build an oasis of self-sufficiency. The Brown Palace served meat, vegetables, and cream from its own farms. It made its own ice, because it generated its own electricity, and in fact, whenever Denver had a blackout, the hotel serviced parts of the city. It also had an incineration system for garbage and—taking self-sufficiency to an extreme even for 1892—a crematorium for guests who died. No one ever partook of that feature, and it was dismantled in the twenties. The hotel still has its original artesian well, with startlingly good drinking water because of it.

Surrounded now by shiny skyscrapers, from the outside the Brown Palace is a dowdy triangle of red-brown stone. Inside, the lobby itself offers a surprising commodity: air, rising seven stories to a stained-glass ceiling. From below, each floor is a continuous balcony behind a green and gold rail; it means to be gorgeous, and it is. As one looks across from the door of a guest room, the balconies and the broad stair threaded through them could be the set in an opera.

Mr. Brown’s Palace is not palatial; it is not like an Austrian castle, an old English mansion, a gentleman’s club, or any of the other fantasies commonly perpetrated by vintage hotels. If anything, it is a theater in a grand way: stage and boxes turning around each other, depending on who is gazing down, up, or across at whom.

Ouray, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains, spit up $130 million more in precious metal than Denver ever did, but it never rated a grand hotel. Instead it inspired a little puppy of a hotel, the St. Elmo, full of appeal and free of delusions. It is a plain brick building that opened in 1898, eye to eye with the wall of a mountain. The Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona, is another small mining hotel, dating from the prosperous copper days of 1907, and it certainly did have delusions—with a surviving Tiffany window to show for it.

The first “Palace Hotel” in San Francisco was a basement flophouse for hundreds of Chinese workers in the Barbary Coast. As a building the second Palace Hotel was more accurately named: built in 1875, it was the second-largest hotel in the world, with conveniences in every room. Richard D’Oyly Carte was so impressed by it that he resolved to build an American-style hotel where it was needed most—overseas. He went home and opened the Savoy Hotel in London in 1889.

The Waldorf is at its best when it’s busiest, still seeming to judge itself on how fast the carpets can be worn out.

In 1906, on the morning of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the guests at the Palace thought they had escaped, even as the building was still shaking. Out on the sidewalk, though, as a guest recalled, “the air was filled with falling stones.” Six hours later, as the fire swept up Market Street, one of the last telegraph messages to come out of the city during the calamity read BACK OF THE PALACE HOTEE IS A FURNACE .

In the aftermath a looter was hanged off a beam protruding from the entrance of the Palace; meanwhile, at the corner, a singer on tour from the Metropolitan Opera was having hysterics and practicing random snippets of song. Even as a burned-out hulk, the old Palace was full of diversions.

The new Palace Hotel, which opened in 1909, was never quite forgiven for not being the old Palace Hotel, for daring to replace the irreplaceable. That was misguided loyalty. The Sheraton Palace (as it is called) has been recently restored with terrific integrity. The workers buffed the whole place to a shine, without taking away the patina of eighty-five years.


The heart of the hotel is the Garden Court, one of the most beautiful rooms in the country. And when I am in it, I can’t remember the others. Somewhere just short of the sky, there is a delicate leaded-glass ceiling, with pillars leading out of the marble floor to it. The Garden Court has an Edwardian look: the potted palms, the judicious use of gilt, and an unharried arrangement of furniture. The hotel knows what it has; the Garden Court is used daily for breakfast, lunch, tea, cocktails, dinner, dancing, and late supper.

A wide central hall, running oast the Garden Court, from one end of the building to the other, has four large cases of souvenirs from both Palaces, including a program printed for President Warren G. Harding’s visit, “July thirty-first to August first, Nineteen-twentythree.” Sadly enough, illness forced Harding to stay on at the Palace until August 2, when he died.

The cases also contain an ornately engraved siphon from the old bar, a relic of the days when perhaps too much importance was placed on such things. As if to prove it, there is a little card from a later date: “Strict compliance with the provisions of the Prohibition laws is expected and will be appreciated by the management.” Honest hotels lost good business to speakeasies during Prohibition. As one executive said, “The difficult thing was to smile like a ninny when some other ninny was telling me about a gin trap a few blocks north.”

Up Nob Hill from the Palace, the Fairmont Hotel was just about to open when it was gutted by the fire in 1906. The pristine white building was supposed to complement the mansions with which, if not for the fire, it would have shared Nob Hill. Even so, the Fairmont represents their style. For years it had its own terraced lawns leading down the crest of the hill to a swimming pool where guests lounged and watched the boats go by in the bay. In 1962 the configuration closed in, as a new tower took the place of the pool (one small patch of lawn remains between the two buildings).

The rooms in the tower, by and large, have the best views, but I’d always opt for the main building, precisely because it is still all of a piece (and usually an oversize piece): five-foot-wide windows that can be opened with a pinkie; hallways that are wide, high-ceilinged, and soft enough for a quiet game of football; and the staircase to the lobby. There are elevators, of course, best used for going up, but that Fairmont staircase is the perfect invention for going down. Massive as it is in white marble, it does not crassly march into the lobby; it insinuates itself, expertly. You can stand just out of sight and spy on the people in advance or make a grand entrance, entirely aware and seeming oblivious.

On the East Coast the equal of Nob Hill’s Fairmont Hotel is the Back Bay’s Copley Plaza in Boston. The Copley Plaza opened in 1912, taking over as the city’s leading hotel from the Parker House, which had taken over from the Tremont, long before. It was one of the first American establishments to copy ideas from the European grand hotels that had developed quickly at the end of the century. Austere on the outside, it looks like a little bit of Versailles on the inside: a glittering effect of the light that ricochets from the crystal chandeliers to the gold on the ceiling to the beveled mirrors on the walls and to the tweedy people rushing by.

When the Copley Plaza was three years old, the actress Bette Davis was seven, and her family stopped there for dinner on the way to the train station a few blocks away; Mrs. Davis was taking the children away on vacation. “It was festive with a string orchestra, hot rolls on a silver wagon and lemon sherbet. The scene is still vivid to me,” Bette Davis wrote in her 1962 autobiography. The family never had dinner together again, however; by the time the vacation ended, Mr. Davis had moved away. Bette Davis stayed away from the hotel until years later, when she was a big success and her father asked her out to lunch. The Copley Plaza was her idea.


Most historic hotels still around today date from the twenties, a boom time for construction—and destruction. In Chicago the Palmer House was torn down one half at a time to make way for a new edition in 1925, now called the Palmer House Hilton. The unassailable Drake Hotel opened in 1920, replacing another property owned by the Drake family. In Boston a new Parker House replaced the 1855 original. In Washington the elegant Shoreham Hotel made way for a rambling place now called the Omni Shoreham. In Louisville a new Gait House would eventually replace the old one, razed in 1920 but famous for the events of September 29, 1862, when one Union general shot another in the lobby. Hundreds of excellent new hotels without antecedents opened in the twenties, especially the years from 1925 to 1927, causing a glut when the Great Depression arrived. Today, though, examples from that era constitute the majority of historic hotels that are still open. A city that has one is likely, quite properly, to treasure it.

Most of the historic hotels extant today date from the twenties, a boom time for construction—and destruction.

Sinclair Lewis loved old hotels and thought that a person should make a pursuit of staying in as many of them as possible. He was as avid as a bird watcher. And to him, Washington, D.C., was a “veritable Mecca.”

Through much of the nineteenth century, Washington was a terrible hotel city, known more for its overgrown boardinghouses than for real hotels. Willard’s, however, made a great impression when it opened under the management of the Willard brothers in the 185Os. In 1861 the Lincoln family made plans to stay there during the presidential inauguration. To evade an assassination plot, Abraham Lincoln stole into Willard’s before dawn, in total secrecy. Hotels being what they are—where total secrets are concerned—a large crowd had gathered by midmorning under his window.

In the indexes of history books covering the Civil War, the listings for the Willard Hotel are often longer than those for the White House. The Willard itself still likes to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne on the subject. “This hotel,” he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862, “in fact, may be much more justly called the centre of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.”

“Et looks like en evenin’ sesshun ov Congress,” concluded Uncle Hank, a popular character in books written by Thomas Fleming at the turn of the century. Uncle Hank visited Washington in 1902 and made a tour of its hotels. The kind of men he saw, men who spent their days at the Willard lobby looking for the government or just waiting around for it, came to be called lobbyists.

The new Willard Hotel, which replaced the original one in 1902, slipped from the top rank by the thirties, surpassed by the stylish places that had opened the decade before: the Hay-Adams, the Carlton, the Jefferson, the Madison. By the early sixties the Willard had become a “dilapidated old firetrap,” according to someone who stayed there often. “The reason it stayed open,” he added, “was that it was about the only hotel in Washington that charged less than the government’s per diem for lodging.” After it closed in 1968, it was empty for nearly twenty years.

In 1986 the old hotel reopened as the Willard Inter-Continental, having been brought back from the very brink with a meticulous restoration. The guest floors were renovated to a modern standard, while the lobby, in particular, was returned to its late-Victorian formality. The reborn Willard is at the same time bracingly sure of itself and a reminder of the Washington of 1902, surprisingly small and slightly Southern.

The Mayflower is of a quicker pace, on the gallop ever since it opened in 1925. For a long time it was the biggest hotel in Washington—the guest-floor hallways are so long they show the curving of the earth, or so it sometimes seems—yet the Mayflower was overbooked throughout most of World War II. The mezzanine overlooking the lobby was commonly converted into a dormitory for desperate travelers.

A man named John Dasch arrived in Washington on a Thursday in 1942 and managed to get a room at the Mayflower, but only after he promised to check out by Monday. Dasch was certain he would. He was a Nazi saboteur, in charge of a group that had disembarked from submarines in Long Island and Florida about a week before. Abandoning the master plan, Dasch went to Washington to give himself up and to turn in the others. He had to spend more than a day in his room, calling various agencies, before anyone arrived to arrest him. All seven of his fellow saboteurs were captured, and six of them were electrocuted two months later.

J. Edgar Hoover was well known to have lunch at the Mayflower every day when he was the FBI director. One day he looked up and happened to notice Public Enemy No. 3 dining five tables away. Hoover calmly called his office and had the man arrested, leaving everyone else to wonder how a criminal could rank number three and not know enough to stay away from the Mayflower at lunchtime.

With six historic hotels of the first rank, and as many more of distinct interest, Washington must still be the mecca. But then there is New York City.

In 1893, when George C. Boldt opened the old Waldorf Hotel on Fifth Avenue, he graciously invited other hotelmen to the grand opening. Frank Case, later of the Algonquin Hotel, recalled that he and his friends were impressed with the facility but thought Boldt was a “damn fool” for lining the halls and lobbies with Oriental rugs. Smart hoteliers would never waste money like that. Finally Case was sent to ask Boldt what he would do when the expensive rugs wore out from all the crowds trampling on them. “I’m more concerned for fear they may not wear out,” Boldt said.

The turn-of-the-century history of almost anything or anyone is likely to include an episode at the old Waldorf-Astoria. Most notoriously, though, it was at the core of that Fifth Avenue “lobster society” that considered the cheapskate the only real sinner. Peacock Alley became the nickname (later copied elsewhere) for a wide hallway that rustled late every morning with expensive clothes and fresh gossip. The Waldorf also had a bar.

J. P. Morgan stopped in for his daily Manhattan, while John ("Bet-a-Million") Gates ordered milk and crackers. Manhattans and milk were available anywhere, of course, but special drinks concocted at the Waldorf’s bar commemorated what seemed at the time to be great events. Ninety years later a listing of these drinks is like a faint and scratchy recording of talk around the Waldorf bar: about war (the Santiago Sour, the Dewey Frappè, the Schley Punch, the Shafter Cocktail), about monetary issues (the Single Standard Rickey, the Double Standard Sour, and the Free Silver Fizz), hit plays (the Floradora, the Chanticleer, the Soul Kiss), scandals (the Bradley Martin), and other phenomena so obscure that possibly they were not great events after all.

In 1929 the old Waldorf-Astoria was demolished to make space for the Empire State Building. The new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel opened in 1931, two enormous, connected towers at home on Park Avenue. It is, as ever, at its best when it’s busiest, still seeming to judge itself on how fast the carpets can be worn out. They weren’t worn very quickly the first year, in the middle of the Great Depression; it is said that one night fewer people were registered in the 2,200 rooms than were playing in the orchestra on the Starlight Roof. The hotel gathered momentum, though, by thinking of practically everything. Eighty-six chefs trained in French cooking made one million meals in 1938, but there were always some guests who looked down on haute cuisine, and for them the hotel hired American women to serve up home cooking, made in a regular kitchen. The thorough and eminently practical Waldorf Manuals became standard texts in hotel-management schools, with tips like this, in the chapter on breakfast: “Anything lukewarm in the morning is an invitation to trouble.”

“Nanny likes her coffee hot hot hot,” corroborated Eloise, the character created by Kay Thompson in 1955. Eloise was a little girl who lived at the Plaza; in hotel expertise, Eloise is the Plaza’s answer to the Waldorf Manuals. The Plaza Hotel opened in 1907, an improbable French château that dominates a neighborhood as no other New York hotel does, making it hard to tell where exactly the plaza out front ends and the Plaza takes up.

The last time I stopped at the Plaza, people were just everywhere in the small, elegant rooms: dining, checking in, checking out, keeping appointments, buying tickets, looking at maps, and rushing to meetings. Altogether it was too crowded. I could hardly wait to get to my room, have it all to myself, and order something cold cold cold from room service. A bellboy took the suitcases and my key and held the elevator doors open for me. I tried not to rush as I followed him in, but I turned around with a jolt just as the doors were about to meet. It didn’t last long, but it was a glimpse of the Tremont House in all its glory.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.