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Hotel Dreams

Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829–1929

Molly W. Berger

Publication Year: 2011

From the time they emerged in American cities in the 1820s, commercial luxury hotels were far more than places where a traveler could eat and sleep—they were icons of style, opulence, and technological sophistication. Molly W. Berger offers a compelling history of the American hotel and how it captured the public’s imagination as it came to represent the complex—and often contentious—relationship among luxury, economic development, and the ideals of a democratic society. From New York to San Francisco and points in between, Berger profiles the country’s most prestigious hotels, including Boston’s 1829 Tremont, which served as a model for luxury hotel design; San Francisco's world famous Palace, completed in 1875; and Chicago's enormous Stevens, built two years before the great crash of 1929. The fascinating stories behind their design, construction, and marketing reveal in rich detail how these buildings became cultural symbols that shaped the urban landscape. Though America’s large, luxury hotels were impressive architectural and corporate accomplishments, they were lightning rods for public debate about urban development and economic power. Inside the buildings unfolded human dramas that shaped ideas about race, gender, and class. Berger deftly explores the tension between both elite and egalitarian values that surrounded America’s luxury hotels. The American hotel evolved into a “machine for living,” soaring to skyscraper heights, defining ideas about technological innovation, and creating a unified system of production and consumption unique to the modern world. Hotel Dreams is a deeply researched and entertaining account of how the hotel’s material world of machines and marble integrated into and shaped the society it served.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Industry and Society


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pp. v

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pp. 1-10

In the early 1980s, after moving into a new house in suburban Cleveland, we used our last remaining dollars to take our four young children on a trip east. In Philadelphia, we stayed at a large chain hotel, which for us at the time was a bit of a step up. My younger daughter, all of ten years old, kept asking me if this was a “fancy” hotel. It was a perfectly respectable hotel, utilitarian and somewhat upscale...

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1. The Emergence of the American First-Class Hotel, 1820s: “All at Hand, and All of the Best”

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pp. 11-28

On April 15, 1848, Philip Hone, diarist and one of New York City’s “best” citizens, gave voice to what he often called the “go-ahead” age. Describing what he considered “the magical performance of the lightning post,” Hone revealed his enchantment with the heretofore unimaginable changes wrought by technology, in this case recounting the speed at which news of the markets had traveled fourteen...

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2. The Tremont House, Boston, 1829: “A Style Entirely New”

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pp. 29-60

Two twenty-foot-tall Doric granite columns anchor opposite corners of Institute Park in Worcester, Massachusetts, just across the street from the American Antiquarian Society. The columns are a mystery to most Worcester residents today: the columns’ monumental proportions are at odds with the small urban park, and the strange juxtaposition between the two underscores the col-...

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3. The Proliferation of Antebellum Hotels, 1830–1860: “Every Thing Is on a Gigantic Scale”

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pp. 61-82

The luxury hotel concept seemed to tap into a well of American enthusiasm, as urban developers proposed hotel projects throughout the United States and journalists and writers chronicled their rise. As hotels proliferated in American cities, major American and British periodicals regularly published descriptions and commentaries about hotels that recognized and reinforced their...

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4. The Continental Hotel, Philadelphia, 1860: “In Reference to the Building of a Monster Hotel”

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pp. 83-110

In 1857, Philadelphia businessmen worried. New York City’s booming growth as a port and commercial center contrasted sharply with Philadelphia’s decline. Even before that year’s devastating economic panic further eroded Philadelphia’s position, a number of editorials in the city’s newspapers urged local businessmen to sell their city’s attributes to an otherwise oblivious national marketplace. “If we...

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5. Production and Consumption in an American Palace, 1850–1875: “To Keep a Hotel”

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pp. 111-140

As hotels grew to such great size during the middle half of the nineteenth century, a system of hotel management evolved with the goal of efficiently serving the enormous numbers of both transient and permanent guests whose expectations for service had escalated with the size and extravagance of the buildings. This became known in both the United States and England as “the American Sys-...

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6. The Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1875: “The Greatest Caravansary in the World”

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pp. 141-176

The year 1875 was eventful for San Francisco,” observed Society of Pioneers historian John S. Hittell in his 1878 history of the city. He noted that San Franciscans were obsessed with conversation about the ongoing feverish speculation on the mining stock exchange, the political machinations surrounding the city’s water supply, as well as calamities like Virginia City’s destruction by fire. Topping the list...

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7. The “New” Modern Hotel, 1880–1920: “It Is Part of the Hotel Business to Hide All These Things from View”

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pp. 177-216

While the story of the Palace Hotel might seem idiosyncratic, driven as it was by an overriding commitment to excess by its fanatical promoter, economic and political leaders in American cities large and small shared an understanding about the way grand hotels, their architecture and interiors, served as material testimony to a city’s economic and cultural ranking in the world. After...

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8. The Stevens Hotel, Chicago, 1927: “Virtually a Multiple of Twenty-Five Small Hotels”

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pp. 217-241

When the Stevens Hotel opened on May 2, 1927, nine thousand people came for dinner. During the more than two years that encompassed its planning and building, Ernest J. Stevens, the hotel’s projector, majority shareholder, and manager, had thoroughly promoted his new hotel as the world’s largest and greatest. The perfectly orchestrated opening festivities not only introduced the hotel...

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pp. 242-258

For Sinclair Lewis, George Babbitt represented America’s everyman, and the downtown hotel—the material representation of Babbitt’s world—was an integral part of his everyday life. It would be almost impossible to describe George’s comings and goings without the luxury hotel as part of his mise en scène. While he regarded his hometown Zenith’s thirty-five-story Second National Tower as “the...

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pp. 259-261

As a project, Hotel Dreams has a very long history of its own, and, as a result, I am indebted to a great many people who have helped and encouraged me along the way. First and foremost, my mentor and adviser Carroll Pursell expressed enthusiasm for the project from its very first days, and his steadfast confidence in its significance and in me has helped me persevere whenever my own commitment to...


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pp. 263-296

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 297-305

The endnotes document the primary sources used in the preparation of this book. It is useful, though, to discuss the range of sources and how they changed as the long nineteenth century advanced. For the early chapters, I made extensive use of published travel narratives, newspapers (including articles, want ads, social columns, and advertisements), periodicals, sheet music, city directories, handbooks, stranger’s guides,...


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pp. 307-318

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401843
E-ISBN-10: 1421401843
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801899874
Print-ISBN-10: 0801899877

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 46 halftones
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Studies in Industry and Society