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  • Alternative Visions of Home
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Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. By Paul Groth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 401 pages. $35.00.

In tracing the evolution of hotel living in America, Paul Groth pursues two, not always consistent, objectives. Speaking to the contemporary housing crisis by critiquing the long held bias favoring the single family dwelling, he seeks support for the construction and rehabilitation of more multi-unit buildings. To support his case, he documents how important such housing options have been over time, pointing out in particular the positive function of hotels, a factor often eclipsed by the discussion of apartment dwellings. Quoting a contemporary housing activist, he asserts that many of today’s homeless require rooms, not apartments, a need that could be satisfied if the relentless demolition of hotels, particularly at the lower end of the income scale, could be reversed.

This subject is not entirely new. A main focus of his inquiry, single room occupancy (SRO), has been examined in two books by Robert Slayton. Chester Hartman has detailed the devastating effects of redevelopment on such housing in his study of San Francisco, a prime location for much of Groth’s evidence and a city especially noted for the high percentage of its residents living in hotels. Discussion of the antagonism towards multiple dwelling units has appeared in a number of studies of apartment houses as well as suburban development. Groth’s special contribution lies in the thorough documentation he provides of hotel living across a broad spectrum of time, space, and class. [End Page 410]

Groth builds a hotel typology on a 1903 quote from New York hotel keeper Simeon Ford’s simple, but compelling characterization:

We have fine hotels for fine people, good hotels for good people, plain hotels for plain people, and some bum hotels for bums.

In devoting chapters to each of four housing types—palace hotels, mid-priced hotels, and rooming and boarding houses—Groth enlivens this picture of social stratification and class rank through a rich array of visual as well as written documents. Among his many striking findings are the ratio of five workers to every guest that could be found in the palace hotels in their heyday during the first part of the twentieth century and the fact that in Chicago in 1844 one in six residents lived in hotels. To deepen Ford’s characterization, Groth examines the material culture of each hotel type, utilizing not just surviving photographic evidence, but such illuminating documents as old menus, whose contrasting bill of fare, from rich to poor, underscore the truism, you are what you eat.

Groth’s photographic evidence is particularly compelling, revealing strategic decisions of city location as well as a wide array of hotel uses. These photographs range from a group portrait of the Vanderbilt family and friends prepared to board a private train for an excursion from the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach to a 1929 image of a light housekeeping room in Chicago where three women tenants have connected a hot plate to the gas wall fixture by way of rubber tubing, pinning newspaper to the wall to prevent grease from splattering. While not as fully informative, a series of measured drawings of different building types and their floor plans provide additional depth to the documentation. Comparisons are not merely anecdotal, but quantified to a considerable degree, both in the text and in several extensive tables constituting the appendix.

The effect of Groth’s survey is to assure readers how widely used hotel space has been over time and how many positive functions it has provided. Even the cheapest flophouses, offering the barest material amenities, he argues, offered not just shelter but a true haven for those who most needed it. Against this record, he juxtaposes the campaign for a new city, one aminated by the opposition, as he puts it, to “building a civilization without homes.” Starting in the nineteenth century but gaining momentum in the early twentieth-century Progressive reform movement, criticism mounted against hotel living. Housing reformers imbued with a belief in environmental [End Page 411] determinism found many reasons to...

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pp. 410-414
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