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  • Hotel: An American History
  • Richard Longstreth
Hotel: An American History. By A. K. Sandoval-Strausz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 375 pp.).

Since the early nineteenth century the hotel has been a key definer of place—of city, town, and resort alike. For virtually each generation, the hotel has helped advance new ideas in design expression; in the planning of complex spatial relationships; in the efficient organization of numerous, often divergent functions; in standards of commodiousness and luxury; and in the sophisticated plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems that enable such attributes to be manifest. Concurrently, the hotel continually raised the bar for large-scale commercial real estate investment and for the operation of public establishments. From an early stage, too, the hotel has served as a crucible for social interactions of many kinds and for local residents as well as for travelers. Many historians of cultural and social practices, urbanism, architecture, and business have long understood the hotel to be an important building type that can tell us much about a broad spectrum of topics. Yet, remarkably, scholarly investigation of the hotel has been in inverse proportion to its significance. Numerous popular accounts of widely known first-class hostelries and a miscellany of pictorial compilations are joined by a conspicuously small group of detailed historical analyses.1

A. K. Sandoval-Strausz has gone a long way in rectifying the situation with Hotel: An American History. The subtitle is aptly chosen, for this book is far from a conventional history of a building type. Rather than focusing on how a variety of historical factors have contributed to the shaping of form, Sandoval-Strauz does just the opposite, examining what hotels can tell us about American history—from concepts of the public good and civil society to those of exclusion and illicit behavior; from the imperatives of city building in the mid nineteenth century to those of civil rights in the mid twentieth; from the economies of systemization to the impulses of consumerism. The authority and imagination with he explores an impressive range of subjects, orchestrating them within a taut, holistic framework render Hotel an exceptional study by any standard.

The structure of this book is key to understanding its pathbreaking approach. Consisting of four chapters, the first part is organized chronologically, tracing the development of the hotel from its inauspicious origins—inns and taverns—in the late eighteenth century to its flowering as a sumptuous urban behemoth over a hundred years later. Sandoval-Strausz delineates how closely the emergence of the hotel was tied to the rise of multiple centers of commerce and trade in the nascent republic. But while the pioneering examples of this new type were intended as exclusive lairs of a small urban elite, the hotel soon became a more democratic institution. In this early transformation, during the 1820s and 1830s, large hotels became ever more splendid, but they also became basic staples of an increasingly mobile, as well as affluent, society—essential instruments of intra- and inter-urban exchange. As with the development of mechanized transportation, the hotel embodied collective embrace of territorial expansion through urban-dependent forms of economic development. The maturation of [End Page 502] the hotel during the mid nineteenth century rendered it not only a national phenomenon, but also an increasingly multi-faceted one, with establishments catering to the rich, middle-class, persons of little means. Other establishments functioned as outlets for multiple businesses and yet others developed as outposts for vacationers.

The next three chapters are topically organized, addressing facets of hotel life. The first focuses is on the development of interior space to suit the demands of hospitality that abandoned the inn and the home as a model and instead crafted a depersonalized system predicated on efficiency and economy, but also on pampering luxury that established a new kind of environment that held immense appeal many Americans even if they could not always afford to partake in its pleasures. The fact that the hotel became not just a place of business, but an institution to which the public was guaranteed access had its foundation in common law that had governed innkeeping since the early Colonial period. The Anglo...


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