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Reviewed by:
  • Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929 by Molly W. Berger
  • Richard Longstreth
Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929. By Molly W. Berger (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 328 pp. $60.00).

If not entirely an American invention, the large, urban first-class hotel is a phenomenon that was, for the most part, created and continually recast in the United States beginning in the early nineteenth century. From the start, these buildings ranked among the largest, costliest, most sumptuous, and most technologically advanced undertakings in the American metropolis. Over many decades, they helped define cities and urban life not only for visitors, but also for well-heeled residents, for whom the hotel's public spaces became an important social center. The first-class hotel became as much an instrument in social upward mobility as it was a key signifier of metropolitan progress and potential. As a locus of business activity, as a hub of social engagement, as an arbiter of taste, as a stage for polite conduct, as an emblem of urbanity, as a demonstration of operational efficiency, and as a yardstick technical prowess the hotel affords a spectrum of avenues through which to explore American culture that is unmatched by other building types. [End Page 1074]

Despite its importance and its ongoing appeal (the great majority of historical studies and pictorial monographs targeted to a popular audience), the hotel has been sorely neglected by scholars until recent years. Over the past decade especially, a number of historians have demonstrated how fruitful this line of inquiry can be. Molly Berger helped underscore that potential in the 2005 thematic volume on "The American Hotel" she edited for the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts.1 While it does not break new ground conceptually, Hotel Dreams is a substantial addition to the corpus of literature on the subject. Four of its eight chapters are case studies of major landmarks in the type's development, beginning with the Tremont House in Boston, which served as a paradigm into the mid-nineteenth century, and concluding with the Stevens in Chicago, a culminating example in its size, appointments, and operations. Berger uses each case study to advantage, exploring the multi-faceted, evolving nature of the type. The people who conceived and commissioned these behemoths, the managers who orchestrated all the intricacies of their operation, the elaborate physical plants they manifested, the multitude of activities they harbored, and the myriad innovations they spawned to enhance the convenience and delight of patrons are among the topics analyzed in revealing detail. The other four chapters are structured to provide continuity and to expand the scope, addressing subjects are varied as the hotel as a political stage, changing approaches to food service, systemization, and staffing.

In a relatively compact study, Berger has provided a rich, revealing portrayal of her subject that is likely to remain a basic source for scholars examining the history of the city no less than of the hotel itself for some years to come.

Richard Longstreth
George Washington University


1. For a full citation and listing of other scholarly and popular histories of U.S. hotels, see Richard Longstreth, comp., "A Historical Bibliography of Commercial Architecture in the United States," updated annually,