- Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829–1929 by Molly W. Berger
Molly Berger has written an engaging and useful history of USA’s great urban hotels built during the “long nineteenth century.” Cultural history at its best, Hotel Dreams contributes to a variety of literatures, including business history, the history of technology, and urban history. Berger describes the great hotels as actors in and of themselves, not as mere symbols of broad cultural and economic changes. As Berger argues, luxury hotels were critical to cities, announcing their importance to the national economy while serving vital functions: accommodating, attracting, and focusing economic activity.
Loosely chronological, the book bounces back and forth between chapters that describe secular changes in urban hotel development and case studies of individual great hotels. Although other hotels gain some attention, Berger is interested mostly in hotels that pushed the limits of size, the successive largest hotels in America. The detailed case studies concern the Tremont House in Boston (1829), which Berger identifies as the first modern luxury hotel; the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia (1860); Palace Hotel in San Francisco (1875); and the Stevens in Chicago (1927). This approach ensures some geographical diversity in Hotel Dreams and gives Berger a chance to describe in some detail the economic conditions of each city as it built the world’s largest hotel. Although the intervening chapters allow Berger to discuss hotels in other cities, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and [End Page 652] even Red Wing, Minnesota, the national story is muted here, mostly by Berger’s decision to focus on the largest of the hotels.
Berger offers thorough interpretations of the hotel designs, emphasizing the shifting nature of gendered spaces and the constant pressure to accommodate the latest technology. Unsurprisingly, given the number of themes in the book, technology comes in and out of focus, but Berger describes in some detail innovations in elevators, laundries, and electrical systems. She convincingly argues that the great hotels set cultural trends, especially in defining luxury as a blend of tradition and innovation. “Technological luxury,” as she calls it, “fed an insatiable nationwide competition to build the largest and most expensive hotel in the world,” a competition that forms the narrative core of Berger’s book (3). Berger also argues that hotels shaped American consumer culture, because they were “a world of luxury and goods that presaged the department store” (137).
Berger is mostly concerned with the buildings themselves, but she does describe the multiple roles hotels played in urban culture. They were showcases for the city, “symbols of a city’s vibrant commercial health” (5). They were meeting places for politicians and businessmen. Beyond serving the traveling public (a topic not explored in detail here), great hotels also provided residential options, even for urban families. Using the popular phrase “palaces of the public,” Berger describes great hotels as peculiarly American, where democratic mixing and the affirmation of social status took place in the very same space. Berger is much less interested in the growth of tourism and conventions, the latter of which garners little attention despite the architectural implications for hotels. Still, Berger analyzes the physical aspects of the “monster hotel,” the “city within a city” that became emblematic of urban life by the mid-nineteenth century.
Berger is a wonderful writer, and her stories are well told, even if some of them cover rather familiar territory. Among these is the career of E. M. Statler, the bellboy who worked his way up to bookkeeping and then to owning his own hotel, which he turned into a small chain that included hotels in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and four other cities. As Berger describes, Statler lead the industry into greater standardization on a “mass-produced scale within a highly calibrated and reproducible environment” (208). In Statler hotels, all the rooms were the same, including the price; service was standardized too, following USA’s Fordist culture. Other illustrative stories include the rise and fall of...