August 11, 2023

more posts about buildings and food

The past, it is said, is a foreign country, and if it were possible to visit, not a welcoming tourist destination. For starters, where would you stay? There weren’t any hotels 200 years ago.

There were inns, and a large inn might call itself a hotel, but the experience was quite different from hotels as we know them. For one thing, there was much less privacy. Unless you were royalty or nobility or otherwise very important, you could expect to share a room - and often a bed - with strangers. (And if you were a VIP, you’d probably be the guest of a local notable rather than deign to stay among the commoners.) Architecturally, they weren’t particularly impressive. The City Hotel in New York (built 1794), one of the largest and most luxurious hotels of its time, was a drab brick box from the outside, though the public rooms were nicely decorated. Smaller inns were often converted from private houses. I imagine the best inns as something akin to a bed-and-breakfast, being treated as a guest in the innkeeper’s home. And the worst must’ve been positively Dickensian.

The first modern hotel in America - and, as far as I can tell, the world - was the Tremont House in Boston. It opened in 1829 and offered unheard-of luxury to visitors to the booming New England city. A neoclassical design by architect Isaiah Rogers, the hotel had several large dining rooms among the many colonnades on its ground floor, and over 100 private guest rooms on its three upper levels. The rooms were single- and double-occupancy and each had a locking door. Technologically it was quite advanced, with state-of-the-art gas lighting and a system of bells allowing rooms to ring the lobby for room service. Supposedly an experienced clerk could tell which room was calling from sound alone.

Just take a look at the magnificent bill of fare from the Tremont’s opening night banquet. A couple of things will surely stand out: it’s handwritten, as the cost of printing was still far too high for even a luxury hotel until roughly 1850. But also, there are no prices. A prix fixe menu was very much the norm at nearly all restaurants worldwide. Ordering a la carte was apparently only introduced in France circa 1800, and didn’t make it to America until the 1830s when Delmonico’s of New York started offering it. A lavish feast like the Tremont’s might offer a wide variety of choices but at a more typical restaurant, whatever the innkeeper was cooking that night got served to everyone, and you all paid the same price. Speaking as an introvert and a picky eater, I don’t think I would’ve liked the past.

But the feature that assured the Tremont’s place in the history books was that it was the first hotel in the world with indoor plumbing. This was a luxury that even some of the richest Bostonians did without. (At the time Boston had no municipal water system, just a privately owned aqueduct from Jamaica Pond, a source that was both inadequate and increasingly polluted. The managers of the Tremont chose to instead collect rainwater in cisterns on its roof.) The shared toilets and bathtubs off a corridor on the ground floor surely would seem primitive today, but at the time were a revelation.

These innovations would soon be copied elsewhere in America. John Jacob Astor, founder of New York’s richest family and one-time owner of the City Hotel, decided to hire Isaiah Rogers to build New York’s answer to the Tremont House. The Astor House opened in 1836 and quickly displaced the City Hotel, which would close a decade later. Eventually there came to be a clear division between “hotels” with private rooms and “boarding houses” that, at least initially, had large congregate rooms with multiple beds. Even later came the division between short-term lodging and long-term residences - even in the middle of the 20th century it was fairly common for hotels to have long-term residents. A few older hotels still do. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The reason why America had the first large hotels seems to be just that we had the space. Our cities were small but rapidly growing, and a large building on the outskirts of town could be in the city center soon enough. It was much harder to build in an older city, and at a time when travel depended on the horse and the sail, demand for lodging was simply too low to justify the expense. But as it turned out, the 1830s would be as revolutionary for transportation as they were for hotel architecture. The first railroad opened for regular service in 1830, and the first steamship line started crossing the Atlantic in 1838. Suddenly travel became dramatically faster and cheaper, and all these travelers needed places to stay.

So there was rapid growth in the travel industry in the later 19th century, leading to the construction of newer, bigger, grander hotels everywhere, which left the old stagecoach-era hotels behind. Too old-fashioned to compete with newer hotels and their amenities (electric lights! en-suite bathrooms!) and too small to bother renovating, the Tremont House closed at the end of 1894 and was demolished. The Astor House lasted until 1926, by which time various Astor descendants had opened at least five other grand hotels in Manhattan. Clearly the family had no sentimental attachment to their first.

As a travel buff and an architecture fan, I enjoy walking around centuries-old buildings and their architectural styles. It never occurred to me to notice that these oldest grand buildings were all palaces, churches, government buildings, mansions… but never hotels or restaurants or other commercial buildings from before the mid-19th century. But it makes sense. Hotels couldn’t be grand until there was a reliable way to bring in enough guests to fill a grand hotel. It can take a while to realize just how modern some parts of modern life are.

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