Hotel: An American History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Longstreth, Richard
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Hotel: An American History (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Sandoval-Strausz, A.K.
Accession Number: 209577977
Full Text: 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 which he explores an impressive range of subjects, orchestrating them within a taut, holistic framework, renders Hotel an exceptional study by any standard.

The structure of this book is key to understanding its pathbreaking approach. The first of the book's four parts 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 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, the middle class, and persons of little means. Other hostelries 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 models 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 for 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. As much as the dictates of the market-place the Anglo-American legal tradition and deep-set social values affected how the hotel was fashioned, what activities it accommodated, and who was able to participate. The hotel was instrumental in fostering notions of public decorum in a rapidly expanding, largely self-made urban society, but it was also associated with illicit activities--sex, thievery, and violence--behaviors held as a serious threat to democratic society and hence the target of ever more elaborate means of curtailment.

The final section may at first seem scattered in content, but it entails topics central to understanding the hotel as a national phenomenon. Chapter 8 examines the multiple audiences to which hotels catered--local residents as well as travelers, businessmen of all kinds, politicians from near and far, as well as a wide array of civic and professional groups. This role of the hotel as a public forum was not only important in established centers; it became an instrument for urban expansion on the frontier. The hotel also served as a harbinger of a new kind of domestic environment, the apartment house. At a time when multi-unit housing was closely associated with tenements, the hotel afforded an earlier and far more respectable precedent for dense urban living embraced in part as a result of soaring land values, but also for the conveniences and amenities it afforded, especially for women. The concluding chapter addresses the long struggle for civil rights among blacks since the Emancipation Proclamation. The fact that African Americans were generally denied access to hotels occupied by whites became an essential lever to reversing Jim Crow legislation in the 1960s, applying the deeply rooted tradition of common law hospitality to a far more mobile black population than had existed three quarters of a century earlier.

Sandoval-Strausz's sweeping arc of topics, all tied to a single type of building as the basis for exploration, should be an eye-opener among many of his historian colleagues for whom the built environment is seldom the source of serious attention. At the same time, this book also should be a revelation for those of us who have long focused on architecture and urbanism in demonstrating how fruitful they can be as springboards for venturing into realms we may never have imagined to be so pertinent to our work.

Richard Longstreth

George Washington University


(1.) For example, see: Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (Baltimore, 1979); Elizabeth Cromley, et al., Resorts of the Catskills (New York, 1979); Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago, 2001); Molly W. Berger, ed., "The American Hotel," Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 25 (2005): whole issue; and Marianne Lamonca and Jonathan Mogul, eds., Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age: The Architecture of Schultze & Weaver (New York, 2005).
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