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Chapter Two— Palace Hotels and Social Opulence
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Conversion Experiences for the New City

Upper-class apartments were like palace hotels in that they were not backdrops for a society already formed, not passive stages for human action. Palace hotels played an active role in shaping the flow of life


through them. Restaurants, polo grounds, barrooms, and ballrooms channeled daily lives and structured social interactions; they helped to form and revise social groups as well as to reinforce them. Simultaneously, hotel spaces helped to shape the social consciousness derived from daily life and were spatial tools often consciously wielded by members (and would-be members) of the elite.[64]

Palace hotels played more civic roles as well, influencing the acceptance of new ideas about the arrangements of domestic and urban space.[65] As architects and hotel managers hammered out the architecture and social relations of the first-class hotel and palace hotel, they showed people a possible future for the city. The jumbled, crowded, mixed-use city of the nineteenth century did relatively little to organize human life officially; downtown urban life remained a seemingly disorderly landscape of confusion, individual competition, and commercial greed. The experience of living in and frequenting palace hotels helped to prepare the urban elite to make decisions about more organized, articulated, and stratified urban space (fig. 2.14). The palace hotel was only one place among several where urban elites from the 1820s to the 1890s experimented with the new organization of space; other venues included the commercial arcade, prison, school, campus, and eventually the great pleasure garden park.[66] However, the palace hotel was especially apt as a scale model of a successful future city. Throughout the nineteenth century, palace hotels were increasingly efficient machines for keeping people of different strata and classes in their place, in a total scheme coordinated by centralized planning and direction. Like the city, hotel life brought several groups of strangers together in large numbers and in close juxtaposition. The hotel was overtly commercial, but because it was a privately managed fiefdom, its public spaces presented a uniform and homogeneous arrangement of space and people. The lobbies, dining halls, and hallways of palace hotels were public only to those people in the upper and middle class whose clothing and decorum passed the unobtrusive inspection of a phalanx of hotel detectives and floor clerks who, if necessary, were ready to quietly interview and eject people who looked out of place.

The palace hotel was also a complete and total scheme for a diverse but centrally planned and coordinated set of activities and spaces. Hotel managers could control potentially competing activities. Architects and managers steadily specialized and separated spatial and social ar-


Figure 2.14
The old city and the new city, 1876. Temporary sheds in the foreground contrast with San Francisco's
Palace Hotel in the background.

rangements. Each space and time, if possible, was increasingly organized for one activity and one social group. Palace hotel buildings provided multiple parlors and dining rooms—some for men, some for women, some for men and women together, some for children, some for transient guests, some for permanent residents. Designers and managers strove mightily to keep invisible the world of the hotel workers—servants' hallways, laundries, kitchens, the entire world beyond the green baize doors. Wherever possible, knowledge of the realms of work (production) was not to overlap with the realms of the residents'


daily life (consumption). In hotels this became possible more quickly, more thoroughly, more socially, and at a much larger scale than in the large private houses or other elite environments of the same periods.

Long before the era of the push button, the commercialized community of the hotel was made to appear automatic, effortless, and socially seamless. No wonder, then, that Henry James wrote, "One is verily tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and most finding itself."[67] Many middle and upper class Americans agreed with James. However, most of them probably agreed because they thought he was referring not to a palace hotel but to a more common and more approachable type, hotels best known by people of middle incomes.


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