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Hotel Critics and Reform Ranks

The downtown environmental activists of the Progressive Era, like their colleagues in other parts of the movement, were generally self-appointed and wealthy businessmen—or their wives or minions—who volunteered their time and considerable talents for public good. These people were driven by equal parts of Protestant Christian charity, veiled self-interest, genuine noblesse oblige, and fear that their gigantic cities were out of control. The market-driven locations for industries and transportation had juxtaposed staggering numbers of new immigrant workers and ragged regions of noxious uses that overwhelmed earlier zones of middle and upper class residences, shops, and offices. Small-scale real estate and building practices seemingly had exacerbated slums, pollution, illness, and confusion about future land values (fig. 7.1). To the reformers, American privatism and boss politics were creating an unworkable city, one where not even the buildings of the wealthy could be guaranteed safe futures.

Given their personal class origins, most progressive reformers did not see low wages, uneven work availability, or industrial leadership as being primarily culpable for the urban chaos. In the building of cities, capitalism had merely gone too far. Like other Progressive Era figures, urban activists initially attacked the problems of downtown living as moral and cultural failures. They saw new ethnic, religious, and political subcultures as threatening to hard-won changes in polite family life. Along with the upsurges of American nativism during the nineteenth century came concerns about the serious personal and material culture cleavages between immigrant and native-born, poor and rich, unattached and family-tied, lawless and law-abiding.[2] Using a similar di-


Figure 7.1
A Telegraph Hill slum with street urchins, ca. 1885. Scenes like these spurred San Francisco housing
reformers to action.

chotomy, critics of hotel life framed their housing attitudes with two extremes: the slums of downtown and the exclusive new zones of single-family houses at the edge of the city.

The reformers were convinced that stronger, centrally ordained, and better-enforced building rules would bring uplift to the lower class and civic betterment to the city as a whole. The new regulations and central planning would shore up the mainstream of the economic system and also maintain the power of the leading elite. Better housing meant not only better environmental health but also better social control. Promotion of material progress became a prime tool of social engineering.[3]

About hotel life, the mainstream reform opinions were usually negative and remarkably uniform, although progressive reformers were not a monolithic movement and often held contradictory views. A few fringe activists genuinely promoted hotel life.[4] However, several


basic tenets underlay the environmental activists' beliefs and behavior. First, the reformers shared good liberal arts educations; their views were stimulated by literary and social reform figures such as Thoreau, Emerson, Ruskin, and Carlyle; novelists such as Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser; and decades of journalistic travel accounts and city exposés, particularly those in the style of the pioneering New York journalist Jacob Riis. Second, in spite of occasional rhetoric to the contrary, the environmental reformers desired a monolithic culture. They admired individuality as exemplified by Thomas Edison or Theodore Roosevelt, but they did not widely value pluralism, heterogeneity, and diversity as related attributes.[5] Third, through most of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, they were imbued with environmental determinism, the belief that good environments would automatically create good people. Determinism also spurred belief in the obverse—that bad housing caused psychological, social, economic, and medical problems.

The ideas of scientific management and engineering efficiency, along with a great trust in physical solutions for social problems, also figured heavily in the intellectual bulwarks of progressive reformers. The early years of the 1900s were a golden age to focus on a problem, independently gather systematic data on it, proclaim oneself an expert, and thereby create a private or public post to solve it. Frederick Winslow Taylor and his followers were saving their industrial clients millions of dollars by doing systematic research and then finding the One Best Way to shovel coal or run grinding machines. Even social work from 1890 to 1917 aimed for universal attainment of a "normal standard of living"—a phrase that assumed an efficient One Best Way to live. That way, of course, was the way reformers themselves had lived in middle and upper class suburban families.[6] The activists rarely doubted that their own values were the best values. As one housing critic wrote, "Whatever home means for us, it means to others, for human nature is the same, and physical nature is the same, and mental laws are unvarying."[7]

As a solution to urban problems, reformers also promoted a centrally planned shift from the old city to the new city, from multiple use and mixture toward sorting and single use. One official group phrased it like this:


Industry, business, and home life may flourish in the same community if they are distributed according to an intelligent community plan. Without a plan, moral, sanitary, and economic slums are created.[8]

Within such value systems, hotels of all ranks came to be seen as prime elements of "moral, sanitary, and economic slums."

Concern with urban housing attracted the work of several overlapping and usually cooperating professional groups, most notably, housing experts, public health advocates, social workers, architects, and social scientists. Housing experts often took a leadership role, and foremost among them was Veiller, hired as a full-time housing official in New York in 1898. As the author of path-breaking model housing codes and later as an organizer and director of the National Housing Organization, Veiller was for twenty years the most important shaper of housing ideas in the United States. Nationally, a few dozen other experts formed the nucleus of consulting, research, writing, and lobbying about housing in the years before World War I. Their roster included traveling consultants like Carol Aronovici and housing philanthropists such as Alfred T. White and Robert W. Deforest.[9] Through professional meetings and personal contact, this small circle of housing experts knew one another well; most worked for strikingly similar committees of concerned business people. When Veiller preached that he was offended by the bad effects of the Waldorf-Astoria, he knew that his fellow housing activists agreed.

Groups of health reformers were similarly well organized. Their professions had gained great power with the public acceptance of the germ theory of disease and with discoveries in bacteriology; hence health reformers had the best ammunition to promote new housing laws (fig. 7.2). In the architectural realm, public health officers helped define minimums for room size, ventilation, and plumbing. Especially within the climate of environmental determinism, illness could be inextricably linked to places, and thus tuberculosis and pneumonia were "house diseases"; rooming house areas made women "drab, anemic, and disagreeably pathetic."[10] Social scientists and politicians also transferred powerful ideas of biological hygiene to the potentially dangerous concepts of social hygiene and moral contagion. Veiller borrowed from health reformers and stretched determinism even further:


Figure 7.2
Health poster from 1910. Hygeia,
the ancient Greek goddess of health,
is represented as sheltering the single-
family house, trees, and the baby
while she shuns the old city's
density, dirt, disease, and crime.

We know now . . . that poverty, too, is a germ disease, contagious even at times; that it thrives amid the same conditions as those under which the germs of tuberculosis flourish—in darkness, filth, and sordid surroundings.[11]

The historian Roy Lubove has noted that reformers devoted little thought to proving these elusive but seemingly self-evident relationships. Nonetheless, belief in public health models fueled influential housing opinions.[12]

By 1900, social workers, settlement house residents, and scientific charity organizers also participated frequently in the critique of hotel housing. These people taught immigrants the one "American" way of life, diffused new ideas of hygiene, and testified for better housing laws and new building projects. People with influential opinions included Edward T. Devine, a social work administrator, educator, and (after 1896) general secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society. Powerful figures such as Grace and Edith Abbott, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Florence Kelly, and Lillian Wald included housing reform in their labor research, settlement house work, and codification of social work. In the 1920s, Edith Abbott was named dean of the University of


Chicago's new School of Social Service Administration. In Boston, Robert A. Woods and his wife, Eleanor Woods, directed South End House, where settlement resident Albert Wolfe did his masterful study of rooming houses.[13]

Leading architects and planners of the Progressive Era often entered housing reform in their roles as designers of model housing and new public space, usually representing the desires of major landowners. A few architects, notably, Ernest Flagg of New York, combined housing activism with major commercial work. Influential citizens hired designers such as Daniel Burnham, Charles Mulford Robinson, and John Nolen to wrap real estate rejuvenation schemes in the classical City Beautiful garb of civic betterment.[14]

After 1900, university professors, often in the social sciences, became a more prominent influence among professional uplifters and the white-collar ranks of all the environmental reform groups. For several decades, Harvard sociologist James Ford summarized housing work. He was the associate director of Hoover's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership in the 1930s. The University of Chicago was perhaps the most exciting and influential academic center of practical urban ideas and training. In addition to Hull House and the School of Social Service Administration, the university's sociology department engendered an entire school of thought. Robert E. Park, one of the most important American scholars of race, ethnicity, and urban life, in 1916 became the first president of Chicago's Urban League. Park and other faculty members like Ernest W. Burgess attracted graduate students such as Harvey Zorbaugh, Nels Anderson, and Norman Hayner—each of whom did important work on hotel housing. The first department of city planning eventually emerged at the University of Chicago, heavily influenced with the urban ideas of the Chicago school of sociology.[15] By the 1920s, professors often conferred the most powerful expert status on negative opinions about downtown living.

In hotel life, these overlapping sets of reformers saw challenges to the new urban order in at least three distinct realms: the well-being of the family, the development of the individual, and the safety of society as a whole. The following discussion traces each realm of cultural and moral critique from the mid-1800s through the Progressive Era itself and then beyond into the 1920s. The organization of time is in many short, parallel strands rather than one long cable. Each cluster of nega-


tive professional opinions about hotel life is presented with its own chronology.

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Chapter Seven— Hotel Homes as a Public Nuisance
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