Preferred Citation: Groth, Paul. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.

Chapter One— Conflicting Ideas about Hotel Life

Hotel Ranks, Social Class, and the Plan of the Book

The four types of average hotels in San Francisco can be characterized as palace hotels, midpriced hotels, rooming houses, and cheap lodging houses. These four ranks of building types, arrived at strictly by architectural evidence, closely match social stratification suggested in written records. In 1903, for instance, the New York hotel keeper Simeon Ford amused a banquet of hotel managers with this characterization of hotel life:

We have fine hotels for fine people,
good hotels for good people,
plain hotels for plain people,
and some bum hotels for bums.[50]

The original construction details of these four types of hotels—especially their plumbing and air wells—were surprisingly reliable counterparts to the social stratification and class differences of their intended original clients as summarized by Ford. By the end of the nineteenth century, city residents easily recognized the four types of hotels and the social status of their residents (these are discussed in detail in chaps. 2–5).

At the social pinnacle were the buildings of a price range best called the palace hotel rank (fig. 1.12). Like Cyril Magnin, the people who lived in such hotels were generally from the nation's wealthiest families. When people at this rarified social and economic level chose their homes, cost mattered little. Their hotel suite was often one of several



Figure 1.12
The original Waldorf-Astoria, a quintessential palace hotel. In 1907, it
became the largest hotel in the world when the Astoria section was added
to the 1893 Waldorf.

residences. If they lived in an apartment, it was also palatial; if they had a house, it could be a mansion or an estate.

Hotels of the next cheaper type, the midpriced hotel rank , were intended for overnight guests and permanent residents who had a comfortable income and intermediate social status (fig. 1.1). In their basic values, politics, museum or church activities, education, and recreation, these people often emulated the truly wealthy. With their best clothes and manners they could infiltrate the palace hotel dining room for a memorable meal, but they could not live like that every day. Their incomes forced compromise, but as chapter 3 shows, it was socially respectable compromise. If they had not lived in a hotel, they might



Figure 1.13
Typical midpriced hotel, built in 1914.

have chosen a substantial private house or flat with one to three servants or an apartment hotel.

Americans informally called these two social strata the upper class and the middle class. However, between these two groups there was little of the social or cultural opposition that theorists require for a true division between classes.[51] The palace and midpriced hotel groups were two levels within a single class; they were the "middle and upper class," with "class" in the singular. The material culture evidence of their hotel housing, like other social and cultural indicators, showed that their differences were matters of degree rather than proof of sharply divergent and opposing realms. For people in the middle and upper class, hotel life was a choice; they could afford to live in other ways and encountered few barriers in doing so. However, the people in the middle and upper class were in clear cultural and often political opposition to the


residents of the two less expensive hotel types, whose residents had much less choice in housing. In their work, ownership of property, and access to cultural and economic power, the people of the upper two hotel ranks differed markedly from those of the two lower hotel ranks. Here was a true class division with both cultural and economic formations. Their material culture was an important reinforcement—not merely a reflection—of position and power. Both sides displayed in their material life a decided class consciousness, as was particularly clear with rooming house residents.

Ford called the rooming house rank of hotels "plain hotels for plain people." Such places were home for people in skilled trades who earned a steady but relatively low income, especially before the 1930s. For the single teacher, stenographer, and machinist, their rooms, their financial instability, and often their personal lives were evidence of the sharp division that stood between them and the upper and middle class. However, chapter 4 shows that rooming house residents relied on their rooms for a minimum of material respectability, a tool to mask their differences from the middle and upper class. If roomers wished to live outside of a family or live alone, they had few other affordable housing choices. Roomers also had the choice of boarding or lodging with a family, with the consequence of again living under household surveillance.

Finally, at the cheap lodging house rank , hoboes and day laborers hung precariously on to shelter with the marginal incomes they obtained when work was available. While the cultural opposition of rooming house residents was subtle, lodging house residents lived and worked in flagrant opposition to the rules of the middle and upper class. The lodging house residents' poverty, backgrounds, political beliefs, family life, speech, and education all set them utterly apart from the polite society of the middle and upper class. If they wished to live in the city, lodging house residents had virtually no other choice but to live in some version of a cheap downtown hotel (fig. 1.14).

The cultural and social opposition of rooming houses and cheap lodging houses to middle and upper class norms did the most to bring official condemnation on hotel housing of all four ranks. The first half of this work analyzes hotel life and downtown cosmopolitanism as valuable public resources, while the second half traces the idea of hotel life as a public nuisance. Chapter 6 examines the segmentation of hotel



Figure 1.14
Workers' hotel in Mineral Wells, Colorado, 1985. Residential hotels
have been common in small towns as well as in large cities.
This small lodging house apparently closed about 1970.

owners and how their increasing specialization of the city intensified downtown as a zone of residential opposition. Chapter 7 looks in detail at the critiques of hotel life and the gradual ways that residential hotels became defined as an aberration. The last two chapters follow the expert reformers of the Progressive Era and the post-World War II period as they worked to build the long-desired new city and to eliminate hotels and cosmopolitan diversity. No matter what position one takes on hotels as homes, their rapidly dwindling inventory cannot be seen simply as an accident of supply and demand in a free market. The crisis in the residential hotel supply is a planned event—a function of local, state, and federal government policies that have encouraged housing for some types of people and reduced supplies of housing for others.[52]

The mistrust of cheaper hotels is more understandable in light of their historical dominance in downtown hotel life (fig. 1.15). The residential proportion of hotels was heavily weighted toward the inexpensive hotel types. Indeed, the architectural evidence in San Francisco reveals that cheap lodging-house rooms made up half of the city's hotel homes. Rooming houses provided a third of the residential hotel rooms. Rooms likely to be used as permanent residences in palace and midpriced hotels, combined, made up only the remaining sixth of the residential hotel stock. These proportions remained roughly the same between 1880 and 1930 (table 1, Appendix).[53]



Figure 1.15
Proportional diagram of residential hotel rooms, by rank, in San Francisco in 1930.
Surveys in 1880 and 1910 revealed similar distributions.

The issues of hotel life still reverberate in the lives of recent hotel residents—from Cyril Magnin in his palace hotel and Dorothy Johnson in her midpriced hotel to people like Jane Wagner in rooming houses and the Filipino laborer Felix Ayson in his cheap lodging house. The history of hotel living shows the dangers of too rigidly enforcing a single ideal for the American home. Nonetheless, the people who felt most immune from the criticism of hotels were those in palace hotels. More than any other types of hotel residents, they had all the advantages of living downtown.


Chapter One— Conflicting Ideas about Hotel Life

Preferred Citation: Groth, Paul. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.