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




In Downtown San Francisco, just one block from the Transamerica pyramid, is the large relict basement of the International Hotel. The lot has stood empty since 1977. In the Western Addition, one and a half miles to the west, there stretched until recently a vast tract of bulldozed basements; many of the former buildings had been rooming houses. While I have worked on this book, these two empty sites have haunted me. Before demolition, both had been commercially developed as single-room housing. Yet both sites—undeveloped land in the middle of a densely built and prosperous city—seem to have been sown with salt.

These lots represent important aspects of the American single-room housing crisis: first, the seemingly irrational destruction of millions of private low-rent housing units that are still desperately needed, and second, the near total misunderstanding of life in such places. This book charts the social and cultural history of this residential life and how Americans have arrived at today's hotel housing crisis. For two hundred years, hotels have served a series of domestic roles in urban vernacular environments and subcultures; for at least one hundred years, the keepers of official culture have aimed at eliminating these roles. The hotel housing crisis has resulted from the clash between these two histories.


My overarching purpose in this work is to expand the notion of "home" in the United States. I have arrived at this goal slowly. When I began, I was a critic of living in hotels. In 1977, when thousands of demonstrators were protesting the evictions and demolition at the International Hotel, I asked, "Why such a fuss? Why would anyone want to live in a hotel?" Then a 1980 study presented this startling fact: half the hotel rooms in San Francisco were residential, and most were in small thirty-room buildings. "Where were all these hotels?" I asked. "Who were they built for?" In answering these questions, the positive potentials of hotel life became apparent. There are major problems in some hotels, but I am now convinced that where hotels are properly managed and maintained, they deserve a place in the range of American housing.

Although this study is chronological, the sections of the book do not follow a single chronological line. In each chapter, the chronology is typically broken and begun again. The outer edges of the years studied are 1800 and 1980, but the greatest historical detail dates from between 1880 and 1930, the period when downtown hotel life was most vigorous. The majority of the remaining residential hotel buildings in the United States date from this period. These fifty years also marked the widest viable range of housing diversity in American urban history.

The methods used in this work depend on the conviction that studying the interweaving of buildings and social groups can provide important historical insights. Explaining the tensions between the vernacular and the official, as well as the social and the architectural, has required close study of the physical fabric of ordinary buildings and streets that are rarely photographed or described by experts. In the absence of systematic social surveys or verbal accounts for all types of hotel life, the buildings themselves (or records of those buildings) have been essential documents, and I have studied them with methods borrowed from quantitative social history. To discover what constituted the architectural average of everyday hotel living required a sample of several hundred buildings randomly selected from city directory listings for San Francisco hotels (more precisely, a 12 percent sample of all businesses listed under the categories of hotels, boardinghouses, rooming houses, lodgings, lodging houses, and rooms for the years 1880, 1910, and 1930). Each sampled hotel was then carefully described using data interpolated from Sanborn insurance maps, city tax records, building permit and inspection records, and water company records (which of-


ten recorded plans and plumbing fixture lists). This process provided a fairly reliable answer to what types of buildings and locations were in fact most common (table 1, Appendix). Thus, when I refer to a "typical" building—particularly between 1880 and 1930—I can do so with confidence. As with manuscript sources, what is erased often proves to be as culturally telling as what remains. In demolition records (where they survived), the nature of the struggle between the official and the ordinary became most clear.

This focus on the ordinary locates Living Downtown as an urban example of cultural landscape studies—where landscape means not scenery or open space but the spatial and cultural relationships between groups of people and their everyday surroundings. As such, this study is also within the overlapping realms of cultural and urban history, architectural history, and human geography. However, the work does not develop a traditional aesthetic history of hotel architecture. Nor does it provide a detailed history of San Francisco or suggest specific policies for the future of hotel living. These aspects have been studied by others cited in the notes. Also, most attention goes not to the elegant palace hotels but to rooming houses and cheap lodging houses, because of their larger populations. Where it is used, the slippery term "center city" refers to the retail and office downtown together with the industrial districts and older residential neighborhoods within reasonable walking radius (one or two miles) from the downtown. I have touched only lightly on hotel labor issues, which are well documented elsewhere, but I place a strong emphasis on employment and property capital as integral aspects of American culture. This study critiques downtown landowners, Progressive Era reformers, architects, and city planning officials, but many of the book's heroes are also from these groups. My targets are not any particular people or profession but narrow thinking and the insidious power of both inadvertent and deliberate ignorance. I hope that Living Downtown will be a point of departure for further study and a step toward preventing more empty sites like those of the International Hotel and the Western Addition.

I dedicate this work to the memory of my father, Erling Groth, and to my mother, Evelyn Groth. The book is also dedicated to the people who want to live in hotels. Ultimately, this book is for them.



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