Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States
© 1994 Paul Groth
Although today hotels are thought of as places for travelers, at its most basic level a hotel is simply a rented room; an apartment without a kitchen. For much of American history, the ‘huddled masses’ filling the cities found homes not in detached houses, but in residential hotels. Buildings giant and small, dilapidated and grand, they catered to the rich and poor alike. Living Downtown examines what lives were like, as lived in different classes of hotels, and tracks their struggle through the 20th century as they became the target of reformers. This is a social history of urban life in American cities’ boomtime.
Suburbanized America thinks of apartments and the like as exceptions to the rule of privately-owned homes, but as Living Downtown reveals, communal life has a strong history in the nation. Wealthy families saw in hotels a place to enjoy servants without the bother of managing them; ambitious middle-class couples could claim a fashionable address and the opportunity to network with their betters; and the working class found a certain independence in cheap rents that allowed them to move easily in pursuit of work, or maintain lodgings even if they were laid off for a short time. Hotels ranged from grand palaces to 2-penny a day flophouses that even the indigent could afford, provided they found an odd job now and again. Hotels also offered more inherent opportunities for socialization; those midrange and above typically came with cafes, restaurants, and shops attached; the wealthy could even find rooms reserved for smoking and lounging about. Lowly flophouses wouldn’t sport such facilities, of course, but they were enmeshed in an urban fabric that catered to the needs of their guests.
Living Downtown finds in hotels abounding interest. After discussing the lifestyles and attractions of the different classes of hotels, Groth moves on to hotels’ place in the overall American fabric. Hotels attracted negative attention beginning the Progressive era, where helpful reformers took it upon themselves to clean up American cities and inflict morality upon them. The idea that rich society wives could lounge about in hotel parlors, not even bothering to keep house, was too much for reformers to bear, as was the inevitable use of hotels of all kinds as playgrounds for prostitution. Establishing and advancing the ideal of American society being rooted in privately-held, detached homes, the progressive era saw hotels first constricted in growth by regulation, then smothered altogether by aggressive zoning laws that would eventually attempt to deconstruct American cities, turning smartly-organized social arrangements into sprawl. Granted, there were areas that needed attention — especially in the area of waste sanitation in poorer hotels — but more has been lost than gained by idealistic zeal. In addition to social history, there’s a little discussion of business practices.
In 21st century America, where the market for cheap housing has been all but obliterated by aggressive Federal support for welfare tenements of the kind that destroy cities, Living Downtown is a vivid reminder of the variety of housing approaches that once existed, and a look back into American cities when they were truly dynamic from the ground up.