Grand American Hotels

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by Catherine Donzel, Alexis Gregory, and Marc Walter; Vendome Press; 255 pages.

Whether they admit it or not, most travelers find that the lure of a grand hotel is just as powerful as that of a great museum. As Paul Goldberger writes in his preface to Grand American Hotels , “It is an altogether wonderful paradox of the American grand hotel that it is, in fact, for everyone: if it is not for everyone to spend a night in, then it is for everyone to visit, to fantasize about, to celebrate in.”

The volume Goldberger introduces is designed to let us indulge these fantasies. The book’s large format, elegant appearance, and intriguing collection of photographs, luggage stickers, and other memorabilia allow the reader to sample hotels from coast to coast. Three-quarters of the book tells of American hotels; the remainder is given over to Canadian ones.

Of the American hotels, all of the most famous are here, and many long lost ones are represented: the exuberant Marlborough-Blenheim of Atlantic City, for instance, and Barnum’s, the number-one hotel address in Baltimore from the 1830s through the 1880s.

The tour moves south, then west, with stops at some very appealing hotels that have survived whole, if slightly altered. The Belleview Biltmore in Belleair, Florida, for example, a sprawling, all-wood structure of the 1890s, has been made safe for today’s guests by the addition of aluminum siding coated with a plastic finish that, we are assured, “is treated to perfectly simulate grained wood clapboards.” This seems to be confirmed by the accompanying color photos.

Several of Los Angeles’s most famous hotels are given scant—and confusing—space here. While Goldberger refers in his preface to the Bel-Air as “the exquisite set of Spanish-style stucco buildings in lush gardens that is arguably at this moment the single finest hotel in the United States,” Alexis Gregory, author of the main text, writes: “Even a casual stroller in the Bel-Air gardens will notice the hideous cement walkways and the plastic that covers the patios. But no one seems to care.” Overall the text isn’t worthy of the book’s visual delights or of its romantic subject. As Gregory tries to cover the history of all the major American cities and resorts that gave rise to the hotels, he gets bogged down in detail. Sometimes he simply overdoes it: ‘The contract for the $42,000,000 new Waldorf-Astoria was signed on Black Thursday, to the sound of stock speculators’ bodies hitting the sidewalks.”

By contrast the text for the smaller Canadian section, by Catherine Donzel (and translated from the French), is smooth as silk. This may be in part because she’s working on a different scale, confining herself mainly to those massive, still-standing hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to resemble French chateaux. They cross the wilderness like a picket line linking the East Coast to the West. ‘The chateau style soon became much more than a CPR trademark,” she writes. “It would embody the Canadian national identity for several decades to come. Since it could bestow the evocative power of a historic landmark on any building, it was well-suited to this fledgling nation in search of cultural moorings and a common past.”

Donzel observes architecture in the light of history and demonstrates how good a book like this can be. She stands before the Hotel Vancouver, for instance, and sees the “stone-hard expression of an alliance between a breed of pioneers-builders and an ancient, legend-rich land.”