Palaces Of The People


At the turn of the eighteenth century, a story went around Connecticut about a pious old woman who was berating her nephew for being such a rake. And an aging rake, at that. “But we’re not so very different,” he insisted. “Suppose that in traveling, you came to an inn where all the beds were full except two, and in one of those was a man and in the other was a woman. Which would you take? The woman’s, to be sure. Well, madam, so would I—”

Before 1829 Americans on the road stayed at inns, sleeping without privacy in the same room and even in the same bed. One timid foreigner complained that he would lie awake all night worrying about who might slide into bed with him. An Englishman, on the contrary, recalled a late night when five young ladies came into the room and began to undress for bed. “I raised my head,” he said, “and desired to be informed which of them intended me the honor of her company.” But they arranged a bedroll on the floor.

The era of jumbled accommodations closed on October 16, 1829, with the gala opening of the Tremont House in Boston. It was so radically new throughout that the most succinct description came from an English minister who hated it. Everyone else just gushed.


The Tremont House was one of the first buildings ever constructed as a hotel, and it was certainly the first one so carefully planned, with 170 guest rooms, all of them private. Breaking with the custom of receiving overnight guests in a barroom, it met them with a spacious lobby, alongside other public rooms—a massive dining room and even a library—in a classical style. Then there were the gadgets: The Tremont started a hotel tradition by making an attraction out of itself, an exposition of brand-new technology. The public rooms shone with gaslight. The guest rooms had locks on the doors. There were eight indoor toilets. And in the rooms guests could call for either water or a bellboy just by pushing one of two buttons in the “electro-magnetic annunciator.” The electromagnetic annunciator tripped a small disk in the main office, indicating the room and the request.

The Plaza, an improbable château that dominates a neighborhood as does no other New York hotel, opened in 1907

The Reverend George Lewis, however, looked past the clever parts of the Tremont House and recognized the even more cunning sum of its achievement: “You live in a crowd —eat in a crowd, sitting down with fifty, a hundred, sometimes two hundred at table, to which you are summoned by a sonorous Chinese gong. The only place of retirement is your room, to which you have your key.”

The Tremont House calculated an effect and then controlled it, artificially stirring the activity in the public rooms, even while offering a respite above. It was the world’s first hotel in the modern definition: You lived in a crowd, but your room had a key. That suited the nineteenth century so well that a generation of hotels unabashedly copied it and even made sure of the details by adhering to a book called A Description of the Tremont House With Architectural Illustrations.

The Tremont outlasted most of its imitators, and then outlasted its era; it was demolished in 1895. Of all of the hotels that have been torn down, burned down, or blown up in this country, the Tremont House is the one that I wish had been saved. I’d be there when they turned on the lights at dusk; I’d wait around one sitting room or another for the sonorous Chinese gong, but mostly I’d be in my room, annunciating for water every two minutes or so, electro-magnetically.

Even in 1994 the Tremont House would seem new; ambition that powerful can’t age. It would have a good chance of surviving today because historic hotels matter as they rarely have before. They matter to their cities, which regard them proudly as permanent figureheads, “palaces of the people,” in the phrase coined in the 1830s. They matter to investors because it costs less to restore a luxury hotel than to build a new one, especially with the benefit of tax credits put in place in the early 1980s. Most of all, they matter to travelers, who can find in them just about anything, good or bad, except that blend of the two, standardization.

Little towns, too, could hold a palace of the people, though they might not describe it quite that way. On November 11, 1836, the Cazenovia (New York) Democrat announced: “The Lincklaen House is now finished and open for the reception of company. … The building is spacious, durably constructed and elegantly furnished.” It is still all three of those things.

From the outside the three-story brick building has barely changed at all; just about the most glaring difference is that the signpost that once faced north-south now faces east-west. Recruits collected at the Lincklaen House to leave for the Civil War. The actual outbreak inspired 24 enlistees, but in the summer of 1862, when the President needed 300,000 more soldiers, 101 of them came from Cazenovia, which raised enough money to offer a twenty-five-dollar bonus to each man. They showed up at the Lincklaen House on August 14, went outside, formed a line at the signpost, prayed, said good-bye, and headed south to the ringing of bells.