- Historic Sites
Palaces Of The People
Americans invented the grand hotel in the 183Os and during the next century brought it to a zenith of democratic luxury that makes a visit to the surviving examples the most agreeable of historic pilgrimages
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
The Lincklaen followed the Tremont example in many respects, including the one that allowed American hotels to develop so much faster than European ones: It was built by a group of investors operating as a stock company, capitalized at twenty-three thousand dollars (the Astor Hotel, opened the same year in New York City, cost four hundred thousand dollars). In all these years the ground floor has had only one major renovation, resulting in a comfortable 1916 version of 1836.
Someone I know stopped in the Lincklaen House years ago with her elderly mother. It was an odd, empty hour in the afternoon. The desk clerk said that the dining room was closed but showed them to a place next to the fire, in the sitting room off the lobby. They ordered tea, which arrived in an impressive English service. A few minutes later the clerk brought them a plate of brownies, just out of the oven. It was altogether more than they asked for or even expected—the artful part in the workings of a grand hotel.
In 1836, the year that Lincklaen House made its entrance into the village life of upstate New York, the Mexican Army marched into Texas: “Full seven thousand, in pomp and parade; The chivalry, flower of Mexico; And a gaunt two hundred in the Alamo,” according to a poem of the day. The lines forfeited strict numerical accuracy to the meter but indicated the basic inequity. Having secured the fort, the Mexicans executed the handful of prisoners that they took. To Texans ever since, it seemed a reprehensible way to win a battle and a glorious way to lose one.
Eventually the battle site became a major tourist attraction. In the 189Os an Army officer stopping at San Antonio’s Menger Hotel walked outside and asked a cabby to take him to the Alamo; three hours later they arrived, and the officer paid the fare. A few minutes after that he noticed that the Menger is across the street from the Alamo.
The Menger opened as a luxury hotel in 1859, when Alamo Plaza was still lined with mud huts. The Menger was square and solid, reflecting the German immigrants who founded it, with accents of the region in its delicate ironwork railings and red tile—and the lone star in the gable. It has expanded numerous times, though the oldest section and the patio garden have remained in remarkably original shape, perhaps because the hotel has had only three owners in 135 years.
In May of 1898, at the outset of the Spanish-American War, the Menger was the unofficial headquarters for high-society members of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, which was better known as the Rough Riders and best known for its second-in-command, Theodore Roosevelt. The Rough Riders camped in San Antonio. The “Fifth Avenue Crowd,” according to the San Antonio dailies, made a tradition of having a big breakfast at the Menger before acceding to the regimental allowance of eighteen cents a day for food. Even Colonel Roosevelt couldn’t resist a last stop at the Menger for breakfast, on his way to join the regiment. (He stayed at the Menger on other occasions, but then, Roosevelt is to historic hotels what George Washington was to inns; it’s hard to find the place at which he didn’t stay.)
For years, just before lunch was served in the Menger dining room, the waiters and busboys had to walk in a line from one end of the room to the other, fanning the flies toward the windows, and shooing them out. The men sang as they performed this chore, a treat for guests to hear, according to Aaron Townsend, who started at the Menger in 1894 and retired as headwaiter more than fifty years later. “These boys here now can sing too,” he told a reporter in 1946, “but now we get no flies.”
Long before the unsinkable Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean, the “absolutely fire-proof” Palmer House opened for business in Chicago. The date was October 1, 1871, eight days before the hotel disappeared in the flames of the Great Chicago Fire. Fortunately no one at the hotel was hurt. The next absolutely fireproof Palmer House opened two years later, setting a new hotel standard for size, ostentation, and amenities. One of those who were most impressed with the Palmer House was Henry C. Brown, who determined that Denver must also have a grand hotel, on a par or better.
Brown worked as a builder in Denver even before the massive gold and silver strikes in the region. When they hit, tempting others up the mountains, Brown made a business decision to stay put and wait for the mountains to come to him, in the pockets of successful miners. The hotel he would build, the Brown Palace, had to be so spectacular that new millionaires would not have to strut any farther east, if what they wanted to do was strut.