Palaces Of The People


Up Nob Hill from the Palace, the Fairmont Hotel was just about to open when it was gutted by the fire in 1906. The pristine white building was supposed to complement the mansions with which, if not for the fire, it would have shared Nob Hill. Even so, the Fairmont represents their style. For years it had its own terraced lawns leading down the crest of the hill to a swimming pool where guests lounged and watched the boats go by in the bay. In 1962 the configuration closed in, as a new tower took the place of the pool (one small patch of lawn remains between the two buildings).

The rooms in the tower, by and large, have the best views, but I’d always opt for the main building, precisely because it is still all of a piece (and usually an oversize piece): five-foot-wide windows that can be opened with a pinkie; hallways that are wide, high-ceilinged, and soft enough for a quiet game of football; and the staircase to the lobby. There are elevators, of course, best used for going up, but that Fairmont staircase is the perfect invention for going down. Massive as it is in white marble, it does not crassly march into the lobby; it insinuates itself, expertly. You can stand just out of sight and spy on the people in advance or make a grand entrance, entirely aware and seeming oblivious.

On the East Coast the equal of Nob Hill’s Fairmont Hotel is the Back Bay’s Copley Plaza in Boston. The Copley Plaza opened in 1912, taking over as the city’s leading hotel from the Parker House, which had taken over from the Tremont, long before. It was one of the first American establishments to copy ideas from the European grand hotels that had developed quickly at the end of the century. Austere on the outside, it looks like a little bit of Versailles on the inside: a glittering effect of the light that ricochets from the crystal chandeliers to the gold on the ceiling to the beveled mirrors on the walls and to the tweedy people rushing by.

When the Copley Plaza was three years old, the actress Bette Davis was seven, and her family stopped there for dinner on the way to the train station a few blocks away; Mrs. Davis was taking the children away on vacation. “It was festive with a string orchestra, hot rolls on a silver wagon and lemon sherbet. The scene is still vivid to me,” Bette Davis wrote in her 1962 autobiography. The family never had dinner together again, however; by the time the vacation ended, Mr. Davis had moved away. Bette Davis stayed away from the hotel until years later, when she was a big success and her father asked her out to lunch. The Copley Plaza was her idea.


Most historic hotels still around today date from the twenties, a boom time for construction—and destruction. In Chicago the Palmer House was torn down one half at a time to make way for a new edition in 1925, now called the Palmer House Hilton. The unassailable Drake Hotel opened in 1920, replacing another property owned by the Drake family. In Boston a new Parker House replaced the 1855 original. In Washington the elegant Shoreham Hotel made way for a rambling place now called the Omni Shoreham. In Louisville a new Gait House would eventually replace the old one, razed in 1920 but famous for the events of September 29, 1862, when one Union general shot another in the lobby. Hundreds of excellent new hotels without antecedents opened in the twenties, especially the years from 1925 to 1927, causing a glut when the Great Depression arrived. Today, though, examples from that era constitute the majority of historic hotels that are still open. A city that has one is likely, quite properly, to treasure it.

Most of the historic hotels extant today date from the twenties, a boom time for construction—and destruction.

Sinclair Lewis loved old hotels and thought that a person should make a pursuit of staying in as many of them as possible. He was as avid as a bird watcher. And to him, Washington, D.C., was a “veritable Mecca.”

Through much of the nineteenth century, Washington was a terrible hotel city, known more for its overgrown boardinghouses than for real hotels. Willard’s, however, made a great impression when it opened under the management of the Willard brothers in the 185Os. In 1861 the Lincoln family made plans to stay there during the presidential inauguration. To evade an assassination plot, Abraham Lincoln stole into Willard’s before dawn, in total secrecy. Hotels being what they are—where total secrets are concerned—a large crowd had gathered by midmorning under his window.

In the indexes of history books covering the Civil War, the listings for the Willard Hotel are often longer than those for the White House. The Willard itself still likes to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne on the subject. “This hotel,” he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862, “in fact, may be much more justly called the centre of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.”

“Et looks like en evenin’ sesshun ov Congress,” concluded Uncle Hank, a popular character in books written by Thomas Fleming at the turn of the century. Uncle Hank visited Washington in 1902 and made a tour of its hotels. The kind of men he saw, men who spent their days at the Willard lobby looking for the government or just waiting around for it, came to be called lobbyists.