- Historic Sites
Saratoga Springs, New York
THE FIRST ANNUAL AMERICAN HERITAGE GREAT AMERICAN PLACE AWARD
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
It was 1877. Saratoga had blossomed in a fantastic manner. Here was the Gilded Age at its height: flowing silk gowns, jewels, ostrich plumes, white tie and tails, great four-inhand coaches, parasols, flaring gaslight chandeliers, and floral fetes. Pennsylvania steel magnate mixed with Nevada silver (or Montana copper) king, Wall Street titan with Southern planter, at cotillions, balls, masques, here a railroad tycoon, there a great political figure, their daughters in attendance at what was termed the country’s biggest matrimonial mart. There were meals of God knows how many courses: partridge, terrapin, lobster, squab, goose, Maryland ham, Vermont turkey, saddle of lamb, rack of beef, ox tongue, calf’s tongue, oysters, green turtle soup. And there were the hotels at whose declining selves busboy Bob, the future doctor, and I gaped in that long-ago August. (We of course stayed at some bathroom-down-the-unraveling-carpet-hall rooming house.) The United States Hotel had 768 rooms and 65 suites of up to 7 bedrooms, ceilings that rose to twenty-six feet, thirty-foot-wide verandas equipped with deep wicker rocking chairs in which one sat and looked down upon such a parade of wealth and beauty and fashion thronging Broadway as was unknown to Vienna’s Prater, Berlin’s Unter der Linden, or Paris’s Champs-Élysées. The U-shaped building surrounded a three-acre garden and lawn with a bandstand set in leaf-shaded elegance. There was great-globed lighting for an evening stroll.
And the Grand Union up the street. Frescoed drawing rooms and parlors, thirty-five cooks and two hundred waiters, a corps of fishermen and a dozen hunters, piazzas the length of three and more present-day football fields, a fifty-four-piece orchestra under Victor Herbert presenting two concerts daily, house detectives looking the other way when certain guests brought in a “niece” or “cousin” while rigorously barring entrance to the common prostitute and, on June 14, 1877, to Mr. Joseph Seligman and family. Flags flying from high turrets, magnificent Lombard columns rising to upper-room balconies, a circular drive, carved black walnut grandeur, and Mr. Seligman being informed that he would not be accepted for occupancy. His floating of a Civil War loan, recorded the historian William E. Dodd, was of no less importance to Lincoln than was Meade’s repulse of Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. President Grant had offered Seligman the Secretaryship of the Treasury. And now, solely on the basis of his religion, and with not the slightest pretense about it, he was turned away.
The incident attracted national attention, for nothing like it had ever happened before. William Cullen Bryant editorialized in the Evening Post that such an act was so opposed to the spirit of American institutions that it was a “scientific curiosity”; Henry Ward Beecher declared in a Plymouth Church sermon that it was unlikely ever to be repeated. But religious prejudice turned out to be a growth industry, and from the Grand Union it swiftly spread to a thousand other hotels and resorts within a decade. “Jewish patronage not solicited,” “Christian clientele,” and “Restricted” were so commonly used in advertisements as to arouse little comment until the 1950s.
Yet the prevailing tone of Saratoga was egalitarian. “A quite momentous spectacle, the democratization of elegance,” mused Henry James. Newport wasn’t like that. There everything was private, and the rich were in houses and not gathered regularly on a particular spot of the north piazza of the United States Hotel, where fellow guests could stare at Jay Gould, Willie K. Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan, and on occasion John D. Rockefeller. You could join them in the daily drive to Saratoga Lake, when barouche, coupé, landaulet, and victoria took people out for a bit of air or to view a regatta. Neither Diamond Jim Brady in an outfit bearing 2,548 gems of the type creating his nickname nor his friend Lillian Russell would ever have been accepted at Newport, but today in central Saratoga there’s a little shopping plaza named for him and a restaurant named for her.
While by far the greater number of visitors stayed at the Congress Hall, or the Adelphi, or Windsor, or Worden, Clarendon, Kensington, United States, or Grand Union, a certain number of people put up homes, principally on North Broadway and Union Avenue. While the houses of Union are today largely doctors’ buildings, art galleries, and condos, those on North Broadway are privately owned, occupied only during the summer, and dazzlingly like what they must have been originally. The tourist office will give you a Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation illustrated map. You really must get one and go see, on foot or from your car, one after another of the lined-up elephantine mansions- French Renaissance, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, Baroque, Gothic, Colonial Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, with porticoes, cupolas, bays, pillared porches, mansard roofs, arches, lacy fretwork, and gingerbread—the Gilded Age served up hot. (Of the hotels, it can be said that they had their day, and then it was over. The Grand Union was the last of the greats, torn down in 1952, gone its two miles of corridors and twelve acres of carpeting. A woman bought and had shipped to her home everything in, and of, room 323.)