Skip to main content


Grand American Hotels

March 2023
2min read

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.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "July/august 1990"

Authored by: Jack El-hai

Nearly a hundred years ago two rival cities fought hard and dirty to win the battle of numbers

Authored by: John Steele Gordon

Two hundred years ago the United States was a weakling republic prostrate beneath a ruinous national debt. Then Alexander Hamilton worked the miracle of fiscal imagination that made America a healthy young economic giant. How did he do it?

Authored by: Anne Hollander

Fashion disposes, the camera exposes. Here’s what was new and exciting for half a century. It didn’t seem quaint then.

Authored by: Andrew S. Ward

When the author moved into a 1905 house on an island near Seattle, he found himself sharing it with the uncommon people who had lived there before him

Authored by: Samuel Sifton

In February 1970 the editors of American Heritage published “A Wrecker’s Dozen,” by David McCullough. It predicted the destruction of thirteen American buildings and lamented the lack of a widespread conservation ethic in the United States. A while ago G. W.Leaworthy of Titusville, Florida, wrote to us, asking what had happened to the doomed buildings. We decided to find out, and we’re happy to report the news is mostly good.

Authored by: D. R. Martin

Dan Patch never lost a race. But that’s not how he made his owner a multi-millionaire. America’s best-loved horse was also perhaps the most shrewdly marketed animal of all time.

Authored by: D. R. Martin

Dan Patch never lost a race. But that’s not how he made his owner a multi-millionaire. America’s best-loved horse was also perhaps the most shrewdly marketed animal of all time.

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.