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Hotels and High Society

A History from Twentieth Century New York

The economic prosperity in the United States that followed the Great War ushered in a modern era of innovative art, culture, and technology that would encourage New York high society to move to and live downtown in the 1920s trends toward expanded personal freedom and urbanization. Brilliantly designed and impeccably managed luxury hotels would come to accommodate a “leisure class” lifestyle with money to burn and a reputation for fashionable, elegant living to uphold. It was a lifestyle left over from the great family mansions and palace-style hotels of various artistic influences in Manhattan prior to World War I (Lowe 2004).

While these new grandiose hotels offered street-level entertainment in the form of huge ballrooms and exquisite restaurants for people out on the town, they usually rented out and maintained suites that often occupied entire floors for elite long-term tenants. In addition to providing rooms for travelers, these hotels were also desirable housing for the leisure class accustomed to luxury and lured by the proximity to downtown life. From the end of World War I through the Roaring Twenties, architects in Manhattan erected magnificent hotels that reflected a new and ideal age in America. Even when the stock market crashed in 1929 and much of the United States succumbed to the Great Depression, New York endured with grim determination and raised some of the city’s most striking hotel buildings that continue to grace the skyline today.

The Great War and Arts Décoratifs

The bitter war that raged across Europe laid waste to the Western Front, particularly in France, and disintegrated major empires on both sides of the battle. Meanwhile, advocates for temperance in the United States got national attention during the war and successfully promoted a wartime prohibition of alcohol to conserve grain and steady the domestic workforce (Batterberry and Batterberry 1999). A great exposition had been planned in Paris to display their naturalistic, curvilinear technique called “Art Nouveau,” but battle erupted and it was put on hold. Ten years later, an exposition for the Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, or simply, “Art Deco,” finally took place and fused the “new” that defined Art Nouveau with the “modern.” American architects and numerous other delegates from various cultural institutions were assembled to study the new style on display in Paris in 1925, and the effect on their work was profound (Lowe 2004).

Art Deco found a home among classically trained New York architects who embraced it for its modernity and its ability to seamlessly incorporate elements from Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, and Byzantine architecture. Art Deco’s style utilized pure forms inspired from nature and geometric decorative flourishes in both interiors and exteriors, and is perhaps most recognizable today in the great skyscrapers begun at the end of the stock market boom: the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Other examples of Art Deco-inspired buildings still gracing Manhattan’s skyline include the Carlyle Hotel and the New Yorker Hotel, of 1929 and 1930, respectively. Though Art Deco would decline in the 1930s, its emergence in the 1920s came precisely at a time when the city was “demanding structures which would express the new spirit of the age in forms which were attractive, opulent, and humane” (Lowe 2004).

The new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (replacing the original hotel which was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building) was completed during the Depression in 1931 although, remarkably, its construction hadn’t started until the middle of 1930, months after the stock market crashed. This premier example of the Art Deco hotel style was much shorter than the Chrysler and Empire State buildings and greatly stripped down in its ornament, but it nevertheless made a notable addition to the modern skyline of New York City (Lamonaca and Mogul 2005). Most importantly, though it struggled for years after its grand opening day celebration, it was built during an economically challenging time. In a radio address to the crowd that gathered for the hotel’s opening, President Herbert Hoover stated, “The erection of this great structure at this time has been a contribution to the maintenance of employment and an exhibition of courage and confidence to the whole nation.” Hoover would subsequently occupy a massive suite on a floor beneath the legendary Jazz Age composer Cole Porter (Lowe 2004). The hotel lured such distinguished residents by virtue of its unprecedented size and comfort, stocked with clubs, banquet rooms, a massive wine cellar, medical staff, and all the shops and amenities that its architects had revolutionized in their previous hotels, designed to cater to the many needs of the wealthy (Batterberry and Batterberry 1999).

The Era of Prohibition: Hotel Life in the City

The ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the subsequent act of Congress sponsored by Representative Andrew Volstead began more than a decade of temperance on the heels of the Great War that dramatically altered the way hotels were managed. Initially, Prohibition saw the city’s great saloons locked up and, likewise, the great entertaining rooms of the most popular hotels were restricted from serving alcohol. As a result, some of the space had to be converted into other enterprises—like ice cream parlors or showrooms for new cars—in order to draw revenue into the hotels. One of the era’s most notable hotel managers, Lucius Boomer, not only adapted hotel spaces to encourage more revenue but also set a standard for quality that was demanded by his elite patronage. As Kenneth J. Lipartito notes, Boomer recognized that, as the nation’s fifth largest industry, modern hotels contributed immensely to America’s economy and yet, though still a “home,” they had to be run efficiently, even scientifically (Lamonaca and Mogul 2005).

However, it truly was “American ingenuity” that learned to deal with temperance...but not by remaining law-abiding citizens. At Prohibition’s peak, some thirty-two thousand speakeasies (twice the number of closed saloons) had sprung up in New York, with some bar owners all but ignoring the Volstead Act (Batterberry and Batterberry 1999). New Yorkers hit the town with as much fervor as ever, celebrating the economic prosperity to the newly broadcast sounds of radio jazz. The movement downtown was helped by enterprising hotels like the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the Hotel Pierre, and the original Waldorf-Astoria. Since hotel management could not legally serve their residents alcohol, tenants had to find ways to secure their own liquor (which proved to be rather easy in New York City) while the hotels continued to supply elegant meals and impeccable room service via their well-stocked service pantries (Lowe 2004).

In fact, throughout Prohibition, hotels continued to be the primary destination for entertainment downtown. Some of the early century’s great restaurants in New York declined and disappeared during a period when speakeasies ruled, for even the poorest quality food was acceptable so long as an alcoholic beverage sat next to it. At the same time, many of these underworld bars and nightclubs continued to increase their cover charges to the point that the average person could no longer afford to pay for the privilege of enjoying an illegal drink with dinner and, increasingly over the decade, a less-than-stellar show. Gradually the ever more exclusive clientele found their way from speakeasies to the hotels where “the standards of haute cuisine” were maintained along with many of the finest shows and the most extravagant parties.

Those lucky enough to have recently come into large amounts of money and to have not lost it in the crash of 1929 did their best to keep spirits up among high society or, at the very least, to keep their own spirits high. In some instances, extravagant theme parties with imported trees, multiple orchestras, and multicultural entertainment were jeered in the press. However, with the press behind her, columnist Elsa Maxwell combined her own determination and ingenuity with struggling downtown “apartment hotel” venues desperately in need of some good publicity. The most famous result was her barnyard party at the Waldorf-Astoria. Featuring real livestock and fake trees, Elsa’s guests danced to the tunes of a hillbilly band and snuck their liquor from a life-size papier mâché cow, “which squirted champagne from one teet and Scotch from another” (Lowe 2004). The unusual mixture of high society and the new money of bootlegging gangsters in New York’s extremely visible underworld acquired the name “Café Society.” The old guard elite and new underworld speakeasy society came together in a fashionable and shady world that in New York City was a unique story of the upper class from the onset of Prohibition and into the Depression (Batterberry and Batterberry 1999).

Two of the brilliant minds behind some of the era’s greatest hotels were Leonard Schultz and S. Fullerton Weaver. They set out to meet the unique and shifting demands of the city, including changing many of the spaces converted from bars in the 1920s back into bars after 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed Prohibition. Hotels built during the 1920s were meant to recall the earlier traditions of luxury that lured the upperclass downtown. Floor plans for hotels such as the Sherry-Netherland and the larger Pierre had spaces for some of the largest ballrooms of the city, capable of entertaining more than a thousand people. Consequently, the ballroom of the newly rebuilt Waldorf-Astoria in 1931 held more than twenty-five hundred people. “The Pierre,” writes Keith D. Revell, “had entertainment spaces that we would associate with a modern convention hotel, only for a permanent clientele” (Lamonaca and Mogul 2005).

Toward the end of the 1930s, after years of political and social reform, New York hotels and their incorporated restaurants and clubs attempted to coax economic health back into society. But Depression-era hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria wouldn’t turn a profit again until the mid-1940s, a few years prior to its purchase by Conrad Hilton. Hilton had acquired additional properties, including the great Plaza Hotel built in 1907, which he sold in order to help pay for the Waldorf-Astoria. Not until the economic boom following World War II would some of the great early century hotels of Manhattan be revived from their decline into the national symbols of hotel luxury that they remain today (Batterberry and Batterberry 1999).

-- Posted December 11, 2007


Batterberry, Michael and Ariane Batterberry. 1999. On the Town in New York: The Landmark History of Eating, Drinking, and Entertainments from the American Revolution to the Food Revolution. New York, New York: Routledge.

Lamonaca, Marianne and Jonathan Mogul, eds. 2005. Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age: The Architecture of Schultze and Weaver. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Lowe, David Garrard. 2004. Art Deco New York. New York, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.