Thursday, May 15, 2008

Checking In

Last year I picked up at the Milwaukee airport, which has, amazingly, a used-book store, the "Hotel Red Book" for 1958. Looking through it I'm struck that hotels, like department stores and newspapers, were also civic institutions torn apart by revolutionary technological changes.

So this is 1958, Disneyland exists, people are throwing their kids in the car and taking off for Yellowstone or Florida or whatever. Air travel is growing, and railroads still have passenger business. Accommodations largely consist of downtown hotels and motels of varying levels of quality, from old "courts" with little cottages to new brickfaced, low-slung buildings that you evaluate driving by on the highway. Holiday Inn is about five years old, Howard Johnson is putting up motels all along the turnpikes, and motels are organizing themselves into collective associations -- Best Western Association, Quality Courts United. Sheraton is growing rapidly, and Conrad Hilton has 25 hotels in the U.S. That puts Hilton about even with Albert Pick, although Hilton is about to open up the Nile Hilton in Cairo.

But this is before credit card payments -- Holiday Inn's historic deal where you could charge your stay on your Gulf credit card is a few years away -- or national reservation systems. The only real way to reserve a hotel room is to use a travel agent or hotel front desk with a telex terminal. And the typical downtown hotel is a locally owned, single site operation, or owned by a chain that has five or six hotels in two or three cities.

Downtown hotels are clustered around the department stores and other shopping and government offices. You may not know where they are by location when you drive into a town on Route 66 or U.S. 40 or S.R. 37, so many of them are skyscrapers with signs on top -- Benjamin Franklin Hotel or Durant Hotel or whatever so that drivers can easily locate them. Most also have large signs on the building, of the sort that one sees flashing into Elwood and Jake's room before Princess Leia blows up the flophouse door.

After a dry spell in World War II, the hotel business is booming with America's 1950s prosperity. And downtown hotels are trying to keep their share of the trade. But because of the Depression and the war, they went years without having much money, or competitive need, to make improvements. Now they're coping with three disruptive technologies.

First is television. TV as a ubiquitous part of life is less than a decade old. Buying TVs for every room was a big cost; rooms were small, and you already had a big radio unit in them; TV signals could be hard to pick up in old masonry buildings; TV was hard to get in smaller towns before cable anyway. So what to do?

Second is air-conditioning. Until the 1950s, a/c is found largely in theaters, parts of big stores (the lower floors of department stores, for example, but not the top ones), and the homes of the extremely rich in the South. Offices and hotels didn't have it. Now every new commercial building is being built with it. Retrofitting old hotels that are still operating is a nightmare. Do you buy window units for every room? That blocks off the windows, uses up an electrical plug, and could overload the whole system. Do you retrofit all the heaters? The hotel builders of the 1920s didn't anticipate this. What to do.

This on top of the fact that at all but the absolute best hotels, until the 1950s it was not the expectation that every room would have its own full bathroom. Most city hotels were built with some cheap rooms with shared bath for traveling salesmen and the like. The rooms just had a sink. But America's affluence has made those rooms unacceptable.

Yet you've got these big, 200-, 400-, 750-room hotels with bars and dining rooms and the Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce and barber shops and ballrooms, hotels that are mainstays of their cities, hotels that when a visiting dignitary comes to make a speech he or she is automatically booked into the Bancroft or the Jayhawk or the Cornhusker because, it's the best place in town, our showpiece. Oh, and by the way, ma'm, if you have a spare hour, perhaps we can show you our leading department store, Wendland's or Crosby's or Gold's? I'm sure you'll find it's almost like being in New York.

What to do? Hotels are trying. The Lafayette in Portland, Maine, advertises "TV ... Air Conditioned Rooms Available." Perhaps OK in Maine, but in Kansas City, the Hotel Phillips, "20 stories of comfort," is 100 percent air-conditioned, and its 500 rooms each have "tub, shower bath, radio." No TV, and even in 1958 it's a competitive advantage to point out that each room has a tub and a shower.

In Texas, a hotel that doesn't have air conditioning is going to be at a disadvantage, so the Ben Milam Hotel in Houston wants us to know that it has "year-round air conditioning." Kansas gets pretty hot too, but the Wareham in Manhattan has some of its rooms "air-cooled" while others are "air-conditioned." But I'm going to Minneapolis just to stay at the Leamington, at Third Avenue South and 10th Street. It has some non-air-conditioned guest rooms among its 700 rooms and suites, but the suites now offer color TV. Color TV in 1958! The Leamington is way ahead of the curve and deserves to call itself "Minneapolis' Finest." I'm staying away from the Olympic in Seattle. It has Muzak in every room.

These are hotels that everyone in town knew, some that were tripped off the tongue of the sophisticated traveler. The Blackstone. The Chase Park Plaza. The Shamrock Hilton. The Muehlebach. That national traveler might not have known the Henry Clay in Ashland, Ky., or the Shawnee in Springfield, Ohio, but people in those states or regions did. These were where the best people stayed. Doormen, bellboys, the works.

And yet, 10 to 15 years later, many hotels like these were closing, to later reopen as senior citizen housing; or turning into welfare hotels, torn drapes flapping out of ragged windows; or being torn down and becoming parking lots, as happened with the Claypool, which went from being the prestige hotel in my hometown to a vacant lot in less than a decade. The Alexander Hamilton Hotel in Paterson, once a highlight of North Jersey, the hotel where the president of the Meyer Bros. department store lived for decades, was home to drug dealers by the late 1970s. Even the Leamington, where Hendrix stayed, where Hubert Humphrey had his campaign headquarters, was torn down in the 1990s.

In Sioux City, Iowa, it all went away just like that in the 1960s, the Warrior Hotel trying, as so many hotels did, to become a "Motor Inn" and failing, after the closure of the West, the Mayfair, the Martin, the Jackson.... In larger cities, many hotels soldiered on, some making the transition and remaining open today, others being reopened after a decade of quiet, and many others simply fading away.

What happened? Ask Dwight Eisenhower about the third disruptive change. More to come, with possible implications for newspapers.


Mae Travels said...

Great article! Just one thing: in 1958, the Chase and the Park Plaza were still two separate hotels -- both incredible.

On the other end of the scale, Continental Airlines in 2006 (on a bad night -- canceled flight) bussed us from Newark Airport to a HORRIBLE dump in downtown Newark -- which posted a list of famous people, including JFK, who had stayed there in the past. So that happens too.

Anonymous said...

Overall, it's a nice trip. I still remember some of my wonderful trips through Frontier Airlines.

Unknown said...

It was a really great trip for me but i was out onBusiness Travel rather then leisure, anyway great article well done.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your store. I have to say Continental Airlines sucks, though.