Saturday, March 26, 2016

Vintage U.S. Hotels Through the Hallways of Memory

As a result of a professional life of travel both inside and outside the United States, it has been my privilege to have stayed at some of the most storied hotels in America.  Recognizing the hold that classic hotels have had on the national psyche, I am embolden to feature five, with a few souvenirs, that hold particular memories.

The Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. has been the scene of many notable events, including Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball.   A paperweight above shows the early look of that hostelry, including the horse-drawn carriages on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Upon first coming to the Nation’s Capitol in 1962 I spent my first and only night there, as a nervous chaperon to a group of visiting high school students.  At that time the Willard had been allowed to run down and my room was a dreary place, located at the entrance to the fire escape with a glass panel in the door that could be broken to let fleeing guests enter.  I spent a restless night.
About that time a proposal was floated to tear down the historic structure and build something “modern.”  I was among those who wrote letters opposing the move.  Luckily that idea never prevailed and instead the Willard was refurbished — looking like the magnificent “Beaux Arts building as it does today, shown above.  

Finding souvenirs from this hotel is difficult.   In the mid-1930s, Willard management decided that putting its logo on an object was tantamount to having it stolen and stopped doing it.  Shown here is a much earlier flowered vase,  dated from the 1890s to the early 1900s.  The base indicates it was made for “The New Willard.”

The original Parker House Hotel, shown below, opened in Boston in 1855, making it the longest continuously operated hotel in the United States.  (For 18 years from 1868 to 1986 the Willard was shut down.). Some of America’s most distinguished thinkers and writers made it a meeting place. The notoriously finicky Charles Dickens resided in the Parker House for six months in 1867-1868.  The hostelry also became famous for its “Parker House rolls,” a soft bun that my mother was expert at recreating.  
During the 1976 Bicentennial I took my family to stay there while visiting historical sites in Boston.  At that time owned by the Dunfey family (1968-1996), the Parker House was going though a “down” period and was just this side of shabby.  Still, it was close to many attractions and the positive memory later caused me to buy the ashtray here.  Now the Omni Parker House, the hotel has been refurbished and is on the “Historic Hotels of America” roster.
Shown here on a postcard, the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City first opened its doors in May 1915.  This hostelry is forever linked with another President, Harry S Truman.  It was there that the Missouri politician repaired for low-stakes poker games with his cronies and, it is alleged, to have a shot of whiskey during National Prohibition.  Charged in 1984 with bringing an business delegation of South Koreans to five cities in the United States, in Kansas City I chose the Muehlebach on the basis that Truman was the Commander-in-Chief who ordered U.S. troops to oppose the invasion from the Communist North, thus saving the South.

The choice proved inspired.  Not only did the delegation like their accommodations, the large Korean community in Kansas City took the delegation under its care and treated them to a home style banquet.  The visitors had quickly tired of American style fare.  Unlike the Willard, the Muehlebach Hotel believed in putting its logo — a chandelier — on many objects, including ashtrays and glasses.
One of the most expensive hotels in America is the Fairmont in San Francisco.  Sitting atop Nob Hill at 950 Mason Street, the Fairmont since opening in 1907 has been a renowned luxury destination.  Luckily for me, the management also was interested in being known as a site for international meetings.  When the U.S. and Federated States of Micronesia sat down there in 1995 to negotiate an agreement, I was in the FSM delegation and received a “bargain basement” rate on my room.  Breakfast, however, cost $24 regardless of  what was eaten.  As a result I took a trip daily down Nob Hill to a McDonald’s —and a weary trudge back.
The final hotel in this nostalgia walk through hotel hallways is the Pfister in Milwaukee.  Opened in 1893 at a cost of more than a million, this place is known for the two lions at its entry and massive statue light fixtures in the lobby. My initial stay there about 1981 was not impressive.  The place looked shabby in those days and at 2 A.M. a overly-zealous hotel employee decided to vacuum the hall carpet in front of my room.  

Subsequently all that has changed.  The Pfister was refurbished into one of America’s most attractive hotels, as evidenced by my later visits there.  Moreover, the art collection that has graced its public spaces for years, out of critical favor in the 1980s, has become fashionable and very valuable.  The Pfister is said to have the largest assemblage of Victorian art of any hotel in the world and many stop there to enjoy the paintings and sculptures.  Its gift shop features coffee cups that allow one to reminisce repeatedly about a stay there. 

My last hotel is the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, shown above, an iconic hostelry that once faced the wrecking ball. It was during that prospect that I first stayed there in 1968.  Because of its imminent demise, I was among a handful of guests and the daily rate was very reasonable, even for a graduate student.  Afterwards, along with other tens of thousands, I wrote letters asking that this marvelous building be saved.  

The threat was removed, thank goodness, and today the cost of a room is mind-boggling.  The most collected souvenir of the Royal Hawaiian are its menus, with their cover prints of island scenes by John Melville Kelly, a noted American artist and printmaker.

Hotels have always had special place in the literature and life of Americans.  Given the "cookie cutter" aspect of most contemporary ones, I have concluded that it is vintage hotels such as those identified here that hold the imagination and make the memories.

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