By Kate Killeen
Some of the greatest architectural treasures in American history were produced in the Gilded Age, including grand hotels, which would ultimately attract a certain social class and grand hotels are considered an American concept and invention. These grand hotels were built to accommodate America’s wealthy, and their construction coincides with America’s industrialism, and the expansion and growth of incredible wealth that was seen in the gilded age. These hotels were also meant to be efficient, well-managed machines that provided timely meals, clean rooms, and an attentive and inconspicuous hotel staff. These grand hotels were built to attract wealthy businessmen, socialites, political leaders, and even some unsavory characters.
American grand hotels invited guests to relax in the outdoors by sitting under sweeping piazzas or verandas offering magnificent views, or participating in one of the many recreational activities the hotels provided, like baseball, golf, and croquet. Thesy encouraged guests to interact, to be out and about, and to display or regard fancy attire. The dining rooms were large and lavish, as were the ballrooms incorporated into the grand hotel design. But as large as the grand hotel and grounds often were, the rooms themselves were usually small and simplistically furnished, as guests would often spend little time in their rooms, which were primarily used for sleeping and storage.
These grand hotels were not meant to be architecturally daring, but rather comprised in a manner that was recognizable and comfortable for patrons, yet distinctive enough to emphasize the hotel’s uniqueness, either by recognizing cultural heritage familiar to the landscape or offering trendy architectural styles. Generally, the grand hotels were a wood frame structure, with a large, sweeping veranda along the first story and often three to five stories tall. They could also accommodate over 150 guests, which meant these hotels were rather large with long corridors. Generally speaking, these grand hotels were architecturally and characteristically similar, but had some special or defining feature—such as the location, or modern amenities and attractions—that separated it from the other grand hotels and emphasized its architectural uniqueness.
The Gilded Age in America provided a turning point for modern society. One facet that is often excluded from the historic narrative of the Gilded Age is the resulting boom of the summer tourism industry. While the country was expanding economically, regionally, and technologically, the wealthy were busy relaxing in new areas, often rural and unexplored parts of the country.
Summer tourism in the Gilded Age brought the wealthy and famous out of the cities, which in that period of time were often crowded, and brutally hot in the summers. An open and cool place to escape and relax—provided you could afford such a luxury—became a status symbol and welcomed retreat. And the grand hotels that were built in this period offered the wealthy the exquisite lifestyle they were accustomed to, but in a picturesque, rural setting. Summer tourism also provided opportunities to engage in community social events, a characteristic that was distinctive of the Victorian era.
What came out of America in this truncated segment of time was remarkable, and it dramatically shifted the way human culture and the modern society operated. While the country grew and changed exponentially, there were communities that thrived in this moment of American development. However, the explosive growth was unsustainable, and towns that depended upon summer tourism for their survival were never truly able to recapture that glorious period of time. The summer resort towns of the Gilded Age are some of the most threatened in our society today because the majority of their special hotels and architecture have mostly been lost.
Affluent Americans were able to travel virtually anywhere in the country, thanks largely in part to the expansion and improvement of the railroad industry, America’s primary method of mass transportation at the time. Whole regions of the country were opened up to development. A new era of vacationing had dawned, and more people than ever before were able to explore the scenic landscapes. Savvy businessmen who recognized the opportunity to indulge these travelers by building grand hotels offering luxury accommodations quickly seized the moment.
Heritage plays a crucial role in recalling these summer resort towns, as they were places of leisure. Much of their heritage is preserved through personal correspondence, stories, and photographs, as well as the intricate period detailing and grandeur surviving hotels display. In addition to providing economic growth to these small towns, grand resort hotels of the Gilded Age also offered the wealthy a chance to mingle with others of similar social standing or with shared interests.
The towns that hosted these summer vacationers thrived economically, as they offered seasonal employment to locals and helped small, local businesses thrive when the wealthy tourists, eager to spend and explore, arrived. All towns require economic stimulus in order to thrive. As with any industry, tourism became crucial to the prosperity of many rural American towns. But when a town is defined by its industry, and that industry slowly fades away, the risk of losing the heritage and history is at its highest. This is particularly relevant in the Northern New Hampshire – once a thriving summer destination in the American Gilded Age. Today, the region struggles economically, as most of the region’s grand hotels have burnt to the ground.
We want to hear from you! Have you visited any American grand hotels recently? Are there any grand hotels that resonate with you? Let us know what you think about the American grand hotels of the gilded age!