The hotel business in America has a long and sometimes even illustrious history

October 16, 1994|By Debra Supples Keiser | Debra Supples Keiser,New York Daily News

In the fall of 1794 -- 200 years ago this month -- the first hotel in America opened for business.

The City Hotel, at the corner of Broadway and Thames Street near Trinity Church in New York City, was the first American structure to be designed and built as a hotel. It had 73 rooms (immense!) and became a center of social activities, holding George Washington's birthday celebration in 1798, and a dinner to commemorate the Pilgrims' anniversary in 1820.

Before the opening of City Hotel, inns were part of private homes with the innkeeper living on the premises. "The inns in Colonial America were patterned after their British counterparts, with only a few rooms and as many as 10 large beds in each room," says Ward Morehouse III, an author and hotel industry historian.

Of course, no one expected bathrooms, electric lights, air conditioning, running water or privacy -- it wasn't unusual for hotels to ask guests to share rooms, even their beds, with strangers. "The innkeeper didn't consider it a profitable night unless there were at least two people in every bed," says Mr. Morehouse.

But the City Hotel demonstrated that American innovators would change the direction of the hospitality business; soon Americans were known for the largest and finest hotels in the world.

In 1829, the Tremont House in Boston set the international standard for hotel design and amenities. It was the first to offer the option of single occupancy and the first to feature locks for every room. Another innovation was a free cake of soap, quite a luxury at the time.

With the westward expansion, hotels began to spring up in cities across the nation, usually next to the central train station. Toward the end of the 1800s, hoteliers began to build luxurious hotels such as the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

It was Ellsworth Statler in the early 1900s, though, who created the first chain of middle-class hotels.

The Statler Hotel in Buffalo, for example, offered business travelers "a room and a bath for a dollar-and-a-half."

Today, says Ray Schultz of Promus Hotels, "The most successful hotels are designed to accommodate consumers' lifestyles and specific travel occasions" -- that is, hotels like Homewood Suites are designed primarily for extended-stay business travelers; the Hampton Inn chain targets the value-conscious, and Embassy Suites are for those who want the comfort and benefits of a two-room suite.

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