Like any Wes Anderson film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which opens this week, follows memorable characters through a series of increasingly wacky scenarios. And as with his other movies, the setting becomes almost a character in itself—in this case a grand hotel in the fictional European principality of Zubrowka between the world wars, complete with impressive fairy tale facade, stately lobby, uniformed staff, endless hallways, and glamorous guests bustling to and fro.
Aesthetically it makes sense that a filmmaker famously in charge of every last detail of his films would select such a visually rich setting for his latest. But in choosing a grand hotel, Anderson is also tapping into something more than mere style. Grand hotels are a fixture of our cultural memory, appearing in decades’ worth of novels, stories, and even one of the first Oscar-winning movies, “Grand Hotel” (1932).
The grand hotel today feels vintage, a panorama of gilt and brocade, and that sense of lost grandeur is part of what a movie like “Grand Budapest Hotel” trades on. For people witnessing their ascendancy, however, grand hotels looked and felt like something totally new: a kind of public palace dangling the promise of a consumer-oriented, technologically advanced “good life.” Culturally they were a bridge between times: Their appeal drew from an older way of life based on rigid hierarchies, while opening the experience of grandeur and luxury to new classes of people willing to pay for it.
Historians have seized upon grand hotels as an illustration of how social class and public life changed in an urbanizing age—and even as agents of change in themselves. Grand hotels marked the emergence of a safely curated social sphere, replete with accessible luxuries as temporary cushions against the harshness of modern life. The cultural historian Molly Berger, in her recent book “Hotel Dreams: Technology, Luxury, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929,” suggested that big hotels offered “a city within a city” to their visitors, who paid to live in a dream of perfect surroundings and service for a night, a week, or even a month at a time.
While we might look at the grand hotel aesthetic as a vestige of more elegant days, the deeper ideas they represented have become, if anything, more prevalent over time: They foreshadowed our own favorite privatized public spaces, like theme parks, cruise ships, shopping malls, and resorts. Under those chandeliers and curtains, it turned out, lurked a preview of something profoundly modern.
Though they now carry a kind of European cachet, the concept of the “grand hotel” really has its roots in America—and traces back specifically to Boston, where the Tremont House, which opened in 1829, is generally recognized as the first modern hotel, and the precursor to its grander descendants.
The Tremont had 170 rooms and explicitly courted a luxury market, divorcing itself from humbler taverns or inns. (The stables, for example, were located far from the main entrance). The hotel offered free soap, a mechanical call bell system, indoor plumbing, French food, and luxurious public rooms.
Through the 19th century, American hotels competed with each other for the title of largest and most technologically advanced, notably the Astor House and the Metropolitan in New York, and the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia. These establishments used their monumentality and scale as selling points, and were seen as triumphs of modernity, offering guests access to new technologies like the elevator, the telephone, and increasingly sophisticated types of indoor plumbing.
In Europe, where Anderson’s film is set, something else was at work as well. As the aristocracy diminished in power and capital throughout the 19th century, grand families lost the ability to finance the building of palaces. The grand hotel stepped into the breach. (Sometimes it did so literally, as with the transformation of the never-inhabited palace of Duke Philipp of Wurttemberg into the Imperial Hotel in Vienna in 1872.) European hoteliers like the British Richard D’Oyly Carte, who opened London’s Savoy Hotel in 1889, and the Swiss Cesar Ritz, whose name was soon to become synonymous with luxury, took cues from their American counterparts, building ever-bigger hotels with modern sanitary affordances.
Like the great industrial exhibitions of the 19th century, the hotels showcased the latest in domestic fixtures. The Grand Hôtel in Paris, which had 800 bedrooms and 600 staff members in 1895, boasted electric light, supplied by generators in its basement, an ice-making machine, and the ability to feed 2,000 diners a day (using upwards of 500 chickens). In-hotel telegraph systems, like one installed at the Élysée Palace Hotel in Paris, allowed guests to request their mail, a seltzer, a lemon squash, or the hairdresser, all without having to speak to a person.
Far from simply offering a convenient place to stay for the night, grand hotels conferred social status on their guests, and became centers of social life in the cities and towns where they were located. Socially, they promised something just as modern as their fixtures: the chance at hypermobility. European grand hotels valued aristocratic clientele, and the glamor that they added to hotels, so much that they sometimes let indigent nobles stay for indefinite periods of time without paying. The palace hotel in Europe became a kind of second mansion, and when trouble struck, the hotels were a place for exiled nobility to wait out conflict in their homelands.
But hotels, unlike the real homes of nobles and aristocrats, were quasi-public spaces. This was a radical idea for its time: In theory, anyone who could afford the price of a room, or a meal, could rub elbows with royalty, with no need for an invitation.
In practice, astronomical prices (and expectations of obsequious service) reinforced social hierarchies. The huge hotels were the homes of a new class of sophisticated international cosmopolitans, who traveled from place to place on equally luxurious ocean liners and railway cars, spending a month in Italy and a month in Monaco. But the architecture of the palace hotel was also insular, offering a complete experience within its walls. Like today’s visitors to Disneyland or a spa resort, timid travelers could expect complete service without facing the challenging realities of foreign cities.
From the start, grand hotels proved emotionally compelling, both to the people who visited them and to the people who only read about them in magazines and novels. They acted on the senses and the imagination. In a dreamy passage from his 1907 travelogue “American Scene,” Henry James wrote about a visit to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria, then at its original location on Fifth Avenue, where the Empire State Building now stands. While many parts of that book despaired of the effects of unfettered, grasping capitalism on American life, the Waldorf-Astoria compelled James’s admiration.
James found this grand hotel to be quintessentially American in its elaborate architecture and administration, and also in the mélange of well-dressed, businesslike people he encountered there. “The whole thing remains for me...a gorgeous golden blur,” he wrote. “A paradise peopled with unmistakable American shapes, yet in which, the general and the particular, the organized and the extemporized, the element of ingenuous joy below and of consummate management above, melted together and left one uncertain which of them one was, at a given turn of the maze, most admiring.”
The lowered barriers to entry of the hotel social scene also confused old ideas of respectability and invited fraud and posturing. In English novelist Arnold Bennett’s 1902 novel “The Grand Babylon Hotel,” written about London’s Savoy, the hotelier warns the hotel’s new owner that the exclusive clientele of the place—“the great Ambassadors, the great financiers, the great nobles, all the men that move the world”—made the place hard to manage: “The roof that habitually shelters all the force, all the authority of the world, must necessarily also shelter nameless and numberless plotters, schemers, evil-doers, and workers of mischief.” Such plots and schemes were the bread and butter of novelists of manners.
Vicki Baum, an Austrian Jewish author, spent six weeks as a parlor maid in a Berlin hotel while researching the novel “People in a Hotel” (1929). The book, which was wildly popular, was adapted as a play and the 1932 MGM film “Grand Hotel,” starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford. The film is recognized as one of the first narratives presented in portmanteau style, featuring interlocking stories—a style provoked by the fragmentary nature of hotel interactions.
Baum’s book, for all the luxury of its setting, is positively melancholy. The characters who circulate around her Grand Hotel—a dying clerk bent on enjoying his last days; a beautiful secretary who sells companionship to wealthy men while dreaming of movie stardom; an aging ballerina on her last legs; a depressed doctor traumatized by memories of the late war—want something from the hotel that it can’t give.
Perhaps it was fitting that stories of the grand hotel’s dark side became popular just as the era of the palace hotel came to an end. The Depression put an end to major new hotel developments in the United States, and the effects of World War II finished them off in Europe. In the United States, after the war, the growth of the interstate highway system encouraged staying in motels, not hotels. Travel became a matter of efficiency, and the hotel, now located far from the centers of towns, lost much of its social function.
While fewer films and novels have pressed grand hotels into service since World War II, Anderson’s film suggests we still harbor some affection for the grand hotel as setting. This affection has saved some actual grand hotels that managed to escape the midcentury wrecking ball and have re-emerged as parts of large hotel conglomerates. You can still visit the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, inspiration for the setting of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding reception in “The Great Gatsby,” now under Hilton management.
Today the hotels’ real spirit lives on not in those buildings, however, but in the democratized luxury that has pervaded our culture, from spas enjoining us to “treat ourselves,” to the promise of the well-appointed SUV, to the on-demand service model of a smartphone. (What is Siri, after all, if not a highly portable concierge?)
What didn’t quite survive, and perhaps accounts for some of the nostalgia, is the sense that such a lush life can—even should—be lived in public. A hotel lobby was a place to be seen; the hallway connecting the Waldorf-Astoria’s two original buildings, which famously allowed people to promenade back and forth showing off their clothes, was nicknamed Peacock Alley. Now, those glimpses are harder to come by. The intricate social dramas that once unfolded in ballrooms and domed lounges have shifted to VIP suites and key-protected floors. Our own fantastical private-public spaces—luxury cruise ships, hotels, first-class plane pods—offer comforts even the grand hotel patrons didn’t dream of, and an isolation they never would have imagined.
Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.