The dying world of "Grand Budapest Hotel"

How hotels like the one in Wes Anderson's new film became a charming but outmoded relic of the past

Published March 7, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

A still from "Grand Budapest Hotel"
A still from "Grand Budapest Hotel"

Excerpted from “Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator.”

Gabriel Dan, the protagonist  in Joseph Roth’s 1924 novel "Hotel Savoy," is on his way home to Vienna after spending several years in Russian POW camps. He arrives in a Polish town and takes a room in a hotel—on the sixth floor above ground level, where the prices are lowest. After a few hours’ sleep he sets out on a tour of the other floors. As he closes the door of his room behind him, he finds a notice tacked to it by the hotel manager, Kaleguropulos:

QUIET IS REQUESTED  AFTER 10 PM NO RESPONSIBILIT Y  CAN BE TAKEN FOR VALUABLES LEFT IN THE ROOM. THERE IS A SAFE IN THE HOTEL. . . . I go along the corridor to the main staircase and take pleasure in the handsome square flagstones of the hotel passage, in the clean red stone and the steady echo of my footsteps.

I walk slowly downstairs. From the lower floors come voices, but up here everything is silent. All the doors are shut, one moves as if it were an old monastery, past the doors of monks in prayer. The fifth floor looks exactly like the sixth, one could easily confuse them. Up above and here, too, a standard clock hangs facing the stairs, but the two clocks do not tell the same time. The one on the sixth floor says ten past seven, on this floor it says seven, and on the fourth floor it says ten to seven.

Upon the flagstones on the third floor lie dark red carpets with green borders and one no longer hears one’s footsteps. The room numbers are not painted on the doors but mounted on little porcelain signs. A maid passes with a feather duster and a wastepaper basket. They seem here to pay more attention to cleanliness. This is where the rich live, and the cunning Kaleguropulos lets the clocks run slow, because the rich have time.

On the mezzanine the two wings of a door were standing wide open.

This was a large room with two windows, two beds, two chests of drawers, a green plush sofa, a brown tiled stove and a stand for luggage. Kaleguropulos’ sign was not to be seen on the door—perhaps the residents at this level were allowed to be noisy after ten o’clock, and perhaps the management did take responsibility for valuables—or did they already know about the safe, or did Kaleguropulos inform them personally?

A scented woman with a grey feather boa rustled out of a neighbouring room. This is a lady, I say to myself, and walk close behind her down the last few stairs, admiring her little polished bootees.

There is perhaps no other passage in European literature of the time that so vividly describes the vertical structure of the traditional  grand hotel. The interior of the building is revealed as if in cross-section; as he descends from top to bottom, Dan records floor by floor the subtle changes in the facilities, from the nature of the flooring to the standards of hygiene, from the font of the room numbers  to the time shown on the clocks. It is no accident that Joseph Roth describes the new guest’s foray through the hotel in such detail, for the hierarchical order of the floors reflects the post – World War I social divisions that he is portraying. Like the personnel of the novel—on the one hand the profiteers who have salvaged or even enlarged their fortunes, on the other the war’s impoverished victims—the Hotel Savoy, their common dwelling, is also divided into two halves. The building’s demarcation  line runs between the third and the fourth floors. Those who live below it continue  to be provided with the standard  symbols of luxury. The floors above, however, lead by stages to the hotel’s wasteland. The novel returns  insistently to the leitmotif of this threshold, speaking repeatedly of the distinctions  in hotel service. In the case of breakfast, for instance, on the upper floors,

a floor waiter came, wearing a green baize apron. His rolled up sleeves revealed his muscular forearms, dark with curly hair as far as his elbows. Evidently maid service was only for the first three floors. The coffee was better than might have been expected, but what was the use of that without a maid in a white cap? This was a disappointment and I wondered whether there were any possibility of moving to the third floor.

Shortly after his arrival, Gabriel Dan discovers that some guests even live a floor above him. The attic story, actually the Savoy’s steamy laundry, is even more sparsely furnished, without even so much as a “standard clock” on the wall. It houses a separate society of people thrown together by their shared destitution: a vaudeville dancer on her way to Paris, a consumptive circus clown and his wife and child, and finally, in the worst room in the entire hotel, a once prosperous factory owner named Fisch who now ekes out a living predicting winning lottery numbers for other hotel guests. (“Many people have become rich through  Fisch’s dreams and live on the first floor of the Savoy. Out of gratitude they pay for his rooms.”) The inhabitants of the attic floor are cut off from the normal life of the hotel. No room service comes to them; they prepare their own meals on illegal alcohol stoves. In the consciousness of the hotel employees, these guests do not exist, as evidenced by the fact that they don’t even know their names: when the circus clown Santschin calls for a doctor, “‘Number 748 has suddenly fallen ill,’ say the floor waiters. There were no names whatever on the top three storeys of the hotel. Everyone was known by room numbers.”

In June 1926, two years after the publication  of Roth’s novel, the Ritz Tower, the tallest apartment house in the world, opened in New York. The forty-one-story building on Park Avenue, commissioned by the wealthy journalist Arthur Brisbane and designed by Joseph Roth’s namesake Emery Roth, the chief architect of the New York skyline, was an “apartment hotel,” that is, it consisted of condominium apartments but with services typical of a luxury hotel. The architectural historian Steven Ruttenbaum  described the building in his biography of Emery Roth:

The second and third floors contained numerous maids’ and servants’ quarters; these rooms were separated from the tenants’ living area, as was traditional in large single-family dwellings. These floors also housed private vaults for the tenants, a separate one for each apartment. The fourth through the eighteenth floors contained suites of two to four rooms connected to the elevators by means of a double-loaded corridor. . . . On the nineteenth and twentieth floors was located one of the most unusual duplex apartments in the city. Consisting of eighteen large rooms, it was designed specifically for Brisbane. The double-height living room was the most noteworthy feature of the apartment. It measured 20 feet high and 20 feet wide, and it ran the entire length of the Park Avenue frontage for 70 feet. . . . A narrow terrace surrounded the entire apartment at the nineteenth-floor setback, providing a sweeping panorama of the city in every direction. . . . Of the three passenger elevators in the building, one was designed specifically to stop at the nineteenth and twentieth floors for Brisbane’s sole use. . . . The floors above Brisbane’s apartment, from the twenty-first level to the top, contained apartments of four to twelve rooms each. They consisted of single-floor and duplex suites of one to four bedrooms, each with its own bath. Floors 21 through 24 were arranged with two single-floor apartments per level; floors 25 through 32 offered two duplex suites in each two levels; and floors 33 to 37 were designed with one apartment per level. The most unusual feature of the duplex suites was a large (16 feet wide by 40 feet long) double-height studio/living room with doors at each end leading to terraces set within the corners of the tower. The entrance to these apartments was gained through a single story foyer, above which was built a balcony overlooking the living room one floor below. These duplex studio apartments were designed for tenants who desired such unusual and luxurious space.

Thus we see two cross-sections through hotel buildings of the 1920s. Both represent  a continuous  change, an increase in luxury from floor to floor, but what distinguishes them from each other is the direction of movement. Gabriel Dan’s foray through the Hotel Savoy—which is modeled on a mid-nineteenth-century grand hotel of the same name in Lodz — proceeds from top to bottom, beginning on an unadorned  upper story and ending with a reverential peek into the rooms of the bel étage. Ruttenbaum’s description, on the other hand, begins with the lowest floors, where the servants’ quarters  and storage rooms for the residents are located, and from there lists the various strata of the apartment hotel in ascending order. What these two lengthy descriptions illustrate is a fundamental transformation in the vertical structure, a reversal of the hierarchic order. The best rooms have migrated from below to above, the most modest from above to below. One could say that the Hotel Savoy and the Ritz Tower stand on either side of an epochal watershed, the four decades between 1890 and 1930 (although in Europe it developed less quickly and consistently than in the United States). During those decades, a momentous shift occurred in the material and symbolic ordering of multistory buildings, in particular a shift in the significance of the upper stories, to which we will now turn our attention. The focus will be on two aspects of the process: one is the multifaceted nature of the readjustment (which occurred not just in hotels but also in tenement houses and commercial buildings), the other is the special role of the elevator, for it is no exaggeration to say that the introduction of this conveyance was the prerequisite for the recodification of verticality around 1900.

There can be no doubt that the hierarchical structure  of buildings is inseparable from the problem of access. In the traditional  grand hotels of Europe, for example, the reason the rooms became worse and worse the farther up they were was quite simply that only the most lowly guests and the hotel personnel could be expected to climb all those stairs. The elevator freed the upper stories from the stigma of inaccessibility and lent them an unheard-of glamour instead. At the same time, it resolved the old symbolic dissonance between vertical hierarchy and social hierarchy that survived into the first years of the twentieth century. There is a lovely passage in "Hotel Savoy" in which Gabriel Dan muses on this architectural paradox:

Those who lived on high were in the depths, buried in airy graves, and the graves were in layers above the comfortable rooms of the well nourished guests sitting down below, untroubled by the flimsy coffins overhead.

I belong to those who are buried on high. Do I not live on the sixth floor and shall I not be driven by Fate onto the seventh? To the eighth, the tenth, the twentieth? How high can one fall?

In the course of the twentieth century, hotel guests “buried on high” slowly but surely disappeared. Once the elevator established itself, the pyramid of society could be accurately reflected in the structure  of multistory buildings as well, although we must not lose sight of a certain understandable delay. For even if we recognize the reversal of vertical order as an effect of the elevator, the construction costs of retrofitting the traditional  grand hotels ensured that the installation of the new conveyance reorganized their interior space only little by little. In contrast  to America, where hotels at the beginning of the twentieth century were built from the start around the core of the elevator shaft, there was a period of transition  in Europe. A provisional, retrofitted elevator was already part of the better floors (as it is in the novel "Hotel Savoy" as well), but the ingrained, traditional hierarchy of floors remained in place. The Paris Hotel Saint James and Albany, where Thomas Mann’s eponymous hero Felix Krull begins his job as an elevator operator, presumably shortly before the turn  of the century, is still in this transitional phase. The hotel has five stories above the ground floor, the first four of which are occupied by the guests, while the fifth contains cramped dormitories for the staff. Very similar to the Hotel Savoy, the attic floor in Mann’s novel is described as a separate region of the building, as shown not least by the fact that the two modern passenger elevators go only as high as the fourth floor. Upon his arrival, however, Krull is conveyed to one of the dormitories by the service elevator located at the back of the building, which goes all the way to the fifth floor. That meagerly furnished floor, with its “ill-lit, carpetless corridor,”  reminds Krull of the terrors of the halls in the barracks he had hoped to escape in the grand hotel in Paris. When he finally begins work the next morning and reenters the luxurious region of the hotel with another employee, his descent is clearly reminiscent of the corresponding passage from "Hotel Savoy": “We walked down a flight of stairs to the fourth floor, where the corridors were much wider and had red carpets. There he rang for one of the guest elevators that came up that high.” Once again we get the details—the wider corridors and red carpets—that constitute  the traditional demarcation  line in the grand hotel of the nineteenth century. Although a guest elevator is already in service in the Saint James and Albany, only the prestigious floors have access to it. The attic floor, the hotel’s drab backside, can be reached only by clandestine conduits: the back stairs or the service elevator.

Such was the situation in Europe around 1900. In the luxury hotels of New York, on the other hand, the avant-garde of twentieth-century hotel culture, conditions had changed, as the construction of the Ritz Towers shows. The new hierarchical order was most consistently realized, however, in another  New York building, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, opened in 1931, whose two towers were long the hallmark of the Manhattan skyline. These towers, which rose from the twenty-ninth  to the forty-third story, constituted from the beginning the hotel’s unique appeal to which the American journalist Ward Morehouse devoted an entire book. Below the demarcation  line of the twenty-ninth story, the Waldorf Astoria, although expensive, was accessible to everyone; above the line began an exclusive region of suites of as many as twelve rooms with private butler service. For many years, the Towers was reserved exclusively for politicians, diplomats, and other prominent  long-term guests. “The Towers is really a kind of vertical Beverly Hills,” writes Morehouse, “a hotel within a hotel.”  Here too, the upper floors were separated from the rest of the hotel, but now for the opposite reason. No longer did they serve to house makeshift extra rooms or dormitories  for the personnel, but were instead an enclave of the elite. Whereas the shabbily dressed Gabriel Dan was immediately recognized by suspicious hotel employees as an inhabitant of the upper floors, Morehouse writes that Nicholas Racz, an early manager of the Waldorf Astoria, “could spot the people who ‘belonged’ in the Towers at first glance.”  This reversal was also evident in the changed configuration of the elevators. In the Waldorf Astoria it was no longer the upper but the lower floors that had no access to the best elevator service; the express elevators for the Towers went directly to the twenty-ninth  floor. No longer were the austere quarters for personnel kept hidden away on the upper floors: now it was the inscrutable sphere of power that was sequestered there. Not infrequently, politicians preferred to conduct important negotiations there rather than in the official institutions of the city.  In this regard, Ward Morehouse relates a revealing anecdote about postwar American foreign policy. At the beginning of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower was forced to break with the tradition  of his predecessors and give up the presidential suite in the Towers because his wife, Mamie, suffered from acrophobia. The decision to stay on one of the lower floors, where the hotel personnel was housed, threatened to become a political issue, because the president would be too far from the prestigious region of the hotel during the great United Nations conferences, for instance. In order to at least ameliorate the negative effects, Eisenhower reserved a suite on the eighth floor, the only floor below the Towers where the express elevator was able to stop.

The appearance of the elevator and its intervention in the structure  of multistory buildings wrought a change above all in hotel culture in Europe, a culture that had already experienced a great advance beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century.  One can assess the significance of this event in the precise traces it has left behind in the tourist guidebooks’ descriptions  of hotels during the decades before and after 1900. In various editions of the Baedeker guides, for instance, the infiltration of the momentous  invention into hotels can be followed in detail. Into the 1880s elevators were not mentioned at all, either in the introductory texts about a region’s hotels in general or in the lists of amenities at individual hotels. The prominent  mention of the new invention in the recommendations of subsequent editions proves its enormous significance. In the 1896 edition of the London guide, for instance, the hotels on Piccadilly Circus “include some of London’s most elegant and expensive hotels, with electric lighting, lifts, etc.” In the 1892 guide to northeast Germany and Denmark, the hotel Hamburger Hof was described as a “superb building with elevator and every convenience.” In 1896, the Grand Hotel de Rome in Berlin was “in the best location, with 120 rooms, elevator, electric lighting, bathhouse.” The order in which things were mentioned deserves attention. In their recommendations of the most luxurious hotels of the time, the Baedeker editors gave the existence of an elevator highest priority, even higher than other epoch-making innovations such as electric lights or central heating. In some guides—those for Belgium and Holland (1891) and Austria-Hungary (1898), for instance—the names of the best hotels in major towns are accompanied only by the phrase “with passenger elevator.”  It is exactly from such marginal, abbreviated entries that one can glean what the establishment of the elevator meant in the history of the hotel. And when the 1893 North America guide made more extensive remarks about the new invention, there was a sense of awe at the exotic apparatus: “Access to the rooms on the upper floors is significantly improved by the splendidly functioning ‘elevators’ (lifts).” You can read the author’s sense of wonder in his use of scare quotes, which disappeared in subsequent editions. In 1893, however, they were the typographic precipitate  of innovation. Just as the passengers still mistrusted this means of transportation and anxiously gripped the railings in the cab, the author  was not yet at liberty to use the term without cautiously enclosing it in quotation marks.

The period of adjustment,  however, did not last long. From the Baedeker guides one can also gather how quickly the elevator entered the everyday life of the hotel; it took about twenty years. The assimilation process occurred in stages. At first, in the editions shortly after the turn of the century, the presence of elevators was still explicitly mentioned, although no longer separately for each individual hotel, but rather in the introductory commentary to the list of recommendations. Thus the Paris guide of 1900 stated, “The large first-class hotels are of course equipped  with all modern  conveniences, spacious dining rooms, smoking rooms and lounges, guest elevators, electric lighting, central heating, baths, often luxuriously appointed.” This wording can be found with almost no variation in most of the Baedeker guides for European metropolises between 1900 and 1910, but during the following decade, a change began to make itself felt. In the 1911 guide for northern Italy with Ravenna, Florence, and Leghorn, for instance, there was no mention  of elevators at all in the luxury hotel category, but for several second-class hotels one finds descriptions such as this: “more modest, without elevator and central heating.” Expectations had already shifted by 1911; a feature worth mentioning in a second-class hotel was now not the presence of an elevator, but its absence. A decade later, the question of whether the modern conveyance belongs to a hotel’s amenities had disappeared  entirely from the discourse of the guides. In the editions of the 1920s, all specificities about luxuries had been removed from the standardized introductory  sentence about the hotels. Now there was only the generalization, “The large first-class hotels in the metropolises offer the usual international conveniences.”  In the hotel business, the elevator had become such a matter  of course that its presence required no special mention.

The Baedeker guides provide evidence not just of the gradual establishment of the new technical apparatus, but also of its accompanying effect on the hierarchical structure of the hotels. The elevatorless order—the privileging of the lower stories—was still clearly evident in the early editions, as in this advice from the 1862 guide to southern  Bavaria regarding guest services in Munich hotels: “If one needs information about anything, rather than approaching the subordinate staff it is better to turn to the hotel proprietor himself or the maître d’hôtel, since the former is occasionally available only to the guests on the bel étage.” In 1883, the authors of a guide book for hikers in Switzerland advised them to seek out the “inexpensive small hotels” rather than “the grand hotels in the latest style, where the better rooms are reserved for families or guests who can be expected to book in advance, while single travelers, especially in the high season, must climb to the fifth floor or get a small room giving onto the courtyard for the same price.”  The vertical hierarchy of the hotels was especially evident whenever the Baedeker guides included a list of prices for the various floors in their recommendations. Thus the 1883 guide to central and northern  Germany listed these prices for Berlin luxury hotels: “On the upper floors and facing the courtyard 2 –2½ marks, ground floor and second floor 4 – 7 marks.”  The price list for rooms in the luxury category in the 1885 edition of the Paris guide shows that the simplest rooms on the fifth and sixth floor would cost five francs, those on the second floor ten francs.

The vertical and horizontal order apparently still obligatory for European hotels in 1900 would soon be a thing of the past. The fact that the rooms on the street side of the hotel were in every case more desirable and expensive than those facing the inner courtyard  began to change with the increase in street traffic. The shifts in relationships among the various floors were a result of the elevator : the lists of differential prices gradually disappeared from the guidebooks, doubtless because from about the 1920s on, it was no longer possible to posit a direct connection between the floor and the quality of the rooms. The following edition of the Paris guide from 1905 dispensed with this kind of statistic. The formulation “Rooms are priced according to floor,” basically repeated in the introductory  note to all the early guidebooks, began to disappear in the editions of the 1920s and was gone completely by the 1930s. From that point on, rooms were differentiated by other criteria, such as whether they had a private bath. The hotels’ vertical hierarchy disintegrated thanks to the elevator, whose explicit mention as a criterion of luxury disappeared from the guidebooks at precisely the same time that the lists of room prices became obsolete. By the 1920s, although the history of European hotels had not yet resulted in a total reversal of the hierarchical order as in the cities of the United States, one can at least speak of a leveling process.

Excerpted from “Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator” by Andreas Bernard. Copyright © 2014 by Andreas Bernard. Reprinted by arrangement with NYU Press. All rights reserved.

By Andreas Bernard

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