You Can Still Stay a Night at These Grand Hotels From the Gilded Age
Those that survive today are a testament to Old World luxury
"It may add years to one's life to spend a season in the mountains," crowed one 1902 brochure about America's Rocky Mountain resorts. Another extolled the health benefits of spa visits for Victorian city slickers with "weak hearts, disabled lungs, and worn-out nerves." Colorado's pioneering role as a wellness destination has left it today with a rich concentration of stately Victorian hotels, including the Stanley in Estes Park, the Cliff House in Manitou Springs and the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs—plus such creative originals as Dunton Hot Springs, a ghost town that has been reborn as a quirky boutique hotel property.
But Colorado's resorts were part of a broader American phenomenon. By the end of the 19th century, as taste for domestic travel flourished, every beach, mountain or hot spring across the country seemed to sprout a grand hotel offering luxuries once only seen in Europe, with rates starting at a princely $3 a day for lavish room, haute cuisine and high tea. Housing up to 1,800 guests, these hotels were like self-contained miniature cities, with shops, gardens, courtyards and marble driveways. One awe-struck French traveler observed in 1887 that these sumptuous resorts were destinations themselves, becoming to Americans "what cathedrals, monuments and the beauties of nature are for us."
Sadly, as holiday tastes changed, many of these plush hotels could not keep up. Some were demolished during the Great Depression, others burned to the ground (most were made of wood and went up like tinder boxes), still others were taken over by the military during World War II. Americans' tastes shifted, and most hotels that clung to their 19th century fashions went broke, unable to maintain their vast structures and grounds. "Hotels have to change with the times, or the public will pass them by," observes Chris Donovan, the official historian of the famed Hotel del Coronado (built in 1888) in San Diego. "It's not colonial Williamsburg!"
And yet, despite this Darwinian travel climate, a surprising number of Gilded Age resorts have managed to endure into the 21st century, often after pulling back from the brink of disaster or bankruptcy. These great survivors offer travelers a rare chance to immerse themselves in Old World pleasures amongst luxuries that have been updated for contemporary tastes. The following are some of the era’s classics.
Mohonk Mountain House: New Paltz, New York
The ideal place to feel like a robber baron on vacation is Mohonk, which rises like a fairytale castle above a glittering, cliff-lined mountain lake 90 miles north of New York City. The spectacular refuge, which sits on an 8,000-acre nature preserve, was opened in 1869 by twin Quaker brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley, and it is still run by their family today. The rambling alpine structure continued to expand throughout the Gilded Age, when it hosted industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, along with a parade of U.S. presidents.
In recent decades, Mohonk has been meticulously renovated to keep its antique atmosphere intact: Many of the bedrooms boast authentic Victorian-era wallpaper, working marble fireplaces and black and white photos from the late 1800s, where men in tuxedos and women in crinoline dresses are picnicking on the grounds. But the Smileys have also worked to avoid Mohonk becoming a relic, adding a heated pool, spa and gym, along with single-track mountain bike trails, summer cocktail parties and a new "mindfulness" program, which offers meditation, anti-stress programs and diets for modern Rockefellers.
Still, the most enduring pleasure is to simply stroll around the cliffside trail and pass by the original Gilded Age gazebos, which are made of individually carved logs and feel like exclusive tree-houses. The most spectacular of these is balanced on a knife-edge called Artist’s Rock, where dozens of American painters over the last 150-odd years have scrambled to capture the vista across the Shawangunk Mountains (pronounced “Shongum,” thanks to a colonial-era twisting of the Indian name; many today just call them “the Gunks”). The view toward Eagle Rock, an elegant granite fist rising sheer from the forest floor, is exactly the same as it was in 1880, when the holidaying Philadelphian watercolorist James Reid Lambdin captured it for his peers.
The Greenbrier: White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
"We survived so many wars and depressions," muses the Greenbrier's historian Robert S. Conte, "but the recession of 2008-9 almost sunk us." Perched in the cool and misty Allegheny Mountains, the Greenbrier has been the high society summer resort of the South since the early 1800s, expanding over and over again. The structural core of the current hotel dates to 1913, when the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad opened it with a massive indoor swimming pool so guests could enjoy the mineral springs. A grand facade evoking an antebellum plantation house was soon added to enhance the Old Southern atmosphere.
However, many of the quaint cottages around the grounds date back far earlier, including Baltimore Row, where General Robert E. Lee vacationed with his family after the Civil War, hobnobbing and reminiscing with other Confederate brass. At its Gilded Age height, 1,800 guests could converge at the resort (it now manages a mere 1,400), and it was still thriving during Prohibition, thanks to booze-fueled gambling houses operating secretly in the surrounding mountains.
Still, the hotel might have been shuttered in the last recession, says Conte, had it not been bought in 2009 by local billionaire Jim Justice. A massive make-over of the resort has included a new casino, an annual golf tournament and (opening in late June), a 2,500-seat tennis stadium. "There's definitely a new energy here," says Conte.
The Brown Palace Hotel: Denver, Colorado
The grand opening of the Brown Palace in 1892 marked a minor revolution for the former frontier outpost of Denver. Only two decades earlier, the local newspaper had happily run personal ads from Coloradan gunmen. ("I, John Porter of Erie City, Boulder County, will shoot any person in the Territory for from $100 to $500," went one.) The Brown Palace aimed at a level of civilization that matched Boston and New York—a taste of "Eastern life in a Western environment." Its interior sparkled with 12,400 square feet of onyx, the most of any hotel in the world, its soaring atrium was a feat of avant-garde engineering, and the hotel even had its own artisanal well to supply crystalline alpine water to the bathrooms.
This fantastical creation was conjured by Henry Cordes Brown, a Coloradan adventurer-turned-real-estate-entrepreneur who used to graze his cow on the same triangular wedge of farmland in the heart of downtown. But the glitzy new hotel did not entirely renounce its Rocky Mountain past: The Italian Renaissance exterior included engravings of 26 species of local wildlife placed between the seventh floor windows. (They are referred to by hotel staff as "silent guests.")
And according to unshakeable urban legend, the Brown offered an underground tunnel for discreet visits to a high-class bordello across the street. The "sporting house" was closed in 1904; today that structure, the Navarre Building, houses the Western American Museum of Western Art, a must-see on any visit.
The Grand Hotel: Mackinac Island, Michigan
From 1887, Gilded Age scions would travel by steamer across the Great Lakes from Chicago and Detroit to the sun-drenched Mackinac Island in Michigan. At the Grand Hotel, a whitewashed wooden palace that rises like a beached ocean liner above the turquoise water, they could shed at least a touch of their Midwestern reserve.
As at many of America's Victorian summer resorts, romance was in the air. Interaction between marriageable young people was usually monitored with an iron hand by stern parents, but there was much more flexibility in these remoter beach settings, where social events could be informal and haphazard, and starry-eyed young lovers could slip off for trysts unnoticed. The Grand Hotel's 600 feet-long porch—the world's longest, lined with flowers and American flags—was soon referred to as "Flirtation Walk," Michigan's answer to the Italian passeggiata. By the early 1900s, "Resort Girls" became notorious for cheekily talking to young gents without chaperones (and often snagging their attentions before the more discreet young women had a chance).
The Grand soon became a key stop on the summer celebrity circuit: Thomas Edison arrived to demonstrate his phonograph, Mark Twain came to lecture. Today, the atmosphere is still otherworldly. Cars have been banned from Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-awe) since the 1930s, so the island still has the dreamy charm of a sepia photograph, and bicycle and horse-drawn carriages are still the norm. In 1979, the hotel became the first place to celebrate World Sauntering Day, commemorating the leisurely pace of years gone by—an event continued to this day every June 19.
Old Faithful Inn: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The closest brush with disaster for the Old Faithful Inn occurred during the 1988 Yellowstone fires, which were pushed along by winds up to 75 miles an hour. Only desperate efforts by park firefighters and concession staff—and some good luck with changing wind direction—saved this cathedral to nature, the world's largest log structure, from being engulfed in the inferno.
Today, Old Faithful remains America’s most beloved national park hotel, attracting armies of daytrippers converge to admire the hotel's unique "vernacular architecture": the Tolkein-esque weaving of lodgepole pine trunks and branches echoes the dense forests of Yellowstone itself, and the centerpiece of the lobby is a 500-ton rock chimney constructed from volcanic rhyolite quarried nearby. (The architect Robert Reamer had the then-radical idea of integrating the hotel into the American landscape, breaking with the tradition of copying European-style structures in the park. “I built it in keeping with the place where it stands,” he said. “To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence.”)
But hotel guests can retreat to the privacy of their rooms, many of which maintain the frontier ambiance with bearskins on the raw wooden walls, antique rocking chairs and clawfoot baths. (The most modern touches are a sprinkler system, a "deluge component" to flood the exterior in the case of fires, and a $30 million "seismic upgrade" to protect the structure from Yellowstone's earthquakes; a "Historic Preservation Crew" still does any carpentry repairs with hand axes and antique techniques, to maintain the original look).
And the Inn's hectic atmosphere changes after dark, when an eerie quiet falls over the four-level atrium. Overnight guests can admire eccentric details such as the “Crow’s Nest”— vertiginous wooden perch where musicians in the Gilded Age once played waltzes for black-tie balls in the foyer far below. There are whimsical touches in the Bear Pit Lounge, where etched glass drawings show bears drinking, dancing and playing cards. And on special occasions, , after reserving with the front desk, guests can even clamber with a guide onto an open-air platform on the roof to participate in the raising of the flag, with spectacular views over the Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful only a few hundred yards away.
Hotel del Coronado: Coronado, California
The airy, whimsical design of this 1888 beachfront hotel has always been its greatest asset: Architects have described "The Del" as a cross between a wedding cake and a well-trimmed ship, creating a carefree atmosphere whose appeal has been more enduring than many of the heavier, neo-Gothic hotels of the Gilded Age.
The resort, located on Coronado Island a few miles west of San Diego has always been a favorite with creative types. In 1905, the irascible Henry James stayed in a first-floor room overlooking the Pacific (today number 3137) and was so captivated that he overcame his aversion to all things American. (As he wrote to his sister-in-law, "no one had given me the least inkling that I should find California so sympathetic.”) The hotel's strategic location between Los Angeles and Mexico also helped its survival. "The Del was saved by is its proximity to Hollywood," explains the hotel's official historian, Chris Donovan. "The steady supply of rich movie stars kept it busy during the Great Depression and World War II, when so many of the old Californian resorts went under." (San Diego's proximity to a supply of illicit liquor across the border, meanwhile, helped it breeze through Prohibition).
By the 1950s, however, the hotel was fading into obscurity: When Billy Wilder chose it as the setting for Some Like it Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, one critic complained that the "stage" was too fanciful to be credible ("an uproariously improbable set"). In fact, the Del was in danger of being razed in the 1960s, until a bridge was built to the mainland and automobiles began to stream over filled with new guests. With a string of renovations starting in the 1970s, the Del has never looked back. Today, brunch is served in the magnificent circular ballroom where formal dances were once held. Pedal carts have replaced horse-and-buggy rides along the beach and dress codes are no longer formal, but otherwise Henry James would still approve.
Palace Hotel: San Francisco, California
Perhaps the greatest survival story of all is the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco. It was a stunning leap forward for the West Coast when it opened in 1875: The 755-room hotel, nicknamed "The Bonanza Inn," swathed with Italian marble and lit by Austrian crystal chandeliers, was said to be the largest and most luxurious in the world, a sign that California, flush with funds from gold and agriculture, had "arrived" as a state to be reckoned with. It was created by the San Francisco financier William Chapman Ralston, who had spent many years privately entertaining Eastern guests at his Menlo Park estate, and felt California deserved a world-standard hotel. But catastrophe soon struck: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake engulfed the Palace in fire.
The reopening of the hotel three years later was welcomed as the ultimate symbol of San Francisco’s resilience and spirit, on par with the completion of the Freedom Tower in New York City. Today, guests can still savor afternoon tea in the domed Garden Court, which glitters with 70,000 pieces of iridescent glass, and sip a chilled martini in the wood-paneled bar beneath the 1909 Maxfield Parish mural The Pied Piper of Hamelin (an artwork so popular in San Francisco that a 2013 plan to auction it was canceled after a public outcry). Yet another renovation, with a luxurious spa and pool addition, was completed in April 2015. Fittingly, the hotel's logo for over a century has included two Phoenix birds, the ancient Greek symbol of renewal.
Ocean House: Watch Hill, Rhode Island
Some hotels have not so much survived since the Gilded Age as been reincarnated. First opened in 1868, Ocean House was one of many grand beach resorts once clustered on Watch Hill, a peninsula protruding into Rhode Island’s Block Island Sound. For decades, the area offered a more sedate and classy atmosphere than flashy Newport, where Vanderbilts and other super-rich families kept extravagant "cottages" and the highfalutin social scene was described by Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence.
The discreet Ocean House, known for its lemon facade and spectacular beach views, was even featured in the 1916 silent film American Aristocracy starring Douglas Fairbanks, as a symbol of American Old World privilege. By the 1990s, it was the last hotel standing on Watch Hill and had fallen into mournful decay. One hundred and thirty-five years of salt air, Atlantic winds and storms had taken their toll on the wooden exterior; unable to keep up with modern fire codes, only 59 of its original 159 rooms were in use, and the entire top two floors were off-limits to guests.
The hotel was closed in 2003, and declared beyond repair, but a local developer demolished the entire edifice and rebuilt Ocean House with its exterior design intact. The "replicated" hotel reopened in 2010 with larger rooms and 5,000 artifacts salvaged from the original, including the ornate reception desk, stone fireplaces and oak-paneled elevator.
Oheka Castle: Long Island, New York
Just as Manhattan's aristocrats clustered in the so-called "Golden Mile" of opulent mansions along Fifth Avenue, their bucolic counterpart was the "Gold Coast" of holiday estates on Long Island, which every summer boasted the greatest concentration of wealth in the entire United States. According to Paul J. Mateyunas, author of North Shore Long Island: Country Houses 1890-1950, there were once 1200 magnificent residences here, of which only 400 remain. ("Even in 2013, one of the most historic, the 87-room Innisfada, was demolished," he laments. "It's the greatest architectural loss here of the last 50 years.") Some, like the Vanderbilt estate, have survived as museums; one, the Topping Rose House in the Hamptons, enjoys a new lease of life as a luxury boutique hotel with a chic contemporary addition, elegant lap pool and gourmet restaurant, attracting New York's high society once again.
But the most astonishing Long Island renaissance is the indestructible Oheka Castle, a replica French chateau that crowns the highest point on Long Island, complete with landscaped gardens adorned by classical statues and reflective pools evoking an American Versailles. It was built by the eccentric financier Otto Hermann Kahn, an impish character with a bushy white moustache whose image endures in popular culture today as the model for "Mr. Monopoly" on the classic board game. Named after the first letters in Kahn's own moniker (O-He-Ka), the castle was the largest private residence in the East Coast and the second largest in America, with 127 rooms covering 109,000 square feet on 443 acres -- its European collection of turrets and gables so spectacular and odd that was used by Orson Welles as a model for Charles Foster Kane's palace in the opening montage of Citizen Kane, and appears in the film during a faux newsreel.
The chateau was constructed of fire-proof materials to protect Kahn's splendid art collection and included an 18-hole golf course that lured celebrity guests like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. But after Kahn's death in 1936, Oheka spiraled into decay. It was taken over as a retirement home for New York sanitation workers (of all things), then as a military school, before in the 1970s being abandoned entirely. The interior was ransacked and covered in graffiti, vandals started nearly 100 fires, and the once-lovely gardens were stripped bare.
Then, in 1984, an Italian-American businessman from Queens, Gary Milius, a man scarcely less eccentric than Otto Kahn himself, bought the property and remaining 23 acres. He began turning it into a hotel, pumping over $30 million into meticulous renovations. The Castle soon became hugely popular in Long Island as a venue for weddings, often hosting three a week, allowing it to thrive financially. Today, overnight guests can play-act at being silent movie stars, wandering the endless echoing corridors, reading the financial newspapers beneath marble busts in the sumptuous Library and sipping on rosé champagne in the gardens, while the less monied can drop by for a daily tour at 11 am. In 2014, as a cultural counterpoint to Citizen Kane, Taylor Swift even shot her video for "Blank Space" in the Castle. Milius now lives full-time on the third floor, and makes an appearance every night at the bar to banter uproariously with guests -- on a recent visit, in the company of former senator Al D'Amato, a friend who joins him for regular poker games in a den filled with cigar smoke.