In an era of boutique hotels boasting high-end design and dining, it’s easy to forget how central downtown hotels were to the identities of big cities. Signifiers of growth and glamour, the grand hotels of the past became important social hubs, symbols of cities on the rise and examples of some of the most striking architecture of their day.
But sadly, throughout much of the 20th century, these grand buildings were subject to the boom and bust of the tourism industry, and the relentless push for something modern and new. Thankfully today, many older hotels are being renovated and restored to their former glory, such as the Divine Lorraine in Philadelphia, and local and national preservation organizations are battling to preserve these important parts of a city’s past. Here are some of the iconic U.S. hotels that have been lost to history.
The Original Waldorf-Astoria (New York City, New York)
A grand dame of the numerous forgotten or demolished Gilded Age New York hotels, this magnificent building was both an aesthetic and social innovator. Located on Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, this complex for the upper class originally started as two separate buildings; the Waldorf opened its doors in 1893, then the Astoria debuted a few years later.
The owners decided to connect both structures, and turned the space in-between into “Peacock Alley,” a gathering place for the city’s elite that became a social hotspot for aspiring social climbers and early fashionistas. The building was demolished in 1929 to make was for the Empire State Building, and a replacement was built shortly afterwards on Park Avenue in 1931.
Belleview Biltmore Hotel (Belleair, Florida)
Known as "The White Queen of the Gulf," this hotel hosted presidents, business tycoons and European royalty underneath its signature green roofs. The 820,000-square-foot complex located on 21 prime acres of land abutting Clearwater Harbor, built from native Florida pine, stood as one of the world's largest wooden structures, a beautiful reminder of the golden age of Gulf hotels complete with accents of Tiffany glass and detailed woodwork inside.
The dream of railroad magnate Henry Plant, the building sadly fell prey to investors, who began demolishing the grand dame in 2015 with plans to transform the property into condos and townhomes.
The Sands (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Few structures represent the midcentury glory days of the Strip better than this celebrated hotel and casino. The Las Vegas lair of the Rat Pack, owned in part by crime bosses Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, home to the legendary Copa Room, it was immediately iconic. Like another lost Vegas resort, the Desert Inn, the Sands boasted a modernist look adorned with western iconography (the Sands bar featured bas-reliefs of cowboys, racing wagons and Joshua trees).
Designed by Wayne McAllister, an LA architect and leader of the Googie style, the building boasted an italicized neon sign that became a strip icon (subtitled “A Place in the Sun”). Even its demise was filled with a cast of characters only found in Vegas. After being purchased by a reclusive Howard Hughes in the ‘60s, who expanded the hotel, it began a slow decline until Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire, decided to demolish it in 1996 and replace it with a new, modern resort, the Venetian.
Statler Hotel (Detroit, Michigan)
Once part of the Hilton chain, this 18-floor Georgian hotel was designed by George B. Post and Louis Rorimer and opened in 1915. Costing a hefty $3.5 million to build in its day, it was the most expensive hotel in the city and the largest in the midwest upon opening.
According to Historic Detroit, the 800-room hotel was exquisite; guests dined under crystal chandeliers, upper floors offered great views of Grand Circus Park and shopping on Washington Boulevard, and all public areas boasted air conditioning, then an unheard-of luxury. It was also a magnet for the rich and famous, especially entertainers who would perform at nearby venues such as the Michigan Palace Supper Club and the United Artists Theater.
Part of the larger Statler chain, the building was purchased by Hilton in 1954, which tried to modernize the structure with drop ceilings and other renovations that robbed the structure of its original charm without boosting its flagging business. After years of disappointing business, it would be abandoned in 1975 and demolished three decades later in 2005.
Royal Palm and Dupont Plaza Hotel (Miami, Florida)
One of the first major postwar hotels in Miami, an early signal the city’s tourism industry was coming back full steam after the crash in the ‘20s, the Dupont Plaza was built in 1957 on the former site of another legendary building, the Royal Palm, a Colonial-style resort built in 1897 by railroad tycoon Henry Flagler.
The posh Royal Palm was the ancestor of Miami glamour, built with "decorous opulence" along the Miami River. It was also short lived, shuttering in 1930 after hurricane damage and a termite infestation. After taking over the space once held by the Royal Palm, the Dupont would shut its doors in 2004 and be demolished in 2005. It’s currently the home of the EPIC Miami Residences and Hotel.
Edgewater Beach Hotel (Chicago, Illinois)
Chicago has had its share of famed hotels rise and fall, including the Morrison Hotel, a Loop icon, the first structure over 40 stories outside of New York, and the site of the Carousel in the Sky, then the world's highest nightclub. But many have a real soft spot for the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a glamorous resort on the Lake Michigan shore.
Designed by local architectural duo Marshall and Fox, the building opened in 1916 and expanded rapidly over the next decade, with a series of additions adding hundreds of rooms. Situated next to what was then a private, 1,200-foot beach, the hotel offered seaplane service to and from downtown, and big bands such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey famously performed at the hotel (broadcast via the hotel’s own radio station). The hotel closed in 1967 after the owners filed for bankruptcy, and it was demolished by 1971.
Raleigh Hotel (Washington, D.C.)
How many hotels can claim to have changed a city’s zoning codes? The Raleigh Hotel, located on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street in the northwest part of D.C., underwent a series of extensions, additions, and expansions before being razed in 1911 to make was for a new 13-story Beaux Arts design. The request for additional height led Congress to alter the height limit for structures on Pennsylvania Avenue, shifting from 130 feet to 160 feet. The hotel was celebrated for its design and top-tier ballroom, but began losing business to more contemporary competitors and was eventually demolished in 1964.
Great Southern Hotel (Gulfport, Mississippi)
After a series of railroad extensions around the late 19th and early 20th centuries linked New Orleans with Mobile, Alabama, and connected Mississippi with points northward, the Gulf Coast became a major tourist destination. One of the most glamorous stops in the area was the Great Southern, built in 1903 by oil magnate Joseph T. Jones.
The three-story wooden structure was built with every creature comfort available at the time, including telephones in every room, horse-and-buggy rental, and an in-house orchestra. Like many of its peers on the Gulf, such as the White House and Edgewater Gulf hotels, it was devastated by the Depression, and would close in 1951 to make way for a highway.
Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel (Atlantic City, New Jersey)
While many Atlantic City resorts struggle today, at the turn of the century, the boardwalk was booming. Few names conjure up that era better than the Queen Anne-style Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, built in the early 1900s. The largest concrete reinforced building in the world after a 1906 expansion, the hotel boasted gothic parlors, domed dining rooms, and gorgeous fireplaces.
The building would be demolished in the late ’70s to make way for the Bally's Park Place Casino and Hotel, but its design lives on in other ways. The hotel home of Nucky Thompson in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is inspired by the Marlborough-Blenheim.
Ambassador Hotel (Los Angeles, California)
Demolished in 2005, this unique hotel was a key stop in the Hollywood social circuit during its heyday. Built in 1921 on Wilshire Boulevard, based on a Mediterranean/Art Deco design by area architect Myron Hunt, it quickly became a nightspot for celebrities, with the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub serving as a particularly popular hotspot.
Many of the early Academy Award ceremonies were held at the hotel, and Joan Crawford competed in Charleston contests on the dancefloor in the ‘20s. The hotel also played host to countless statesman and presidents, from Eisenhower to Nixon. In 1968, it was the site of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. By the ‘70s, the hotel had begun a serious decline, and was shuttered by 1989.
However, in true Hollywood fashion, it found a second life in film; until it was demolished in 2005, it served as a filming location for dozens of films, including The Graduate, Pretty Woman, and Catch Me If You Can, providing a convenient stand-in for a high-class resort.