America’s First Entertainment Architects

A couple of weeks after seeing the exhibition In Pursuit of Pleasure: Schultze & Weaver and the American Hotel at Miami’s Wolfsonian museum, I went over to the Waldorf-Astoria to see how Schultze & Weaver’s 1931 masterpiece was holding up. It’s still the New York White House (even if the president doesn’t like it much here); and Hilton Hotels, the current owner, has spent $400 million on restorations, primarily saving the place from its unfortunate disco-era alterations, such as a heavy dose of red-and-blue tasseled drapery. On the weekday morning that I walked through, the catering staff was busy setting up the grand ballroom for 1,100 guests. But the main event appeared to be a breakfast for vendors of Mastercard’s PayPass wireless payment system, whose enthusiasm for wirelessness seemed to extend especially to their cell-phone headsets, judging by several of them pacing the Park Avenue lobby. Under their feet was an original floor mosaic made from 148,000 hand-cut marble pieces, by French artist Louis Rigal. In human-size figures of varying ages it depicts the cycle of life and is matched by an allegorical wall mural showing the pleasures of music, dancing, and eating. Since last November those figures have been joined by another, tucked discreetly into a corner of the lobby’s lower level: the long-haired, vapid-faced, green-haloed goddess of Starbucks, which the hotel’s recent press materials describe as “the world’s best-known retailer, roaster, and brand of coffee.”

Seventy-five years on, the Waldorf—more or less as Schultze & Weaver designed it—is alive and kicking, sometimes impossibly decadent, sometimes embarrassingly gauche, but always extravagant, varied, and humming. When it opened Lewis Mumford wrote in the New Yorker, “Some buildings defy criticism by their almost miraculous mixture of good and bad elements, as difficult to sort as a thousand grains of light and dark sand.” I know what he means: the Waldorf may not be singular architecture, but it defines the culture, then as now.

The exhibition at the Wolfsonian enjoys—and suffers—a similar fate. Walking through the galleries provides a sense of escape to a more glamorous era. But it also means walking the line between glamour and kitsch. The pleasure in In Pursuit of Pleasure is how successfully it argues for Schultze & Weaver’s influence on both in American culture. The firm helped make hotels the living rooms of American life. Its significance lies not in its work at the art of architecture but at the architecture of entertainment.

Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver founded the firm in 1921, when both were in their forties and the postwar economic boom was just gathering steam. Schultze had worked on the design of Grand Central Terminal while at Warren & Wetmore, and he continued working on buildings surrounding Grand Central as the New York Central Railroad developed the area. Weaver was responsible primarily for the business, engineering, and real estate side of the practice, and also gave lots of parties. As gentlemen architects Schultze and Weaver lived in the same high society for which they began, in the early 1920s, to design a series of hotels around the country.

Their clients asked of them only one thing: to design a building that would allow the hotel to operate profitably. That required a vast and carefully calibrated infrastructure, but it also required atmosphere. Schultze & Weaver “offered an architecture of luxury, one that created environments designed to produce a sense of pleasure, privilege, and prestige,” Jonathan Mogul writes in the exhibition catalog, published by Princeton Architectural Press. This inevitably meant that the architects had nothing to do with the avant-garde of the day. While Richard Neutra was designing the Lovell House in Los Angeles, Schultze and Weaver were transferring Florentine Renaissance gardens to Miami Beach; while Le Corbusier was imagining his “radiant city,” they were detailing the Waldorf’s rococo sitting rooms. Regardless, their work became the stage set for popular American culture—in a way that even now Modernism cannot match.

The firm’s first completed hotel, the Los Angeles Biltmore, was heralded in Architectural Forum under the headline “The Architecture of the Modern Hotel.” Legend has it that the design of the Oscar statuette was first sketched on one of the hotel’s linen napkins at a banquet in 1927. Its 1,112 rooms (each with private bath) were enclosed in a Moorish wrapper, albeit with an entrance defined by a Palladian arrangement of paired Ionic columns. The main lobby was three stories tall, with a gilded barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling that pointed toward a staircase modeled after the Burgos Cathedral, in Spain. It cost $8 million, a quarter of which was spent on the interiors.

Working in Florida, Schultze & Weaver kept up the extravagant pace. The Nautilus Hotel, in Miami Beach, was part Spanish baroque, part fake California mission. The Flamingo played up its exoticness, with its developer Carl Fisher importing a Japanese couple to tend the garden and Bahamians to pilot the imported gondolas. “They are all going to be stripped to the waist and wear big brass earrings. And possibly necklaces of live crab or crawfish,” Fisher wrote at the time. Whether this is proto-Disney or proto-Vegas is hard to tell; that it’s racist is noted unflinchingly in the catalog. Indeed the exhibit, catalog, and a coinciding special issue of the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts dedicated to the American hotel all pay careful attention to the seamy underbelly of luxury: the hotels’ racially segregated dining rooms, the working conditions of the immigrant hotel staff, and the broader demographic shifts behind the rise of full-service apartment hotels.

With the Breakers, opened just in time for New Year’s Eve 1927, Schultze & Weaver attempted a more consistent historical vision, borrowing from the Villa Medici in Rome with a bit of Florence’s Boboli gardens thrown in. Yet In Pursuit of Pleasure finds good reason to celebrate Schultze & Weaver’s pandering historicism because it also celebrates the fact that America fell in love with it. They were the original “entertainment architects,” their influence apparent in the floor mosaic of the Wynn Hotel, the Cheesecake Factory’s palm-frond- topped columns, and the escapist pastoral vision behind every golf resort in the country. The buildings were fantasies built on the realities of profit, the clear antecedents of “theme restaurants” and the broader concoction of Las Vegas today.

The exhibit most cleverly evokes this with a clip featuring scenes from Weekend at the Waldorf, the 1945 film starring Ginger Rogers. But the galleries are dominated by poster-size renderings by Lloyd Morgan, one of the key design talents at Schultze & Weaver. Done in purple and gold tones and populated by loosely rendered (but clearly haughty) figures—as if out of an Impressionist painting—they shame today’s flat Photoshopped stuff. Alongside vintage travel posters and other ephemera, it all seems out of another era, doubly so: historic drawings of buildings conceived in historical styles. The New York hotels—including the Sherry-Netherland and the Pierre—continue the easeful historical borrowing with their Gothic arches. By the time you get to Schultze & Weaver’s Tudor revival Montauk Manor, completed in 1927, you’re accustomed to being jerked among countries and times.

Yet the era the exhibit recalls most is arguably our own. Just a mile from the Wolfsonian, the Setai hotel opened last year, inflicting an Asian-inflected design on an old Art Deco landmark and hawking simplicity, elegance, and three swimming pools (each heated to a different temperature) for $900 a night. In New York the sidewalk outside the Mercer Hotel has a permanent audience of paparazzi and gawkers, as if Soho were an Us Weekly theme park. And slightly farther afield, the Burj Al Arab —the spinnaker-shaped hotel in Dubai—has become the architectural symbol of the globe’s shifting economic geographies. Instead of a cathedral, a palace, or even an office building, Dubai’s primary landmark is a hotel. With a reception desk plated in 24-karat gold leaf, the “world’s tallest atrium,” and a fleet of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces, Schultze and Weaver would feel right at home.

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