A hotel is just somewhere to spend the night, right? It is simply a building full of rooms with beds and bathrooms. Of course, that’s just the surface. As these 10 iconic American properties show, a hotel can also be a one-of-a-kind showpiece full of fun facts, quirky details, and unexpected hidden histories. Here’s a look at some fascinating tidbits you may not know about some of the country’s most famous (and historic) hotels.
The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, Michigan
The 125-year-old Victorian-style Grand Hotel (open from May to October) is the “it girl” of historic hotels, built entirely of wood and located on a car-free island where the only horsepower is the 600 clopping residents who have summer jobs here. Did you also know that:
- When it opened in July 1887, at a cost of $250,000, rooms were $3-$5 per night including meals, but there were no private bathrooms.
- Its 385 rooms are decorated in a deliriously delightful mix of 22 paint colors and 264 wallpapers and each spring it takes 1,000 gallons of white paint to spruce up its exterior—including the front porch, which is lined with 2,500 geraniums and 100 rocking chairs, and at 660 feet, is the world’s longest.
- More than 50,000 Grand Pecan Balls, the hotel’s most popular dessert (pecan-crusted vanilla ice cream floating in hot fudge), are served each season.
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Bellagio, Las Vegas
One of The Strip’s most photographed hotels, the Bellagio Las Vegas is a glass-and-marble homage to the Italian lakefront city of Bellagio. It opened in 1998 at a cost of $1.6 billion and added a $375 million Spa Tower in 2004. Did you also know that:
- The hotel’s lake with its 1,200-nozzle dancing Fountains of Bellagio holds an astounding 22 million gallons of water, while Cirque du Soleil’s O stage splashes out at 1.5 million gallons.
- The Dale Chihuly blown-glass “Fiori di Como” chandelier in the lobby is comprised of 2,000 glass flowers and weighs 40,000 pounds.
- Bellagio’s room count (3,950) is more than the head count in the Lake Como village for which it is named.
The Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel, Chicago
Dating to 1873, The Palmer House Hilton is America’s oldest continually operating hotel. Renovated to the tune of $170 million in 2009, it now offers 1,683 rooms and suites. Did you also know that:
- Tragically, the hotel’s first incarnation, which was a wedding gift from Chicago businessman Potter Palmer to his wife Bertha, burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, just 13 days after opening.
- The Palmer House was the first hotel in Chicago to install electric lights and telephones in its guest rooms (in 1880 for the Republican National Convention).
- The brownie was invented here in 1892 when Bertha Palmer commissioned the hotel’s kitchen to create a portable dessert for the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The Waldorf-Astoria, New York
Built in 1931, The Waldorf-Astoria occupies an entire city block and was the world’s largest (just under 2,000 rooms) and tallest (47 stories) hotel. Today it has 1,413 rooms and suites with Art Deco décor, including the circa-1893 lobby clock and a $10,000-per-night Presidential Suite, where U.S. Commanders in Chief stay when in the city. Did you also know that:
- It was the first hotel in the world to offer room service—and the Waldorf Salad (apples, celery, walnuts, and mayonnaise) was created here.
- There is a secret train platform known as Track 61 beneath it (with a rusty but intact armored train car still on it), which was used in the 1940s to privately squire VIPs—namely President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—into the hotel.
- More than 20 movies have been filmed at The Waldorf-Astoria, including “Coming to America,” “Scent of a Woman,” “Analyze This,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
No hotel oozes mid-century glamour like the Morris Lapidus-designed Fontainebleau on Collins Avenue, which was transformed with a $1 billion renovation in 2008 into a 1,504-room epicenter of beach chic with 12 restaurants and bars and a 40,000-square-foot spa. Did you also know that:
- When it opened in 1954, the hotel had a 17,000 square foot lobby with a two-story “Staircase to Nowhere” (it’s still there), a 6,500-square-foot pool with 250 cabanas, and six acres of formal gardens that emulated those at France’s Versailles and Chateau Fontainebleau.
- The hotel was once so popular with celebrities—like Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball—that it was forced to post armed guards to stop non-guests from entering.
- Today, the Fontainebleau’s food and beverage operation has a Water World: eight 200-gallon tanks filled with fresh fish, crabs, oysters, and lobsters ready for the kitchen’s use.
The Brown Palace Hotel & Spa, Denver
Built for $2 million in Italian Renaissance style using Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone, the 241-room Brown Palace Hotel & Spa is noteworthy for the 26 carved medallions of Rocky Mountain animals set between the 7th floor windows on its exterior. Did you also know that:
- The hotel has not been closed for a single minute since opening in 1892.
- Every U.S. President since Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 (except Calvin Coolidge and Barack Obama)—17 in all—has stayed here. And President Dwight D. Eisenhower once shot a wayward golf ball while practice-putting in the Eisenhower Suite and dented the fireplace mantel.
- Beatlemania struck the hotel in 1964 when The Fab Four’s visit caused a surge in applications for maid positions—and monetary offers flowed in afterward for the dishes and sheets they’d used.
Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego
One of America’s most beloved hotels, the Hotel Del Coronado now has 679 rooms and is also known as the backdrop for the 1959 cross-dressing comedy “Some Like It Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. Did you also know that:
- When The Del opened in 1888, it had a combined men’s and women’s entrance as well as an “unaccompanied” women’s entrance, so lone female travelers could discreetly check in.
- The world’s first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree debuted at The Del in 1904—a then-50-foot Norfolk Island Pine that was planted in 1888 and is still there today, although it’s now 140 feet tall.
- The Del’s 10-story, red-roofed turret houses its cavernous ballroom, but the ceiling was lowered in the mid-20th century and the abandoned space above now conceals a balcony and huge antique movie projectors.
The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC
A fixture on the Washington power scene for eight decades, The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel, now featuring 647 rooms, has been intertwined with both presidential lore and political shenanigans (notably New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s prostitute scandal). Did you also know that:
- When it opened in 1925, The Mayflower was said to have more gold leaf than any other U.S. building except the Library of Congress.
- FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ate lunch at The Mayflower every day for 20 years.
- Both Presidents Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt lived at The Mayflower (Truman for the first 90 days of his presidency and Roosevelt during his pre-inaugural period) and Roosevelt dictated his “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” speech here.
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles
Founded in 1927 by a group of showbiz bigwigs (including Douglas Fairbanks and Louis B. Mayer) and now run by the trendy Thompson Hotel group, the 300-room Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is said to be the spot where a young Shirley Temple first took tap-dance lessons from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on the lobby stairway. Did you also know that:
- Its “Blossom Room” hosted the first Academy Awards in 1929 during which 13 statuettes were handed out in a mere five minutes.
- Marilyn Monroe lived at The Hollywood Roosevelt for two years while she was a model and Montgomery Clift spent three months here while filming From Here to Eternity—both are rumored to haunt it.
- The hotel now features The Spare Room, a super-cool speakeasy-esque cocktail lounge with two vintage bowling lanes.
The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix
Designed in 1929 by a protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa is constructed of pre-cast concrete blocks in a geometric pattern said to resemble a freshly cut palm tree and is topped with a copper roof. It has been expanded and renovated several times and now offers 740 rooms and suites. Did you also know that:
- Composer Irving Berlin wrote many songs, including the holiday classic “White Christmas,” while sitting by the hotel’s pool.
- Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, as well as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, honeymooned here while Senator John McCain’s “honeymoon” with Governor Sarah Palin ended here with his concession speech on election night 2008.
- The Biltmore has been serving afternoon tea for 82 consecutive years (from November to May)—a tradition overseen by a tea sommelier.
Photo credits: Grand Hotel courtesy of Donna Heiderstadt; Bellagio Las Vegas, courtesy of Bellagio Las Vegas; Palmer House Hilton, courtesy of Hilton Hotels; The Waldorf-Astoria, courtesy of The Waldorf-Astoria; Fontainebleau, courtesy of the Fontainebleau; Brown Palace Hotel, courtesy of Brown Palace Hotel; Hotel Del Coronado, courtesy of Hotel Del Coronado; The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC Hotel, courtesy of The Mayflower; The Hollywood Roosevelt, courtesy of Thompson Hotels; The Arizona Biltmore, courtesy of The Arizona Biltmore