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Apr 24, 2006
It's De Limit, It's Deluxe, It's De-Lovely - Forbes

Jazz Age architects Schultze and Weaver ushered in the era of luxury hotels with masterpieces like the Waldorf-Astoria, The Breakers and the Los Angeles Biltmore. Eighty-five years later, their work is getting a second look.

There are few people more worthy of tipping your overpriced glass of room-service bubbly to than Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver. Never heard of them? Schultze & Weaver, who formed their New York architectural firm in 1921, spent the Roaring ’20s revolutionizing the hospitality industry by designing the Waldorf-Astoria, the Sherry-Netherland, The Pierre, The Lexington, The Breakers, the Los Angeles Biltmore and other hotel icons. Arguably the most successful hotel architects of all time, they’ve been largely forgotten. Until now.

A new exhibit, “In Pursuit of Pleasure: Schultze & Weaver and the American Hotel,” at Miami’s Wolfsonian-Florida International University, in conjunction with the release of a new coffee-table book, Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age, brings long-overdue kudos to two men who were instrumental in teaching America’s emerging elite how to loaf like Europeans.

“Before the turn of the century, hotels were essentially mom-and-pop affairs for traveling businessmen,” said Richard Penner, professor of hotel management at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. “If they were nicer hotels, they’d have cold running water in communal bathrooms.” Then came the Roaring ’20s, an exuberant stock market and a growing leisure class that fancied “seasoning” in New York City and in the winter resorts springing up along the new rail lines to Miami. America’s moneyed classes wanted hotels more suited to cutting up a dance floor than cutting a deal.

Enter Messrs. Schultze & Weaver, two East Coast swells--Weaver was related to President James Buchanan, though he wisely didn’t let that go to his head--who each knew a thing or two about the possibilities of merging Europe’s decorative traditions with Yankee engineering. Quicker than you can say “let’s empty the minibar,” the two architects stacked, mashed and planted English Tudor dining rooms, French Louis XVI parlors, Roman frescoes, Spanish bell towers, Venetian ceilings, Italian gardens and Swedish latticework across Florida swamps, on California’s fault lines and atop Manhattan’s skyline. The French Renaissance mansion straddling The Pierre and the twin turrets crowning the Waldorf-Astoria are now as vital to New York’s scenery as yellow cabs and messy hot dogs.

Like all truly great artists, Schultze & Weaver stole from the best--the fountain of The Breakers was modeled after one in Florence’s Boboli Gardens, the Park Lane Hotel featured the rough-hewn fortress-style walls of a Medici palace (excellent protection against Park Avenue’s proletariat, though it didn’t save the place from demolition in 1965), while the Los Angeles Biltmore’s lobby features a replica of the elaborate wrought-iron stairway from Spain’s Burgos cathedral. L.A. arguably got the better deal, as the Spanish version doesn’t have a bar at ground level.

“Schultze & Weaver were the first to integrate lots of rooms, enormous lobbies and new amenities in a highly functional way,” said Richard Penner. “While their hotels looked pleasing on the outside, they were also very efficient on the inside.” This efficiency was aided by the technological wonders of the day, including kitchens with electric refrigeration, elevators, individual plumbing and in-room telephones--which would send three generations of non-expense account types scrambling for lobby pay phones.

Schultze & Weaver knew whom they were building for--when they weren’t drawing new gin palaces for their clients, they were rubbing silk-clad shoulders with them, preparing their next conquest. After wowing the Miami Beach set at his glamorous dinner parties during the 1923 season, Weaver snagged the assignment to build the Nautilus Hotel, the first of the firm’s Florida überresorts, which would culminate in The Breakers in Palm Beach. Schultze’s longstanding friendship with hotel executive John McEntee Bowman bore fruit when Bowman commissioned the firm to design the Los Angeles Biltmore, which with more than 900 rooms was the largest hotel west of the Mississippi. Schultze & Weaver eventually expanded Bowman’s Biltmore empire to luxury hotels in Havana, Miami and Atlanta.

When the Great Depression closed the party, Schultze & Weaver were relegated to condo-conversions and other less grand projects, the firm’s ornamental sense of luxury replaced by steel and glass, the postwar motel boom and gimmicky amenities--anyone got a nickel for the Magic Fingers machine?

In 1994, the founder of the Wolfsonian, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., stumbled across a vast collection of architectural plans, photographs, documents and other items from the Schultze & Weaver firm. The cream of the collection is now on exhibit through May and is bound to extract a few wows even from people who couldn’t tell a T square from a protractor. The firm’s ziggurat-topped skyscrapers and fantastical lobby plans are so exquisitely rendered that you almost want to reach for your tux.

In keeping with the firm’s kleptomaniac traditions, one presentation drawing at the exhibit looks like a send-up of Raphael’s School of Athens, with men and women in flowing evening gowns rising into the neoclassical foyer of the Waldorf-Astoria. “Grand entrances leading to ornate interiors signaled to guests their own exalted social standing and privileged separation from the surrounding world,” writes Jonathan Mogul in Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age, and the guests in these renderings are obviously on a far higher mission than modern-day tourists sacking out in front of CNN.

The ultimate compliment to Schultze & Weaver’s genius is that many of their hotels have withstood the test of time. “The Biltmore has a lot of competition now, but it remains the city’s ‘grand’ hotel. Its lobby is L.A.’s greatest meeting point,” said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the Los Angeles Conservancy. The Waldorf-Astoria retains the distinction of being New York’s White House--though George W. doesn’t arrive via the basement’s private railroad siding, as FDR used to.

While current hipster aesthetics favor overpriced hotels with warehouse designs and concept bars, Schultze & Weaver’s creations attract those who don’t care to live like nuclear power workers with flavored-martini fetishes. “The Grand Hotels of the ’20s were out of reach for anyone but the very rich,” said James Twitchell, author of Living It Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury. “Now there’s nothing that the very rich have that others can’t have a part of. Someone will save up for two nights in a hotel like The Breakers because it projects ideals of luxury and power that few other hotels can match.”

So here’s to Schultze & Weaver: May future hotel architects steal as liberally from them as they stole from others.

Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age: The Architecture of Schultze & Weaver, edited by Marianne Lamonaca and Jonathan Mogul; Princeton Architectural Press; $60. “In Pursuit of Pleasure: Schultze & Weaver and the American Hotel” runs through May 28, 2006, at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami. (305) 531-1001, www.wolfsonian.fiu.edu.

   
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