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By Bettina Matthias

Part of the street life, part of the hotel’s universe, the entrance is designed to lure people inside. As the hotel’s carpet stretches beyond the entrance door onto the asphalt, the passer-by experiences a change of step when crossing this velvety interruption of the street’s pavement. The sounds of clacking heels are muffled, and the vector-like course of the walker’s stride is challenged with the possibility of a 90-degree change of direction into the entrance hall. People streaming into and out of the building face the same conundrum: caught between the axis of the hotel and that of the street, they occupy the no-man’s land between inside and outside, between staying and passing, between the individual and the mass, guest and ordinary person, between purpose and coincidence. A big marquee with shiny letters, neon lights with flashing colors, or a small, dignified golden plate distinguishes this entrance from all the others in this street: this house has a name, it commands our attention and respect, it has an identity of its own. Instead of telling us the names of those inside its walls, connecting the building to its residents, the letters on the hotel’s façade refer to nothing but the building itself, and ultimately to themselves. But that is enough for us to recognize the place’s legitimacy among the living. A doorman or hotel boy, a gatekeeper in an impeccable livery, stands next to the entrance. He protects the building, not vice versa, and he makes sure that life on the street and life pouring into and out of the hotel merge in style without becoming confused. You look up, but the entrance canopy blocks the sky. Just as your foot takes notice of the change from pavement to carpet, your eye cannot wander higher than the canopy allows. While you try to decide whether you should now enter or not, the hotel’s entrance promises a relief from the uncivilized nature of street life,[1] and you submit to the seductive powers of institutionalized comfort. You direct your steps toward the revolving door. (53-4)

[1] See Carol Berens, Grand Hotels: Illusion and Reality (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997): “The hotel’s command of the street expresses its embrace or disdain of its surroundings. The relationship and progression from the street, through the entrance, and to the lobby reflect its concept of its civic nature” (7).

The above is an extract from Bettina Matthias’s The Hotel as Setting in Early Twentieth-century German and Austrian Literature: Checking in to Tell a Story (Camden House, 2006), which was one of the first books to consistently discuss hotels as “quintessentially modern spaces” (6) in conjunction with seminal literary texts, such as Arthur Schnitzler’s “Fräulein Else,” Franz Werfel’s “Die Hoteltreppe,” Stefan Zweig’s “Untergang eines Herzens,” Franz Kafka’s Der Verschollene, Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy, Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, and Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel. Matthias builds her literary criticism drawing on the work of Georg Simmel, Thorstein Veblen, and Siegfried Kracauer and persuasively brings the hotel phenomenon in dialogue with money and modernity (Simmel), conspicuous consumption and the leisure class (Veblen), and the hotel lobby and detective fiction (Kracauer).

Bettina Matthias is the Maurice R. Greenberg Professor of Language and Linguistics and Professor of German at Middlebury College in Vermont (USA). A specialist in early twentieth century literature, she has published books and articles on Austrian and German modernist authors and culture as well as on teaching German as a Foreign Language.

Front view of the Kaiserhof Hotel, Berlin, 20 May 1919. Library of Congress

Plaza Hotel (cost $12,500,000) with glimpse of Cornelius Vanderbuilt home, N.Y. Underwood & Underwood, Publishers, 1910. Library of Congress.

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