Hotel historians draw on past to create new experiences
Hotel historians draw on past to create new experiences
25 NOVEMBER 2019 9:48 AM

At various hotels around the globe, historians play a key role in immersing guests into the hotel’s history through tours, research and recommendations.

GLOBAL REPORT—Hotels often have a concierge to help guests along their journey, but at some hotels, hotel historians are there to provide an immersive history lesson to guests during their stay.

Susan Sullivan Lagon has been the historian at The Jefferson in Washington, D.C., since 2015. She studied government and both American and architectural history at The University of Virginia and taught constitutional law at Georgetown University. Before retiring from teaching full-time, she came across the job at The Jefferson.

Lagon can be found at the hotel on Saturdays, where she spends time in the Book Room, which is filled with some of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite books. She also may be showing guests the main floor as well as pointing out all of the interesting details in the hotel.

In an email interview, Lagon said she specializes “in anything and everything related to the hotel’s namesake, founding father Thomas Jefferson—his family, the enslaved community at his home in Monticello, his political views, culinary contributions, fondness for French and Italian wines, musical prowess, passion for ornithology, ‘canine appetite for books’—you name it.”

Aside from showing guests around the hotel and explaining its history, Lagon also recommends places for guests to experience outside of the hotel to learn more about Jefferson, such as the Smithsonian Museum of American History and the Library of Congress.

“There’s always something new to learn on the job, which is one of the things that makes it so rewarding,” she said.

“As a former professor, I enjoy research,” she said. “For example, at the Library of Congress, I was able to find newspapers from the 1930s advertising ‘luxury living at the Jefferson Apartments.’ This is before the building became a hotel in 1955.”

From marketing to heritage manager
Gina Petrone is the heritage manager at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado and has been in that role for about 18 months.

Via email, she said she worked in marketing communications at the Hotel del Coronado for almost seven years before taking over for the previous heritage manager. “Becoming acclimated with the role took one hour of training per week, including once a week with the outgoing heritage manager,” she said. The role has been at the hotel since the 1970s.

Her marketing background aided her in becoming familiar with the hotel, but she learned how to navigate the archive through the training, she said.

Hotel del Coronado has an interesting background, from celebrity stays to ghost stories. Petrone’s job consists of managing tours, researching 1888 interior décor for an upcoming renovation, and responding to guest inquiries.

“There’s never a dull moment,” she said.

“We have a daily 90-minute history tour that gives a comprehensive overview of the hotel’s 131-year past as well as a 60-minute nightly ghost tour that covers our most infamous guest, Kate Morgan (who was found dead at the hotel in 1892),” she said. “The ghost tours run all year round but are naturally popular during October.”

One project Petrone is currently working on is compiling a list of information on past famous guests and their room numbers to distribute to guests at check-in.

Guests who have stayed at the hotel include actor Jack Lemmon, who was there in 1958 while filming “Some Like it Hot” with Marilyn Monroe, Henry Ford and Charlie Chaplin.

“We’re also designing a new museum space in one of our historic industrial buildings which will display some of our artifacts such as original guest ledgers, photos, guestroom amenities, equipment, uniforms and more,” she said. “I’m always looking for more ways to share our history with guests.”

A luxury hotel in a castle
Fintan Gorman, the historian at Ireland’s 800-year-old Ashford Castle, has a unique connection to his hotel as his mother worked in housekeeping at the property until 1954, he said in an email interview. Prior to working at the hotel, he was the local schoolmaster for more than 30 years.

“I was born and raised in the area and have seen at first hand the importance of the hotel to the social and economic wellbeing of the area,” he said, adding that the hotel has offered employment to his mother as well as other locals during an era of economic stagnation and emigration.

Before taking the historian job, Gorman said he was familiar with the history of Ashford Castle, but had to learn about the “internal features, furniture and some of the significant artwork.”

Gorman primarily focuses on tours of the property “to enlighten guests on the context and origin of the various stages of the building, from its beginnings as a military Norman tower in 1228 through the 1715 chateaux-style manor house to the glory of the Guinness castle and the modern extensions and embellishments,” he said.

The tours often turn into good discussions with guests on current and past events that have happened nationally and globally, he said.

Gorman added that his historian role at the hotel makes him feel like a “very lucky retired teacher.”

“I always loved teaching, and the Ashford tours give me a fabulous opportunity to interact with more mature students,” he said. “I enjoy meeting and chatting with lovely people from all walks of life.”

1 Comment

  • Steve Rushmore November 25, 2019 10:36 AM Reply

    Danielle- I can't believe you wrote an article about hotel historians and you neglected to mentioned the greatest hotel historian- Stanley Turkel. Stanley has written hundreds of articles along with a number of books about hotel history. You should really do an article about how Stanley has documented the history of hotels for future generations of hoteliers.

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