Hotels Are Rediscovering a High-Rise Marketing Idea

The return of the roof garden

Amid these dog days of summer when the temperatures are brutal enough to melt asphalt and every last measure of patience, it bears noting that one of the most inventive marketing ideas of the 19th century has found occasion to make a comeback: the hotel roof garden. In New York alone, most every one of the chic hostelries to pop up in recent years—Hôtel Americano, Wythe Hotel, Pod 39 Hotel and the W Downtown—has sprouted a leafy rooftop aerie where the tabletop candles flicker and the views are as stunning as the waitstaff. So trendy have hotel roof gardens become that one of the trendiest—the McKittrick Hotel’s Gallow Green—sits atop a fictional hotel. (Psst: The building’s really just a warehouse. Don’t tell anyone.)

Rooftop lounges might be of-the-moment, but as the ads here demonstrate, that moment first arrived long ago. At the turn of the 19th century, all the country’s best hotels had roof gardens, most fitted out with the same accoutrements you see now: potted trees, strings of lightbulbs and expense-account types clinking glasses. “It does seem to be a trend again, and it’s happening in a lot of urban areas,” observed Daniel Edward Craig, founder of Vancouver-based travel consultancy Reknown. “City hotels don’t have outdoor space, so they lose business in the summer when people want to be outside. If you want to grow and expand, where else to go but up?”

No doubt, such logic also motivated the owners of Chicago’s Hotel LaSalle—with one key difference. When the hotel opened in 1909, it boasted 22 floors, 1,000 rooms—and zero air conditioning. For the LaSalle, installing a roof garden wasn’t motivated by guests’ desire to be outdoors so much as their need to be. A hotel’s summer bookings depended on the promise of a breezy respite just an elevator ride away. In that sense, roof gardens weren’t merely an amenity but the best marketing idea going. As this 1923 ad promises, rooftop guests would be “fanned by breezes from Lake Michigan,” their evening “seeped in luxurious coolness.”

But starting with the postwar years, that luxurious coolness came from huge AC compressors, which not only obviated the quaint rooftop, but also demanded its square footage for all the machinery. So why, then, is the roof garden making a return? In a word, revenues. “It’s motivated by the need to maximize the hotel’s available space,” Craig said. “It’s become possible to make a lot of money on these places—especially if you’re selling a lot of alcohol.” Since most roof gardens are open to the public, they’re also a great way to show off the hotel to would-be guests.

Perhaps the most potent reason, though, is the one so clearly in evidence in this 2013 ad for the W New York Downtown. Lounging out with a mint julep while you gaze over the parapet at the city below feels as sophisticated today as it did a century ago. Sure, the air might be cooler up on the roof—but the roof itself is, and has always been, just plain cool.