At the very heart of the Grand Hotel Penny Arcade, encased in blue glass and pale as porcelain, floats a sleeping princess, gracefully coiling and uncoiling, clothed only in her own purity, her eyes open but unseeing. Her slow liquid movements, contained in an architecture that is both formal and evocative, are those of a sleepwalker: elaborate, balletic, silent, unrelated to her austere geometric surroundings. Though she is, as seen, a lonely figure, she does not seem to suffer from loneliness. She appears much of the time to find herself amid imagined multitudes, waving, greeting friends, dancing, eating, posing, petting a dog or cat, climbing into a car, disembarking a train, shopping, lifting children onto horses or carnival rides, or being lifted. Yet, there is an element of shy restraint in even her most open gestures, the suggestion of an innocent child's uncertainty in the face of the rude world, and an unwillingness to embrace it fully, as if to do so might awaken her from the private world in which she so restfully and winsomely resides. She is both utterly exposed yet secretive, transparent yet evasive and mysterious. The princess of solitude.
The guest rooms of the hotel, all decorated in marine blue and permeated with the faint sweet aroma of youthful flesh, encircle the sleeping princess on several levels, each room with its own individual coin-operated peephole viewers, viewers technically augmented by manual zoom lenses, tracking and lock-on mechanisms worked with a crank, and simulated kinetoscopic flickering. As the princess is never completely still, or almost never, no room is particularly privileged, so room rates are the same for all, though each visitor is known to have her or his preference. Although some first-timers feel compelled by nature to zoom in on her private parts, so-called (the princess's private parts, as they eventually discover, are all hidden deeply within), most viewers come to prefer close-ups of her face, thrilled by the illusion that the dreamer is sometimes gazing directly at them as if in recognition, or else they select more distant views of her whole figure, in movement of at rest. The classic perspective. Some leave their rooms to take in the full panorama from the open galleries on the top level, while others prefer not to watch at all, but only to be told what others are seeing that they might more fully imagine her. "what is she doing now?" "It's as if she were playing in a schoolyard, skipping rope!" "Describe the movements of her arms and legs!" "Do you not want to hear about her little breasts?" "First, her arms and legs!" Day or night, the deep blue of the hotel's interior and the subdued lighting create a reflective nocturnal mood, making stays at the Grand Hotel Penny Arcade seem more like seances, as some have said when signing the guestbook: "It felt like an encounter with my own lost soul. I shall return again and again." Slowed-down, melancholic movie house organ tunes can be heard during viewings, but, though associated with the princess's languid movements, they emerge more as sourceless room aura, a device incorporated by the architect to make the admirers of the princess feel a part of what they are witnessing, rather than mere voyeurs.
The accusation of voyeurism, it must be said, has hovered over the hotel since its opening. Hailed in the travel and arts journals as an architectural triumph and must-stop for all travelers ("The Grand Hotel Penny Arcade restores risk and ingenuity to architecture, managing an air of sophistication without ostentation, charm without quaintness, truth without didacticism, as it strives heroically toward an abstract ideal of feminine beauty and structural harmony..."), it was at the same time in the tabloids the subject of scurrilous cartoons and prurient rumors. In those days, many men and some women ventured there, hoping to awaken the dancing sleeper with whatever it took, and others came to watch this happen, but all left chastened by the awareness that not only was she a princess who did not await a prince, she was, even in her doll-like nakedness, the very image of eternal innocence, eliciting not carnal desire but profound awe and affection and something, mysteriously, like hope. Indeed, were she clothes, as the architect noted in his famous homily on the transcendent radiance of her buttocks, and the buttocks of women in general, she would immediately be dated and placed, and he wanted her to remain forever universal and timeless.
Even with the fading of the controversy, however, some questions have remained, Is she, for example, as claimed in the hotel brochure, alive, or is she some kind of elaborate automaton, a projection, in effect, of the architect's fantasy? And if alive, how did she come upon her strange fate and will she ever be released from it, even if she does not want to be? On the other hand, if she, who seems more alive than any of those watching her, is not alive, then what are they? Anxiety-arousing questions, bordering, in short, on the realm of the uncanny. Which may speak to the architect's genius for provocation; or it may speak to his confusion. For his adoration of his structural centerpiece has seemed to go beyond mere aesthetics. He is known, when she is the subject, to speak, not only of form and function, body and movement, but of tenderness, generosity, pathos, sincerity, and an ineffable longing for a lost past, almost as if she had ceased eing a structural component of his architectural inventions and had become the object, in a word, of his amorous obsession. Has what began an artistic adventure and celebration become, for him as well as for her, inescapable entrapment? If so, then what is for guests an enriching and consoling connection to the eternal verities (as advertised in the hotel brochure), is for the architect, whjo is not known to have constructed anything since the Grand Hotel Penny Arcade, a tragic estrangement.
Coover, Robert. "The Grand Hotels." A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell.
Comp. and ed. Jonathan Safran Foer.
New York: DAP, 2001. 101-3.