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"Your taste has to become the client's. Hotel work is more like publishing and advertising--you're dealing with the public, and I like that."

“I very carefully analyze each new job as to its location, the people who will use it, its historical setting, general character, and what kind of statement the owner wishes to make to the world, before I turn my imagination loose. Then, I lay out a broad design approach and describe it in writing.”

Sarah Tomerlin Lee on hospitality design



Photographer: Rob Stephenson

During the middle decades of the 20th century, the Lees’ careers unfolded as many Americans were able to take advantage of increased automobility and air travel, visiting sites both domestic and foreign for the first time. Tom pioneered hotel designs for the newly peripatetic that combined sources as varied as the nation’s colonial past, England’s Regency period, and Islamic design traditions with modern technologies, conveniences, and aesthetics.

Following Toom's death in 1971, Sarah, at the age of 61, had intended to close his design office. Instead, she took over the reigns of an in-progress project and went on to design more than 40 hotel interiors. Although Sarah continued Tom’s historicist approach when designing new hospitality spaces, some of her most celebrated work tapped into the emerging architectural preservation movement. She made the restoration and preservation of historic hotels, sparked with her own dramatic flourishes, one of the firm’s signature achievements. “I find it thrilling to decorate great architecture,” Sarah asserted about her hotel designs, “It’s like being an actor in a great play with marvelous lines to say.”


Travel Context

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When the Williamsburg Motor Lodge, with interiors by Tom Lee, opened in 1956, it permitted white tourists only. In response to such nationwide exclusion of African American travelers, Chicago mailman Victor Hugo Green wrote The Negro Motorist Green-Book. Published annually from 1936 to 1966, the books listed hotels, restaurants, and other facilities that were safe for Black tourists to patronize—and those that were not.

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