The Hall of the American Indian, also known as the Indian Grill Room or American Indian Room, was located directly beneath the sidewalk at the main entrance to the hotel. Stairs descended from the lobby, taking a visitor through a museum of "Old New York" before entering the Hall at the second Sioux Section (see Floor Plan). Also located on this first basement level were the Kitchen, the Wine Vault, a barbershop and a Cigar Room for the men.
The rather narrow Hall ran 150 feet long and was divided into ten different sections classified into eight Language Groups. Each section included artifacts, photographs, a bust and an animal head that were approximately representative of tribes within the defined Language Group. The general decor was of vaulted stone ceilings and wood panelling with a tiled floor that incorporated swastikas and other designs inspired by Navajo blankets.
Early accounts of the Hotel Astor before its completion do not mention an American Indian themed room. In keeping with the "Great World Cultures" theme of the hotel this section may have been originally planned as a Rathskeller, a German Beer Hall, which the vaulting and panelling certianly suggest. No United States room was planned most likely because the U.S. was not considered a weighty enough culture, but at some point the Muschenheims decided to represent North America through its native cultures, which, if they were not great, were at least ancient.
At this point in history Native Americans could be appreciated as an ancient culture, like the Greeks or Chinese, because they had been made more invisible in some ways and more visible in others. Soon after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed the transfer of Indians to reservations was all but complete, the "last stands" were made, and the "vanishing Indian" myth maintained its strength still after more than a century. Interestingly enough, in the same year and same place as Turner presented his frontier thesis Native Americans were turned into living museum exhibits at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Certain elements of native cultures had always been admired by people of European descent, but now formerly threatening figures had been classified, categorized, and reified into exhibits which would eventually influence the form and function of the American Indian Room.
In the 1930s, however, the Hotel Astor underwent a series of renovations which included closing the American Indian Room. The Machine Age had created a new fascination with the clean lines of technology, culminating in another grand Exposition - this time the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Also, the Depression had created an inward looking mood in America which helped push an appreciation of the American Folk into mainstream culture and looked cross-eyed on the financial excesses of the 1920s. Culture years are at least thrice as long as dog years, and time took its toll on the Astor. Its themes of exotic, aged cultures and unrepentant luxury could not hold.
Thus the results of 1937 when the Lady Nancy Astor, a daughter of Virginia who had married into the British Astor family, offered to donate the artifacts from the American Indian Room to the University of Virginia. University President J. L. Newcomb accepted the donation despite citing a lack of room to display the items. The collection was promptly put in storage in the attic of Cabell Hall, surfacing again in the 1960s to be itemized, but it remains in storage save for the occasional exhibition of selected items.