Editor’s Note: 2009 marks the centennial anniversary of the reopening of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. The hotel was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake and fire, rebuilt and reopened on Dec. 15, 1909. November is San Francisco’s month for fall color, particularly in Golden Gate Park. If you’re heading to The City during this glorious month, plan to include a visit to the Palace. Whether you stay there, dine there or just tour its beautiful interiors, it’s worth the visit, as the following article originally written by me for California magazine tells.
Golden sunlight brightens the Beaux Arts décor of the Garden Court in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, preserving for ever this city’s gilded age.
The Palace Hotel has long been where San Francisco’s financial, commercial and social royalty have held court, and the Garden Court has been its throne room. “It is the most beautiful dining room in America,” says James Dalessandro, author of 1906, a novel about the San Francisco earthquake and fire, “There’s nothing that comes close to it. It’s regal, yet comfortable. The food is fabulous, and dining there is one of the great joys of visiting San Francisco.”
Garden Court diners sit at creamy, draped tables on Napoleonic armchairs, while curtained by lacy palm fronds and surrounded by a cloister of Ionic columns of Italian marble. They dine on local Dungeness crab salads dripped with the hotel’s original Green Goddess dressing, as a harpist plays. Overhead, a vaulted, 110 by 85 foot-long (33.5 x 25.9 meter), leaded-glass skylight, trimmed in antique gold, bathes the room with soft light, while Austrian crystal chandeliers suspended from the stained glass ceiling provide dazzling, dangling “bling.”
Everything about the Garden Court impresses, and that is what San Francisco pioneers William Ralston and Senator William Sharon intended when they opened the Palace Hotel in 1875. It had been 27 years since gold had been discovered on the American River; in that time, San Francisco had evolved from a sleepy coastal village into America’s western commercial and financial capital. A second, “green” gold rush fed by the export of abundant California produce and wine was just beginning, which would establish San Francisco as the most affluent city, per capita, in the United States.
And yet despite its growing affluence and influence, San Francisco got little respect, particularly in New York, Boston or Philadelphia. So, Sharon and Ralston gambled their fortunes to build a grand hotel… one so elegant that with the first ring of its front desk bell, their city would be transformed from wild, frontier town to refined, cosmopolitan city.
To subsidize his $5 million dream, Ralston drained his banking empire and learned, two weeks before the hotel’s opening, that his Bank of California would be forced to close. A day later, Ralston’s body was found floating in San Francisco Bay, leaving Sharon to foster the dream.
And, what a dream it was. When the Palace opened, it was the world’s largest hotel. Its guests were awed by its unprecedented size and luxury. Four hydraulic elevators, known then as “arising rooms,” lifted the hotel’s guests in comfort and style. Each room came with an electronic call button in order to access hotel services. And, a 100-place solid-gold dinner service (one of the world’s oldest and most complete still in use) was set for state dinners and other grand occasions, causing a bedazzled Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, to say to the mayor of San Francisco, “Nothing makes me ashamed of Brazil so much as the Palace Hotel.”
The Palace’s comforts so surpassed all other San Francisco accommodations that it became the obvious destination for visiting potentates and celebrities. Ten U.S. Presidents have stayed there, as well as countless kings, queens, statesmen, industrialists, generals, lords and ladies. A list of the hotel’s celebrated guests numbers three, single-spaced pages, including such luminaries as: Andrew Carnegie, Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, Robert Anthony Eden, Thomas Edison, Field Marshalls Foch and Joffre, Ulysses S. Grant, Nikita Kruschev, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Fiorello La Guardia, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Thomas Lipton, George B. McClellan, John Pierpont Morgan, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, John David Rockefeller, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lillian Russell, William Tecumseh Sherman, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Woodrow Wilson.
With its location on Market Street – the commercial spine of San Francisco – the Palace became the epicenter of the young city’s commerce and culture (today, it stands in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District). Such a central location made it a natural gathering point. Businessmen would meet along the block-long Redwood Room bar, which ran from New Montgomery to Third Streets, an expanse so long that 30 bartenders were needed to keep glasses full. It is said more deals were transacted along its length than occurred in the State Capitol.
Like a magnet, the Palace Hotel attracted not only the successful, but those seeking success. One such young man was my grandfather, French immigrant Maurice Ducasse, who watched the deal makers come and go and noticed that there was no cigar store nearby to serve them. So, he opened one across the street just days before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Grandpa then watched his cigars go up in smoke, but not as he had intended.
Few would have thought Ralston and Sharon’s original Palace, designed by architect J. P. Gaynor, to be so vulnerable, as it was built to be earthquake and fire proof. The hotel was banded with reinforcing steel and contained a million-gallon cistern below the hotel to fight fires. It even had its own security and fire personnel. Indeed, the hotel survived the earthquake and was defending itself from fire when its cisterns were drained battling fires in surrounding buildings. Once the water was gone, the hotel became a casualty.
For San Franciscans like my grandfather, the Palace Hotel was more than a place of rest, it was a place to read the city’s pulse. And thus, rumors of the Palace’s demise passed excitedly through refugee encampments in Golden Gate Park. While many dreams ended in 1906, San Franciscans will tell you that more were renewed, including the Palace Hotel, which like its symbol – the mythical Phoenix bird – rose from its ashes as a new structure three years later for twice its original construction cost.
With its reopening on December 15, 1909, the original carriage entrance was enclosed for the Garden Court (today, the only indoor historic landmark in San Francisco), additional innovations were added and a more civilized bar was placed within the hotel that included a mural by American fantasy realist Maxfield Parrish whose fairy-tale-inspired mural of Old King Cole, painted in 1905 for John Jacob Astor’s Knickerbocker Hotel, set the style for hotel bars.
“Hotel owners, upon seeing the Old King Cole mural at the Knickerbocker, commissioned nursery-rhyme and fairy-tale paintings to enhance their own establishments,” Coy Ludwig writes in his book, Maxfield Parrish. In San Francisco, it was “The Pied Piper… for the Palace Hotel and Sing a Song of Sixpence for the Hotel Sherman in Chicago.” More recently, a cluster of tourists on an “Urban Safari” tour of San Francisco (identifiable by the pith helmets they wear) was seen stopping at the bar’s entrance to view the mural and hear that the mural, originally commissioned for $6,000 is now considered to be worth as much as $6 million, though its cultural value to San Francisco is priceless. As the time-crunched tour guide led the group away, he checked his watch and said, “Safari, so good.”
Parrish would have appreciated such mirth, as when asked why he chose the Pied Piper for its subject, he said, “I don’t exactly know, except that I must have thought it an attractive one, as I do now. Seems to me I heard somewhere that it was not a subject quite suited to increase the receipts of a bar, as guests draining a glass were apt to note a child in the painting that resembled a little one at home and, then and there, cancel their wish for a second glass.”
Whoever said that never spent a night in San Francisco. No painting of a child, mythic or real, would ever restrain its revelry. San Franciscans are culturally wired to celebrate the fine things in life whether it be food, drink or entertainment. Indeed, on the night of the earthquake and fire, no less a cultural icon of his day than tenor Enrico Caruso was in San Francisco to perform at the San Francisco Opera House. After the earthquake shook him from his bed, he fled the Palace Hotel wearing only a towel and swearing, “I will never set foot in San Francisco again.”
Clearly, Caruso is one of the few who ever said they wouldn’t return to San Francisco or its Palace. An extensive renovation of the hotel completed in 1991 restored the hotel to its original elegance and continued the tradition of innovation, adding conference facilities and a spa, pool and fitness center. A stream of design and preservation awards honoring the restoration soon followed from such lofty organizations as The National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Institute of Architects, California Preservation Foundation and the California Heritage Council.
The restored guest rooms have lost none of their turn-of-the-century grandeur, high ceilings or opulent comfort. Grey, cream and gold fine Italian Frette linens and pin-striped draperies complement refined palatial rooms, some furnished with Louis XV and Empire chairs and settees. Whether your choice is the Presidential suite or a standard room, the same appointments are provided, though you’ll pay more for a better view of bustling Market Street, the San Francisco skyline or extra space in a suite.
“Sometimes luxury hotels can be intimidating, but the Palace has always been approachable,” explains the hotel’s business travel and international account director Sarah Bisa. Among its accommodations, the Palace is pet friendly, a standard established after celebrated French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt arrived in 1887 with her pet baby tiger, and hotel management kindly provides its guests with bottled water. However, what sets it apart, Ms. Bisa says, is that,“The Palace is a museum that happens to operate as a hotel. It is also the most San Franciscan of San Francisco hotels and its authenticity appeals to my international clients,” who, she explains, know that when staying in Las Vegas it’s all about the fantasy, whereas when staying in San Francisco it’s all about the history, environment and culture.
While the hotel’s rack rate is $599, shop online and you’re likely to find deals. Prices are best on Friday and Saturday nights and during national holidays. Although The Palace hotel is renowned among business travelers, it is pretty well designed for the leisure traveler with its shallow pool and location within walking distance of the trollies, cable cars and numerous attractions and museums.
Now part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts “Luxury Collection,” the Palace Hotel is owned by Kyo-ya Company, Ltd. Though it is now a century and a third removed from the days of Ralston and Sharon, the Palace Hotel still basks in the golden glow of that age. Diners at the Garden Court are enveloped by softly gilded light, as if the San Francisco air is filled with gold dust. And, it is… at least, for those privileged guests of San Francisco’s Golden Palace.
Linking the Palace Hotel
The Palace Hotel – www.sfpalace.com
James Dalessandro – www.1906earthquake.com
San Francisco CVB – www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com
1906 Earthquake – http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/nca/1906/18april/index.php