May 10, 2014
I ventured to Nob Hill today for another SF City Guide’s walking tour. I took a stroll around Huntington Park before joining the tour at The Fairmont.
First stop, Brocklebank Apartments, one of the many SF locations featured in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Across the way is the Flood Mansion, home to the Pacific-Union Club, an exclusive men’s only organization. Along with the Fairmont, it was the only other structure on Nob Hill to survive the fires after the 1906 quake.
Huntington Park rests in the heart of all these grand buildings as a little oasis. I’d never been there during the day and it was lovely to see everything from running dogs to Asian men doing their morning exercise. In the background stands Grace Cathedral, whose architecture and decor pays homage to many of the greats in Europe—the most obvious being Notre Dame.
I happened to notice an interesting sculpture in the building next to the cathedral. Turns out it’s the Nob Hill Masonic Center. The frieze (as I’ve learned it is called) represents the tug or war between good and evil forces and contains gravel and soil from 58 CA counties as well as some from Hawaii.
And with that loop, it was time for my official tour of The Fairmont hotel.
Construction on the hotel was completed just weeks before the great earthquake and fires of 1906. The Fair sisters set out to create the hotel as a way to carry on the Fair family name after the death of their only brother and father. It’s believed that the name “Fairmont” was meant to pertain to the entire hill which didn’t quite happen. They sold the hotel as soon as it was complete, a move they could not have known would save them, as their new investment was nearly destroyed by the 1906 fire. It was standing in such a state that the mayor took it over for 24 hours after City Hall was completely destroyed in order to keep the government operating.
The new owners gave themselves a year to get it re-opened. To expedite the process, they needed an architect as well as an engineer, so Julia Morgan was enlisted for the job. As fate would have it, when William Randolph Hearst visited The Fairmont after it was re-opened, he was reminded of all his travels around Europe and inquired who had lead the work. That’s how Julia Morgan got the job of building Hearst Castle. Small world. Many years later, on the eve of the opening of Citizen Kane, Hearst and Oscar Wells would have an infamous meeting in the hotel elevator. When I hear the history, SF seems like such a smalltown.
Back to the hotel itself. The flags flying outside represent every country that was involved in the UN treaty, whose terms were discussed and revised in the hotel’s penthouse amongst world leaders.
It has been visited by every President since Taft.
The interior was restored to look as it would have in 1906. There was a period in the 50s when it was “modernized” with red velvet couches and red carpet. Thank goodness someone took time to put it back as it should be. The original marble pillars were destroyed in the fire. These have been painted to look as the originals did.
Part of that modernization had covered over these beautiful murals in Laurel Court, the hotel restaurant. It’s so tranquil.
The Venetian Room used to be known as the Rainbow Room. It was renamed when in the 50s, the new design involved painting venetian murals on the walls. Those murals are currently covered with cloth. I’m not sure how that motif related to the red velvet seen elsewhere but alas. Either way, the new name stuck. This room hosted a Supperclub for many years, featuring many great artists. Tony Bennett debuted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in this room. There’s a time capsule stored under the stage with some of his mementos. As part of the tour, we semi-awkwardly sang the song together so that we could say we sang it in the Venetian Room. The Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, and other greats have graced the stage over the years. It’s a shame that it’s primary use is conferences these days.
I had been the Gold Room recently for the Purdue Glee Club concert. It was more interesting because our tour guide had a photo of her father as the featured guest at a reception back in the 40s. The room looked nearly identical. Her father was sheriff of San Francisco.
The next part of the tour came as the biggest surprise since it’s not visible from outside the hotel. Apparently there is a huge garden elevated garden which was magical and named in honor of Julia Morgan.
The Penthouse takes the entire top floor. It’s where the UN treaty was discussed. It was built when a local businessman suggested that he would pay a large sum to be a long-time tenant of the penthouse if they would build it. I can’t remember if she said it rents for $5K or $10K per night. It features extra security and an outdoor space that is not viewable from anywhere else so guests like Presidents can see daylight.
They were setting up for a wedding in the Garden Room which features a unique chandelier which as a gift from the Chinese community. Just behind the Garden Room are the bee hives, home to the bees which yield all the honey served in the restaurant, as well as a seasonal honey beer. There’s also a big roof herb garden. Several hotels have followed suit with establishing their own gardens.
Down the hall is Cirque, which was a bar built during prohibition so as to be the first one to open after it was lifted. Its art deco murals and grand bar still stand but are only used for private events. There was a pool of water that flowed foot level around the bar, which was said to be used for cigarettes.
The last stop on the tour was the Tonga Room. I’d been here once before at dinner but it was interesting to see it empty and learn the full story of its existence. Originally, the room was just the home of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, used by athletes for training and general leisure of guests. One of the owners realized it wasn’t generating any revenue. He decided to turn it into a lounge. Over the years, more and more of the pool was covered and the decor came in the 60s. Interestingly, the tiki/south pacific theme was sparked by men returning from WWII. Despite the terrible experience of war, many had fond memories of the people and exotic experiences of the places they had traveled.
Two actual ship masts from the S.S. Forrester were reconstructed to create the bar. The dancefloor used wood from the ship as well. There’s a plaque which mentions the captain and details of the ship’s history.
Great experience learning about this core piece of SF history. I spent another 30 minutes walking down the hallway outside the Gold Room which featured historical photos showing even more of the history.
I hopped on the cable car back toward home. Even if they’re money-eaters, I find them fascinating.
I scrambled down the dead-end of Francisco St which overlooks the large empty basin there on Russian Hill and offers spectacular views.
I walked down Francisco and paused just past Polk to take in the view of neighborhood I’ve called home for so many years. Palace of Fine Arts and GG Bridge, all framed by the Presidio.
Lovely day playing tourist and exploring.