Nob Hill Hotels: Nob Hill Hotel in San Francisco

Hotel History

In the beginning, the earth shook... The Fairmont San Francisco hotel was not yet open, but the massive structure was already completed, and the interior furnishings had been delivered and were awaiting their various places in this Palace on Nob Hill. The hotel had just been sold on April 6th, less than two weeks before the conflagration that was to all but level the City. The story however, goes back earlier than that. Tessie and Virginia Fair were the daughters of James Graham Fair, one of San Francisco's wealthiest citizens. 'Bonanza Jim' had struck it rich in a Nevada Silver mine, and his daughters were determined to construct a grand monument to their father, who had passed away in 1894. In 1902, construction began on The Fairmont Hotel, but by 1906, it had become too much of a burden for the Fair sisters, and they sold it to the Law brothers, Herbert and Hartland, in exchange for two existing office buildings at Mission and New Montgomery streets. How could anyone know that the 'great San Francisco fire,' as locals referred to the disaster of the earthquake and what followed, was just days away.

The 'swells' of San Francisco rested in their beds, dreaming of Carmen from their previous night at the Opera, where Enrico Caruso had held an overflow crowd spellbound, and the party that followed had lasted into the wee hours. Suddenly, at 5:12 AM, a shot like a cannon resounded through the City, and three foot waves rolled through the landfill that was downtown, while church bells rang cacophonously all at the same time, tolling a din that would be remembered forever. And what of The Fairmont? Remarkably, it still stood, looking relatively unharmed although there was some structural damage to the interior. Photographs taken at the time show The Fairmont standing proud, Parthenon-like at the top of the hill, whilst all around there was devastation and rubble. But the fires, which burnt uncontrollably, finally reached top of Nob Hill twenty-four hours after the earthquake, taking down mansion after mansion as if by appointment. Hopkins, Stanford, Huntington, and finally Crocker all became unwilling victims of the fire. It was 5:30 AM when The Fairmont's windows first began to crack from the heat. Writer Gertrude Atherton was crossing the Bay at the time and notes, 'I forgot the doomed city as I gazed at The Fairmont, a tremendous volume of white smoke pouring from the roof, every window a shimmering sheet of gold; not a flame, nor a spark shot forth. The Fairmont will never be as demonic in its beauty again.'

Herbert and Hartland Law took the burden of social responsibility seriously, and went ahead with plans to repair, redecorate and where necessary restore. Their original choice for a new architect was Stanford White, the prominent New Yorker. Within weeks however, Mr. White met his demise while dining at Madison Square Garden, when multimillionaire Harry K. Thaw shot and mortally wounded him. The Law brothers, undeterred, continued along, this time with an electrifying choice: Julia Morgan, the first woman graduate of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris who was just starting out, and would later rise to be known as the nation's preeminent female architect. Diminutive, with her hair pinned tightly to her head, she nevertheless did a magnificent job overseeing every aspect of the job, often climbing up on ladders to inspect the work of her contractors. She was not above dressing down a worker twice her size if his work did not conform to her strict standards.

Time, as they say, is a gentleman. Exactly a year after the earthquake, a grand banquet celebrating the opening was held at The Fairmont, with 600 pounds of turtle, 13,000 oysters and $5,000 worth of California and French wines. At precisely 9:00 PM, fireworks began, illuminating the beautiful new Fairmont, the thousand ships at anchor in the Bay, City Hall and all the buildings that had risen up, phoenix-like, in defiance of nature's wrath. San Francisco was alive and well, and would thrive again.

When Ned Greenway moved his debutante parties up to The Fairmont, it quickly became the social hub of the City. Wealthy families, displaced by the earthquake, took up residence, some for many years. Meanwhile, the Law brothers had signed a ten year deal for the Palace Hotel company to manage The Fairmont. Not too many months later, a familiar figure came back to town on a mystery mission. It was Tessie (Fair) Oelrichs, who returned to her beloved City after her husband passed away whilst on a transatlantic steamer. By May of 1908, she was once again the owner and hostess par excellence of San Francisco's most famous hostelry. She welcomed Teddy Roosevelt, President Taft, and even Rudolph Valentino. By 1917, D.M. Linnard took over the management, and in 1924, bought the controlling interest from the Oelrichs family. Linnard had a chain of hotels in California. In 1929, he sold the Fairmont to George Smith, a mining engineer, who had just completed the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Smith undertook a major renovation, including adding an indoor pool, the 'Fairmont Plunge.'

Like Tessie Oelrichs, D.M. Linnard could not stay away from the lure of The Fairmont. In 1941, he repurchased the hotel, which by now had entered an era of 'benign neglect,' victim of the depression and its own lethargy, with a clientele of mostly permanent residents, who blended in among the potted palms, adding to the general gloom and mustiness.

But once again, The Fairmont 'rose from the ashes.' The occasion was the end of World War II, and the catalyst which transformed her was two-fold: the International Conference which led to the birth of the United Nations, and the purchase of the hotel by Benjamin Swig. Ben Swig was an East Coast businessman who, 'had a knack for seeing a good thing and turning it around,' according to Richard Swig, his son, who later became President of The Fairmont Hotel Company. Ben Swig knew that the interior of the hotel badly needed a facelift, and so he engaged Dorothy Draper, the most famous decorator of the time, to transform the lobby and the public areas. Mrs. Draper, fresh from her remarkable redo of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, came up with quite a different vision for The Fairmont. She visualized the hotel as an enlarged copy of a Grand Venetian Palace, but at the same time she wished to capture the charm and 'Romance' of San Francisco. Her goal was to restore The Fairmont to its position as the center jewel in the crown of the Golden Age of San Francisco. With this in mind, she introduced new design innovations unheard of until then...black and red carpets, wild geranium and strawberry colors, gold and black lacquer...all replicating a certain 'rakish' charm and flamboyant atmosphere, synonymous with the California Gold Rush. The result was magic, and Kings, Queens, Presidents and all who visited were entranced by their surroundings. To the American public, starved from new things for too long during the war, it was exactly what they craved. The 'Draper touch' was a smashing success, and The Fairmont was once again the place to see and be seen. Meanwhile, The Fairmont had made news with its role as the venue for the meetings of the United Nations. Once again, history was being made in a big way. To this day, the plaque commemorating the drafting of the Charter for the United Nations can be seen outside the Garden Room on the lobby level while the country flags of the original signatories fly proudly above the porte cochere.

Dorothy Draper also added her 'Draper Touch' to the Venetian Room. Its grand reopening took place in 1947 as San Francisco's premier Supper Club. The Venetian Room went on through the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies and even into the eighties, thanks to Richard Swig's insistence on having a place where hotel guests, as well as locals, could dine and dance while enjoying big name entertainment. And what names they were too: Ella Fitzgerald, Nat 'King' Cole, Marlene Dietrich, Joel Grey, Bobby Short, Vic Damone, James Brown, and many, many more. Ernie Hecksher and his orchestra came for a limited engagement, and never left, becoming the official band for the Venetian Room. The Venetian Room is most famous as the place in which Tony Bennett first sang 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.'

Not long after the Swig purchase, people going to take a dip in the 'Fairmont Plunge' were startled to find themselves aboard the 'S.S. Tonga,' which provided a 'ship-shape' atmosphere, along with exotic drinks accompanied by Chinese food. Not satisfied with that, the S.S. Tonga went into dry-dock, replaced by the Tonga Room, with its musical boat in the middle of the pool, tiki huts under which patrons can enjoy a refreshing Mai-Tai, and an exotic menu reflecting the South Sea & Asian ambiance. A gleaming dance floor provides space for guests to dance; little do they realize that it was originally the deck of the S.S. Forrester, one of the last of the tall ships that plied the route between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands.

Another exciting room in the Fairmont was the Cirque Room, which was the first bar to open in San Francisco following prohibition. It was decorated by architect Tim Pflueger in a beautiful Art Deco style with an incredible bar, and murals by the celebrated Bruton sisters. Before the Venetian Room was opened, the Cirque was the place to go for entertainment in the City.

And what of the fabled Penthouse-The Fairmont's most exclusive (and its most expensive) accommodation. It was constructed in 1926 as a residence for John S. Drum, President of the American Trust Company. Drum designed and constructed the residence, and the interior was decorated by Arthur Upham Pope, a noted Professor at UC Berkeley, who was an expert on Persian Art. This Persian influence reached its height in the game room, with its Arabian nights décor and arched doorways and windows. The two story library with its rotunda depicting the constellations of the nighttime sky and 'map room' bedroom were decorated by artist Robert Boardman Howard, and alone are worth a visit.

The Penthouse was later to become home to another VIP, Benjamin Swig. As in the novel 'Hotel' by Arthur Hailey (which was later to become a TV series filmed at The Fairmont), Mr. Swig resided in his aerie high above Nob Hill, with a birds eye view of his beloved 'City by the Bay.' Although in his later years he lived alone, he was not a lonely man, for his roomy Penthouse was often home to guests from all walks of life. Chief Justice Earl Warren, Governor Pat Brown and General Omar Bradley were but a few of the luminaries who shared Ben Swig's hospitality. The Penthouse was truly a home, as well as a home away from home. When Ben Swig passed away, the Penthouse was used as a luxury accommodation, and served as home to Presidents, Heads of State, celebrities and other dignitaries. The Penthouse is still available for rent, and can be booked by contacting the Executive office of the hotel.

In November of 1961 another section of The Fairmont was opened; the 23 story Tower, designed by Mario Gaidano, San Francisco's first glass elevator carries people to the Crown Room at the top of the tower, with San Francisco's most beautiful view. The Fair sisters would have definitely approved. Richard Swig supervised every phase of construction, making sure that the quality of craftsmanship be up to Fairmont standards.

As the San Francisco residence for every U.S. president since William Howard Taft, The Fairmont garnered a reputation for world-class hospitality. As the Fairmont's reputation grew, so did its collection of grand hotels bearing its name. In 1999, Fairmont Hotels merged with Canadian Pacific Hotels to form Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, the largest operator of luxury hotels and resorts in North America.

As the company's flagship property, The Fairmont San Francisco at Nob Hill once again made history when it greeted the 21st century with an award-winning $85 million restoration.

In May of 1999, legions of craftsmen checked into the San Francisco landmark to recreate architect Julia Morgan's vision for the 1907 hotel. Comparing the project to an archeological dig, the restoration team uncovered original marble floors, ornate domes and intricate design work throughout the historic hotel.

'While we have preserved our turn-of-the-century charm, we have embraced the 21st century by providing today's most wanted amenities, including a health spa and a business center as well as high-speed internet access in all meeting and guest rooms,' comments Regional Vice President and General Manager Mark S. Huntley.

Highlighting the restoration is the re-emergence of the Main Lobby as a grand public space. Dorothy Draper's heady design of 1945 has been stripped away to reveal pristine marble floors and Corinthian columns trimmed in gold.

After more than six decades of closure, The Laurel Court has been restored to its original design and once again functions as the hotel's main dining room and bar. Crowned by three domes, The Laurel Court serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner on the hotel's lobby level.

In addition to the restoration of public spaces, the hotel's 591 guest rooms and suites, including the famed Penthouse Suite, have been luxuriously refurbished. Marble baths and picture windows are complemented by business amenities such as two-line telephone systems and high-speed Internet access in every guestroom.

San Francisco City Guides: Walking Tours:  Fairmont Hotel: The Elegant "Grand Dame" of Nob Hill: (Check the City Guides website for dates, times and location) Experience the hotel of presidents, dignitaries, kings and queens, the rich and famous. Visit the hidden garden, listen for the Fairmont bees, and you will leave your heart in San Francisco at the breathtaking hotel.

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