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Pied Piper Returns to Palace

by Rob Spoor

Public reaction was swift and vocal when the Palace Hotel in March announced plans to sell its Maxfield Parrish painting “The Pied Piper” at Christie’s auction house. Twitter feeds streamed, online petitions popped up, and the hotel switchboard began buzzing relentlessly. Even San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee called, asking hotel management to reconsider.

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The Pied Piper Painting

How could a “mere” painting generate such passion and affection? The main reason probably is its longevity. It’s been hanging behind the bar at the hotel since 1909, with a brief interruption during Prohibition when it moved to a ballroom after the bar was closed. The painting returned to the bar after Prohibition, and stayed until 1989.

That year, the hotel closed for a massive 2-year, $150 million renovation and restoration. During the closure, the painting was taken to the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park for cleaning. It was back on the wall behind the bar by the time the hotel reopened in 1991 (when City Guides started leading Palace Hotel tours).

That means generations of locals and hotel guests have gazed upon the painting while dining and drinking in the bar. The “Pied Piper” became much more than a piece of art – it became a beloved artifact of San Francisco.

If folks weren’t impressed by the artistic merit of the painting, perhaps they were fascinated by the stories or “urban folklore” about the painting. One story posits that the painting was commissioned by the hotel in 1909 in order to help Maxfield Parrish pay back a debt incurred during a long visit at the hotel. The story doesn’t hold water, since Parrish came from a wealthy family and he was well-established by 1909. He would not have been in desperate need of a commission. Finally, there’s no record that he spent a long sojourn in San Francisco.

A popular story and the subject of many bets at the bar regards the number of children depicted in the painting. Most people count 25 or 26, although there are actually 27. Erroneous counts tend to get worse the longer people sit at the bar! Some folks claim that Parrish’s own children – and his mistress – served as models for the figures in the painting.

The most gripping story of all describes terrified hotel employees rushing into the bar, ripping the painting from its frame with knives, and racing outdoors as the hotel was consumed by the flames following the 1906 earthquake. It’s very dramatic, but completely untrue. One need only look at the lower right corner, where Parrish signed – and dated – the painting: 1909, three years AFTER the 1906 disaster!

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Palace Ballroom Pied Piper 1923

How did the Palace Hotel come to have such a magnificent painting in the first place? It might be as simple as civic pride and a competitive spirit.

Frederick Sharon, who inherited the hotel from his father, Senator William Sharon, oversaw the rebuilding of the hotel (completed in 1909). He certainly must have been aware of another magnificent painting created by Parrish for the elegant Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, “Old King Cole,” commissioned by John Jacob Astor IV in 1906. Certainly, the Palace was as deserving of a Parrish painting as the Knickerbocker, and San Francisco would provide a grateful audience for such a fine work of art. Whatever his motivation, in May 1909, Mr. Sharon authorized the expenditure of $6000.00 for a painting 6 feet high and 16 feet long, to be delivered no later than November 1st. The theme or subject was not included in his letter to Parrish, so apparently the artist was free to select his own topic.

That initial $6000.00 investment has appreciated nicely over the years. During its 1989 cleaning, art experts appraised the painting at $1.5-2.5 million. Several years ago, a private collector offered the hotel $7 million!

Bowing to public sentiment, Palace Hotel management reversed itself and announced that the painting would not be sold after all, and will return to the hotel after a thorough cleaning and restoration in New York City. At press time, the date for its return has not been announced.

Sources:

  • Palace Hotel tour script
  • New York Times

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