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The Fairmont Hotel Celebrates 100

by Ken Becker

She is a Grand Dame, the jewel in the crown of Nob Hill. She is the Fairmont Hotel, and she is turning 100 this month.

When Silver King James Fair purchased the hillside at Mason and California Streets back in the late 1800s, his intent was to build the largest mansion in the neighborhood. However, when he died in 1894 this lot was still undeveloped. It remained so until 1902 when his daughters Tessie Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair commissioned the architectural firm of Reid & Reid to develop plans for a large hotel with the look of an Italian Renaissance Palace.

By 1906, the Fairmont Hotel, 600 rooms, seven stories high, made of gray granite, cream marble, and terracotta stone, stood overlooking the City. Then the first quirk in her history took place. After four years of planning and development, the Fair family tradedóyes, tradedóthis beautiful lady for two office buildings in the financial district. Apparently the burden of this project was too much for them.

New owners Herb and Hartland Law began preparing for a grand opening in the fall of '06. By April, the hotel was stacked with crates of furniture, and finishing touches were going on throughout.

April 18th the earth shook and the Grand Dame on the hill held her ground. However, by early the next morning the fire was coming up Nob Hill. In these early morning hours, writer Gertrude Atherton looked back from a boat en route to Oakland and wrote, "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." By the time the sun had risen, the Fairmont was gutted. Thirty-seven columns had buckled and a portion of the floors had settled seven feet from their normal position. It would take a major reconstruction job to bring her back to life.

She stood on the hill, her walls still intact, surrounded by rubble, a sign of strength, a survivor. Maybe that's what Herb Law saw in her, just days after the fires. At a time when most said to tear her down, he hired Stanford White, prominent New York architect, to bring her back to life. Unfortunately, Mr. White was involved in a love triangle that caught up with him, and he was shot and killed by multimillionaire Harry Thaw. Then the Law brothers made a bold and brilliant move. They hired local architect Julia Morgan, the first woman graduate of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

For the next year, Julia Morgan and her crew worked day and night putting the Grand Dame back on her feet. April 18, 1907, the Fairmont Hotel opened her doors. She had risen from the ashes, the first of the Grand Dames to do so. No sooner had her doors opened than Tessie Fair returned to San Francisco and in 1908 bought her back. Over the years the Fairmont would have many suitors, each adding their personality to her history.

The early 1900s brought the wealthy to the Fairmont for long leisurely stays of two to three months. They brought with them piles of trunks, valets, and governesses for their children. To accommodate their needs the Fairmont provided a completely equipped school, which featured music, dancing, out-of-door work and play, and French in all grades. For the adults there was afternoon tea in the Laurel Court, bridge games in the salons, and afternoon concerts in the lobby. With all the activities, guests never felt the need to leave the hotel.

In 1926 the eighth floor was added. You will not see this floor from the front of the hotel. But if you walk to the beautiful Julia Morgan Garden in the back of the hotel, you can view parts of the 6,000-square-foot Penthouse Suite consisting of three bedrooms, a dining room that holds 50, a two-story domed library, full kitchen, billiards room, and four fireplacesóall for only $12,500 a night.

In 1929 George Smith, neighbor and owner of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, purchased the Fairmont and immediately added the Fairmont Plunge, making her the only Grand Dame in the City with a swimming pool. Can you tell me what the plunge is today?

For 11 weeks (mid April-June 26th) in 1945, San Francisco was the Capital of the World. Delegates from over forty nations representing eighty percent of the world population came together to write the United Nations Charter.

The Fairmont Hotel played host to the Norwegian, Czech, Yugoslavian, Belgian, and South African delegations, along with those from the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, led by King Ibn Saud, took over one complete floor of the hotel and drew big crowds in the lobby with their flowing robes and jeweled daggers. The head of the U.S. delegation, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, took over the eighth floor penthouse from longtime resident Maude Flood.

From day one the penthouse was the focal point for behind-the-scenes negotiations. The press, headquartered on the fifth floor, watched the rise and fall of the elevators trying to keep track of the delegates visiting the penthouse.

After eleven weeks the delegates had hammered out the Charter for the United Nations, and on June 26th President Harry Truman arrived in the city to sign it. Upon his arrival at the Fairmont Hotel, new owner Benjamin Swig was there to greet him. When the presidential flag was raised over the hotel, one reporter wrote, "The Fairmont atop Nob Hill will serve as the nation's capital (at least until the next afternoon)."

Yes, the Fairmont Hotel had a new owner, businessman, financier, and philanthropist Benjamin Swig, who purchased fifty-four percent of the hotel in May of 1945 for two million dollars. As he described his purchase, "When I bought the hotel, it was obsolete. It was more of an apartment house for the extremely rich, many of whom were characters in the true sense of the word." One elderly gentleman of great wealth ate three meals a day in the hotel and in the evening would ceremoniously hand the waiter a dime.

"It was run down, neglected. The plumbing was bursting–-we had ten to fifteen leaks a day–there was no carpet on the floor and the whole thing was just an old ladies home." Where others saw a white elephant, Ben Swig saw a hotel with beautiful high-ceilinged rooms and the world's most spectacular views. He was about to polish this jewel in the crown on Nob Hill. He started by counting the towels being rented at the Plunge each day. Ben quickly learned the pool was not a money maker and decided to turn the area into a restaurant and bar. He hired Mel Melvin, MGM's leading set director, to design the interior, and within weeks the Plunge had been transformed into the S.S. Tonga after the set designer found an old four-masted schooner by that name rotting in the mud near Martinez. Guests soon were dining on Chinese food, drinking exotic drinks at tables on the schooner's deck, and gazing into the blue water of the former Plunge, now featuring a floating stage for the orchestra. Dancing took place on the deck of the S.S. Forester, a lumber schooner that once made regular trips between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands. The ambiance was heightened by tropical storms, complete with lightning and rain falling from concealed pipes. Later, Swig removed the S.S. Tonga and created the thatched-roof native village much as it stands today. The lobby had not changed since 1907. The Gold Room had turned a dirty copper color, and the seldom-used Venetian Dining Room was dark and dreary. Ben Swig hired Dorothy Draper, the renowned interior designer, to change all this, and she did.

The million dollar modernization program was completed in early 1950. The Chronicle noted that almost six miles of fabric and three miles of carpet had been used in the renovation. One critic raved that Draper had "captured the spirit of the past, the romantic glamour of the Champagne days, the traditions of the city blended with the modern."

Ben Swig felt a top-flight hotel should have top-flight entertainment. In 1947 he opened the Venetian Room, a swank, intimate supper club holding just 400 guests. His opening act, Ethel Waters, would be the first of a long list of entertainers, including Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horn, Red Skelton, James Brown, Judy Collins, Tony Bennett (who sang "I left My Heart in San Francisco" for the first time here in 1962), and, of course, the Ernie Heckscher Band that played for 36 years.

Ben had always envisioned adding a tower to the hotel. He could use the rooms, and he would build it tall enough so that he could look down on the Mark Hopkins Hotel. He received the ok to build in the early 50s, but the U.S. government needed all available steel for use in the Korean War effort. Finally, in 1961, he built his 23-story tower, complete with the Crown Room on the top floor and a glass elevator on the outside of the tower to get you there. He now looked down on the Mark Hopkins and had the best views in the city.

The famous Cirque Lounge with its wild animal murals and wrap-around bar designed by Art Deco Architect Tim Pflueger back in 1933 was still going strong. Nearby, Ben added the Merry-Go-Round Bar.

In the 1980s, many of us watched the television series Hotel, based on the novel by Arthur Hailey. Television Mogul Aaron Spelling used the Fairmont as his model for the show. Yes, the faÁade and lobby of the Fairmont were the fictional "St Gregory."

The Swig family sold the hotel in 1994. Today the Crown Room and the glass elevator are no longer open to the public. The Venetian Room and the Cirque Lounge are open for private parties only. The work of Dorothy Draper has been removed.

She is still a classy hotel with lots to offer. The flags over the front entrance represent the countries who signed the UN Charter back in 1945. The Israeli flag was added by Ben Swig. The Gold Room is as beautiful as ever, and the Cirque Lounge has been beautifully restored. The Julia Morgan garden out back is filled with flowers and has gorgeous views. The lobby has been stripped of carpet and black paints and is lovely.

Sources: The Silver Kings, Oscar Lewis Good Life in Hard Times - San Francisco's '20s and '30s, Jerry Flamm The City at the End of the Rainbow - San Francisco and Its Grand Hotels, David Siefkin The Spectacular San Franciscans, Julia Cooley Altrocchi Dancing on the Brink of the World - The Rise and Fall of San Francisco Society, Frances Moffat Fairmont Hotel, A Pictorial History, Gerald Booth Dealing from the Heart, A Biography of Benjamin Swig, Bernice Scharlach My San Francisco, Gertrude Atherton

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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1907 view of the Fairmont Hotel from Powell Street

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View from Jackson & Mason Streets after the 1906 Fire

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Fairmont entry in 1952, before the canopy was added

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Famed designer Dorothy Draper's carpeted lobby

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