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Palace Hotel

History

The Palace Hotel, a historic downtown San Francisco hotel, holds a fabled past steeped in grandeur. For over a century, the Palace Hotel has been the site of important and regal events ranging from formal political gatherings to the exclusive galas of high society and private parties. The Palace Hotel today maintains the hotel's tradition of excellence and sophistication.

100 Years of Tradition:

1909
April 24. Artist Maxfield Parrish met with Frederick Sharon, owner of the almost completed Palace Hotel on April 20, 1909. From Windsor, Vermont, on April 24, 1909, Parrish wrote: “I will make for the barroom in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, a painting measuring about 6' x 16' for the sum of six thousand dollars to be delivered on the first of November 1909. If you will kindly acknowledge the receipt of this, as far as I am concerned, it will be all the agreement necessary.” Palace advertising currently (2009) places the value of this piece of art at $2,500,000.

Dec. 15. John C. Kirkpatrick, managing director of the rebuilt Palace, hosts a banquet for San Francisco officials in the new caravansary’s Great Court. A total of 765 people pay $15 each to attend. Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor tells crowd: “Lovers of San Francisco — The Palace Hotel has risen again, and we are here tonight to celebrate its Easter....The beauty of its architecture together with the spirit of hospitality which made the old hotel so justly famous, makes this new Palace Hotel as much an institution of San Francisco as is its City Hall, so that we could scarcely think of San Francisco without thinking of the Palace Hotel.”

Dec. 16. Former California State Senator William C. Ralston, Jr., son of the Palace Hotel’s builder in 1875, was the first to sign the register of the new hotel at 1 p.m. Completion of the new hotel required 44 months of construction. Room prices in 1909 varied. For a one-person room with a detached bath, the cost was $2.00; add a private bath and rates were between $2.50 and $6.00. A two-person room, with detached bath, was $3.00; and with a private bath, the range was from $4.00 to $7.00. Suites began at $7.00. Club breakfasts were priced from 40 cents to 80 cents.1,500 people streamed into the new Palace Hotel to tour the hotel that had 685 guestrooms and suites. There were accommodations for 1,200. Rooms were furnished with specially designed brass beds and mahogany furniture. Telephone service was provided in every room. The Palace featured three large suites representing the highest example of hotel luxury. Each had four large bedrooms and a private dining room in addition to a spacious sitting room. The Men’s Bar, celebrated in the old hotel as the “unofficial capital of California,” reopens. Maxfield Parrish’s painting was hung above the bar. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” acquired at a cost of $6,000, highlights the Piper in a red-peaked cap leading 26 figures. Parrish, most famed for saloon art, built a reputation for this type of painting. He created “Sing a Song of Sixpence” for the Hotel Sherman in Chicago and “Old King Cole,” which gave its name to the art bar in the Hotel Knickerbocker in Times Square and more recently to a room at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. A major feature of the new Palace Hotel was the attractively decorated nursery where children could remain “for a few hours or a few days.” Trained nurses were always in attendance.

1910
Jan. 10. Afternoon tea service was inaugurated. The corridors of the Grand Court were crowded with society people who celebrated the first day of the innovation with the greatest enthusiasm.

1914
December. San Franciscans lamented the passing of the city’s last two-bit bar when the Palace Hotel ended a city tradition dating back to the Gold Rush. Until now every drink in the Pied Piper Bar had cost 25 cents. However, this high price included a sumptuous meal, including salads, breads, ham, turkey and chicken. Historically, the city boasted numerous two-bit establishments. Among them were the Occidental and Oriental hotels, the Pantheon and the Cliff House; all had previously succumbed. The Pied Piper had been the last to change.

1915
October 19. Thomas Alva Edison, wizard of electricity, was honored by Northern California telegraph operators with a banquet at the Palace Hotel. Menus were prepared in Morse code and orders were placed with telegraph keys along wires strung from table to table, each adorned with a realistic appearing telegraph pole. Automobile titan Henry Ford, a friend of Edison, also participated in the banquet.

1917
September 17. The Palace Ballroom was transformed into a card and reading room for soldiers in uniform. Hotel regulations stated that soldiers were to be disturbed only when there was “urgent need for a ballroom.”San Francisco society women greeted soldiers and sailors in this unique facility. Decorated with flags and flowers, the ballroom was furnished with a Victrola and a “mechanical piano.” When necessity required the moving of soldiers, men were shifted to another hotel facility. The ballroom was open daily from 6:30 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. and all day on weekends.

1918
February. Palace Hotel transformed into giant recruiting center for the U.S. Army.

Aug. 6. Wartime manpower shortages brought about change even in page boys. Three young Chinese lads began work, all dressed in fancy Oriental costumes of lavender and blue silk. They were placed under the direction of Roy West, head bellman at the Palace.

Oct. 14. Until now, since originally opening in 1875, all food servers have been men. Wartime labor shortages necessitated the hiring of women. Sixteen female waitresses were employed today. They were permitted to serve breakfast and lunch; however, patrons were assured, absolutely, that male waiters, exclusively, would always serve dinner.

1919
With the anticipated prohibition of sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, the Palace Hotel’s famed barroom has been transformed into a tea lounge.

1920
In the decade before 1930, when an increased number of cross-bay commuters justified continuation of all-night ferryboat service, the Palace offered special sanctuary for those who “inadvertently” missed the last scheduled boat. Regular commuters were given cards signed by the Palace Hotel manager assuring special room rates along with a kit containing pajamas, toilet articles and fresh socks at no extra charge.

1921
Jazz made its appearance at the Palace Hotel. Conservative old guard guests became increasingly annoyed by the gradual introduction of tangos, fox-trots and other modern dances. Management placed discrete signs in the ballroom to remind guests that such gyrations would not be tolerated; however, there was never any attempt at enforcement.

Jan. 21. Patrons gathered at the Palace to bid farewell to the Men’s Bar, the celebrated establishment that had been designed by Swen Christensen for the reopening of the hotel in 1909. Whereas once Palace patrons took their drinks straight, the closing of the Pied Piper was toasted with Ginger Ale.

Dec. 20. The Pied Piper bar, which had been closed since the advent of Prohibition and preserved in the hope that some turn in the tide of Prohibition might make it possible to put it to use again, passed into oblivion with the pounding of hammers and ripping of saws. The half dozen workmen tearing it apart were seen as the pallbearers. Frank G. Drum, president of the Palace Hotel Company, manager Halsey E. Manwaring and a group of prominent San Franciscans looked on as mourners.

1923
Aug. 2. President Warren G. Harding, who had suffered “food poisoning” while cruising the Alaska coast aboard the presidential yacht, died in Room 8064 — the presidential suite. The next day the presidential suite was crowded with people. The open casket was banked with flowers. City officials and politicians visited the Palace to gaze upon the deceased president.

1923
Green Goddess Salad Dressing created at the Palace. In his determination to pay tribute to actor George Arliss (1868-1946) for his starring role in the William Archer play The Green Goddess, the Palace’s executive chef experimented with a new salad dressing that, like the play, became a major hit with the public. The Green Goddess was also the name of a silent film (1923) and a Warner Brothers remake (1930). George Arliss starred in the play and both film versions. The dressing recipe blended green onion with mayonnaise, tarragon, parsley, vinegar and anchovies.

1927
Sept. 16. The American aviator Colonel Charles Lindbergh, acclaimed as a hero because of his solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris, France, in May of this year, “drops from the clouds” at Mills Field (San Francisco Municipal Airport). He flew to San Francisco to encourage the development of commercial aviation and the construction of airports. Lindbergh received an extraordinary welcome. Following a two-hour rest at the Bellevue Hotel where he stayed, at 6 p.m., he was feted with a major banquet set in The Garden Court of the Palace Hotel.

1933
Oct. 30. With an atmosphere redolent of continental smartness and yet with a San Francisco flair, the Palm Court, which between 1909 and 1920 had served as the hotel lobby and for the past decade as a restaurant with little tables dotting the room, opened at noon with a new guise—that of a French café lounge and garden restaurant. The Palm Court was now thoroughly continental in its smartness reminiscent of Paris. Tables were turquoise blue. Ferns, bamboos, vines and other potted plants hid the historic palms. Chinese scatter rugs replaced the regal red carpets. Walls and the antique glass ceiling had a color scheme of coral and blue. Only the massive crystal chandeliers and marble columns were recognized in the metamorphosis. In pre-Earthquake days , the Palm Court had been the main carriage entry from New Montgomery Street that witnessed the arrival of presidents, kings, queens and notables of every country. The elegant chamber was done over under the precise supervision of San Francisco designer Bruce Porter and the watchful eye of Mrs. William B. Johnstone, granddaughter of William Sharon. The Palm Court became a quaint garden spot that “smacks of Paris smartness” with flowers in more or less formal pattern.

1934
Dec. 20. “The Pied Piper”, famed painting by artist Maxfield Parrish, which for 14 years since the advent of Prohibition had been stored at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, amid much ceremony, was returned home to the Palace Hotel bar. California’s new State liquor control law, making it legal to sell hard liquor by the drink in hotels, restaurants, clubs and the like, became effective today. “The Pied Piper” was returned to its place in the old bar. Hotel manager Archibald H. Price planned a luncheon in celebration of the occasion. The new Pied Piper was soon acclaimed as “one of the World’s Seven Great Bars.”

1939
Mrs. William Johnstone, granddaughter of William Sharon who was born in the hotel, acquired ownership of the caravansary.

Alfred A. Knopf published Bonanza Inn — America’s First Luxury Hotel written by historian Oscar Lewis and Carroll D. Hall. No other literary event was more significant in the song and story of the historic Palace Hotel that opened in 1875 and burned the afternoon of April 18, 1906, following the Great Earthquake. A story told with flair and style, the book immortalized the past and identified the hotel as the city’s greatest symbol of a bygone era. The book focused on the glory years of the old Palace, highlighting its uniqueness — the 32,000,000 bricks used in construction, the five hydraulic elevators, the 29 miles of carpets, the 9,000 polished brass cuspidors and a thousand other special features. The hotel was San Francisco’s most conspicuous icon of elegance during the Gilded Age. It was the old Palace that introduced San Franciscans to a tradition of gourmet cuisine and fine dining that survives to this day.

1943
March 26. “City Honors Chinese Leaders at the Most Magnificent Banquet of a Generation.” Long before the scheduled 8:30 p.m. banquet, the Palace Hotel’s Garden Court, Concert and Rose rooms were jammed to capacity. A total of 2,100 actually attended. Thousands more thronged through the lobby and corridors of the hotel hoping to see the “great lady.” The Garden Court was “ablaze” with flowers and flags. For the first time since the United States entered World War II in December 1941, formal wear for both men and women was de rigueur. The head table, shared with Governor and Mrs. Earl Warren and San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi, was covered with a red Chinese cloth and adorned with huge Chinese bowls containing red, white and blue flowers. It was set at the north end of the room. The dinner, highlighted by rare food and vintages, came to a dramatic conclusion when hotel’s head chef, carrying a tray upon which was a magnificently illuminated pagoda, followed by a parade of waiters, filed into the three banquet rooms carrying miniature pagodas on trays serving what was referred to as “peche pagode Madame Chiang Kai-shek” — a peach dessert created especially for her.

1944
August. An injunction was brought against the Palace Hotel for raising prices in the dining room by 20 to 50 percent beyond legal limits. Fried eggplant, previously 40 cents had been raised to 60 cents. Fresh fruit in season went from 30 cents to 45 while the price of brook trout was raised from $1 to $1.30. A dozen other restaurants were also charged.

1954
Fall. Mrs. William B. Johnstone, owner of the Palace Hotel and a descendant of William Sharon, sells the caravansary to Sheraton Hotels of America for $6,500,000. Conrad Hilton, who had offered $4,500,000, was outbid. Once famed Palace Hotel menus underwent major restructuring. In an effort to shave funds from the operating budget, Oysters Kirkpatrick, a tradition on dinner menus, were “banished.” In their stead, lamb chops and string beans were added to the menu. Sheraton-Palace management declared that “it is no longer possible to maintain all the costly traditions that sentiment once dictated...our predecessors, the Sharon family, had been more intent on maintaining the traditions of the past than the vitality of the profit and loss statement.”Under Sheraton direction, Palace Hotel rooms were redecorated. Upon completion, every room, coast to coast in Sheraton hotels, is decorated identically.

1969
The Garden Court was designated San Francisco Landmark Number 18 by the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. In the 1980s the landmark status was extended to include the entire hotel except for its southwest corner.

1973
San Francisco’s Sheraton-Palace was acquired by a Japanese corporation, the Kyo - ya which, translated, means “Fun House.” This corporation retained the services of Sheraton Hotels of America to provide management.

1978
Benches for bellmen had been removed from the Palace lobby in April 1976 because management felt it would look bad if arriving guests did not see bellmen standing alertly and ready to carry luggage to the guest rooms. This decision required bellmen to stand seven hours per day. This changed in 1978, but not before the state Division of Labor Standards and the District Attorney’s office threatened to file criminal charges against the Palace. Benches were returned and bellmen were allowed to sit.

1984
June 6. Despite grumbling from attorneys for the Sheraton-Palace Hotel, the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board gave landmark status to the entire hotel. This action was taken in response to plans by the Kyo-ya Corp. to build a 26-story tower addition at the corner of Jessie and Annie streets. Historically minded San Franciscans feared that the tower would overshadow the stained-glass domed roof of the landmark Belle Époque Garden Court dining room inside.

1989
Jan. 9. The great Renaissance-Baroque Palace closed yesterday for the first and only time since it had opened in December 1909. The last guests to check out in mid-afternoon were Mr. and Mrs. K. Milstein of Fitztroy, Australia. The Palace’s general manager and vice-president, Donald Timbie, walked through the halls and declared: “It’s very strange. It’s very lonely.”Feb. 21. The Sheraton-Palace placed much of its past up for auction to sell off most of the old furniture, fixtures and finery that had made the Palace a landmark of style and gracious living for more than 100 years. Three hundred were present for the event. This was the first of a three-day sale. Buyers from all over the West bought paintings, library tables, chairs and other furniture. Approximately 250 items were saved for “historical reasons.” Among those saved were the great crystal chandeliers that hung in The Garden Court, along with a number of large marble-top tables and a few carved pieces.

1991
April 3. The Palace Hotel reopened for business this morning after having undergone a two-year restoration that cost owners $150 million. The San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was chief architect for the project. Restoration of The Garden Court was undertaken by Page & Turnbull, specialists in historic restoration. The Kyo-ya Corp. transformed the Palace into an up-too-date business and convention facility with 45,000 square feet of meeting and conference rooms, a swimming pool, health club and other amenities. Although strange for San Francisco, the new caravansary was fully air conditioned. The Kyo-ya people spent approximately $300,000 per room to restore the Palace Hotel to some semblance of its original splendor.

Visitors longing for opulence of the past were stunned by vistas of shining chandeliers, cool marble floor mosaics, stained-glass skylights and ornate gold-trimmed plaster facades of cherubs, violins and flowers. The renovated building offered seven stories of 550 refurbished luxury guest rooms, including 26 suites for the disabled, 19 executive suites and one presidential suite.The restored Garden Court, according to architectural critic Allan Temko, “is not only the most resplendent room in San Francisco, but one of the largest: 120 feet long, 85 feet wide and 44 feet high from the marble paving to the oblong dome of amber and silvery glass. There are some 25,000 individual panes in the immense translucent skylight, arranged in 692 geometric panels, and every one of them has been taken down, cleaned, mended where necessary, and replaced in a rebuilt armature under a handsome new outer skylight.” One writer placed the number of pieces of stained glass in the four-story dining room’s ornamental dome at 70,000. The restored room was punctuated by ten 700-pound crystal chandeliers. On the fourth floor was a glass-domed swimming pool and health spa.

2009
The Renaissance-Baroque Palace Hotel that had opened to the public in December 1909 celebrates its Centennial with a seven month long celebration “100 Years of Tradition”.


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