Hotel Whitcomb

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Discover the Hotel Whitcomb with its history as San Francisco's City Hall in the early 20th century, complete with jail cells in the basement.

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Hotel Whitcomb, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 2007, dates back to 1916.


In 1906, San Francisco was devastated by one of the most powerful earthquakes recorded in history. While such a natural event was not fairly uncommon in that part of California, the ferocity of this particular earthquake completely stunned everyone who experienced it. At precisely 5:12 am on April 18, the nearby San Andreas fault line ruptured, with violent shocks affecting the entire San Francisco area for just a minute. Yet, in that short span of time, the entire city trembled violently. Buildings toppled over by the dozens, while various streets became strewn with rubble. But just as the tremors stopped, a blazing inferno swept through San Francisco that lasted for a total of four days. It subsequently burnt down what remained of the city in short order. As the fires finally died out across the city, many San Franciscans nevertheless looked upon their desolated community with hope. Undeterred, they endeavored to build back stronger than ever, inspired by the creed of the popular City Beautiful Movement of the age. Among the many buildings that the locals sought to raise again was City Hall, which had operated inside its previous headquarters for only a few decades. Local civic leaders struggled to find a way to reconstruct the desolated structure though, often getting caught in debates over its location and financing. As such, the prospective construction project stagnated for several years, with government officials even forgetting about the work for long stretches of time. Meanwhile, the various offices affiliated with City Hall were forced to work in neighboring buildings as tenants for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, salvation arrived in the form Mayor P.H. McCarthy, who won the mayoral office in November 1909. McCarthy took a renewed interest in reconstructing City Hall, driven by a progressive zeal, as well as the desire to employ his allies in the Building Trades Council. The mayor finally resolved the complicated financial problems that had plagued the project since its inception, forming a partnership with the Whitcomb Estate Company to erect the new edifice. The two parties struck a deal in which the Whitcomb Estate Company allowed City Hall to occupy the structure as a lessee, while the city government dictated the building’s whole layout. The two sides also agreed that the arrangement was temporary, deciding that the skyscraper would become a luxurious boutique hotel some time thereafter. Selecting a plot of land the company owned along Market Street, the two groups hired architectural firm Wright, Rushford, and Cahill to design the new City Hall. Work began in earnest in 1910 and lasted for two years. Costing some $600,000 to complete, it was one of the grandest structures in all of San Francisco when it finally debuted. It stood seven-stories tall and featured some of the finest Beaux-Arts-style architecture in all the reborn San Francisco. All kinds of departments soon operated within the building, such as the City Clerk, Tax Collector, Fire Commissioners, and so on. There was even an emergency hospital located inside the structure! Many residents were also impressed by the new City Hall, often informing each other of their attraction to its magnificent architectural details.

Yet, the building’s time as City Hall proved to be short-lived—much shorter than what had originally been anticipated. In mere months, plans were already underway to construct an even grander City Hall in preparation of the upcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition. As construction commenced on the second building, the Whitcomb Estate Company immediately began converting the structure into a spectacular hotel. Starting in 1916, the work took several months to finish, as well as $400,000 in capital. The company spared no expense in its renovation either, going as far as to import 300,000 feet of Jenezerro hardwood from Central America for all the doorways and molding. When the business opened as the “Hotel Whitcomb” a year later, many hailed it as an engineering masterpiece. It quickly became one of the most popular destinations in San Francisco, prompting the Whitcomb Estate Company to create a new wing of some 102 guestrooms in 1922. Yet, this initial wave of prosperity was not destined to last forever, as interest with the Hotel Whitcomb declined considerably in the years following World War II. Eventually, new owners transformed the historic hotel into an apartment complex known simply as “The Whitcomb.” But in the early 2000s, a group of concerned hoteliers acquired the building and endeavored to resurrect its previous identity as a prominent vacation hotspot. Investing heavily into its rebirth, the Hotel Whitcomb opened once more to great acclaim in 2007. A member of Historic Hotels of America since then, Hotel Whitcomb continues to be one of San Francisco’s most outstanding holiday destinations.

  • About the Location +

    Hotel Whitcomb resides in the heart of South of Market, one of San Francisco’s most luxurious neighborhoods. It is among the most historic destinations in San Francisco, too, with its first inhabitants arriving at the height of the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. A city of tents sprawled throughout the area, housing thousands of aspiring gold miners lured west under the promise of quick riches. Known as “Happy Valley,” most of the settlement was confined to the only space of dry land in the area, as the locale was predominately untamed marshland at the time. Yet, by the end of the century, the tents had been replaced with a mixture of towering skyscrapers and warehouses. City officials had undertaken the difficult task of dredging most of the surrounding swamp, importing pounds of land just to make the district level. The main avenue through the region was Market Street, which predominantly attracted large amounts of industrial activity. Among the businesses present in the neighborhood included iron foundries, boiler work, machine shops, arms manufacturers, and even breweries. The coastline just a few blocks to the east quickly filled up with wharves, as well, becoming a center for local maritime traffic. But a diverse residential population soon emerged in the region, constituted largely of working-class immigrants from Europe who toiled in the nearby plants. The area around Rincon Hill and South Park also attracted wealthy residents who frequently traveled further into the city for their work. Cable cars operated by the Market Street Railway Company became the most popular method of transportation for the locals, which soon formed an unofficial boundary between the neighborhood and the rest of San Francisco. As such, it developed its own unique identity, eventually becoming known as “South of Market.”

    Like the rest of the city, South of Market was completely devastated by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. In fact, South of Market was among the most devastated areas, as many of the local fault lines resided close nearby. Despite the devastation wrought by the natural disaster, San Franciscans initially rebuilt the neighborhood to integrate it better with the commercial activities elsewhere in town. Over time though, more working-class families moved into the district, specifically single men employed as sailors and seasonal laborers. Thus, the major building projects in South of Market during the first few decades of the 20th century involved residential houses rather than industrial complexes. Furthermore, the shipping industry gradually established itself as the dominant business in the area, replacing the heavy industry that existed in the years prior to the earthquake. Chicanos, Filipinos, and African Americans also started moving into the region, inspired by the plethora of available jobs at the wharves. Urban renewal then spread to the neighborhood shortly after World War II due to the creation of the Embarcadero to the north. It subsequently evolved into an active center for nightlife by the middle of the century, as well as a haven for the local LBGT community. In the 1980s and 1990s, South of Market even developed a reputation for its live music venues, hosting all kinds of performances related to the independent music scene. Today, South of Market is synonymous with downtown San Francisco. It is home to many outstanding cultural attractions, such as Moscone Center, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oracle Park (home to the historic San Francisco Giants), and the Yerba Buena Gardens. South of Market also contains many iconic skyscrapers in all of San Francisco, including Millennium Tower and One Rincon Hill.

  • About the Architecture +

    Hotel Whitcomb serves as a marvelous example of late-19th century architecture in the United States, specifically Beaux-Arts-inspired architecture. Costing some $600,000 to initially complete, the accomplished architectural firm Wright, Rushford, and Cahill oversaw its original brilliant design. It stood seven-stories tall and housed every department within the local city government of San Francisco. Yet, when City Hall relocated to a new structure in 1916, the building’s owner—the Whitcomb Estate Company—converted it into a magnificent boutique hotel. The business spared no expense, investing another $400,000 into the project. Many brilliant features appeared inside the structure, such as beautiful Tiffany stained glass, Jenezerro hardwood from Central America, and crystal chandeliers imported directly from Austria. Beaux-Arts-style architecture itself became widely popular in around the dawn of the 20th century. This beautiful architectural form originally began at an art school in Paris known as the École des Beaux-Arts during the 1830s. There was much resistance to the Neoclassism of the day among French artists, who yearned for the intellectual freedom to pursue less rigid design aesthetics. Four instructors in particular were responsible for establishing the movement: Joseph-Louis Duc, Félix Duban, Henri Labrouste, and Léon Vaudoyer. The training that these instructors created involved fusing architectural elements from several earlier styles, including Imperial Roman, Italian Renaissance, ad Baroque. As such, a typical building created with Beaux-Arts-inspired designs would feature a rusticated first story, followed by several more simplistic ones. A flat roof would then top the structure. Symmetry became the defining character, with every building’s layout featuring such elements like balustrades, pilasters, and cartouches. Sculptures and other carvings were commonplace throughout the design, too. Beaux-Arts only found a receptive audience in France and the United States though, as most other Western architects at the time gravitated toward British design principles.

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