Monday, October 3, 2011

City Guides Walking Tour of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco

Garden Court of The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California
photos by Dianne Smith

City Guides offers free walking tours throughout San Francisco, fascinating jaunts led by locals who love their city so much they donate their time to share it with others. The Palace Hotel, an historic landmark, is located at the southwest corner of Market and New Montgomery, above the entrance to the Montgomery Street Bart Station, and tours lasting about an hour begin on Saturdays and Tuesdays at 10:00 am and on Thursdays at 2:00 pm.

The Palace Hotel Walking Tour

The Palace Hotel
On the morning of October 1, 2011, the tour group meeting in the lobby was so large, two docents divided them in half and led separate tours. Cara Tramontano was an excellent guide, making the hotel's colorful history come alive.

William Ralston
  At the time the hotel was built in 1875, it was "the grandest hotel in the world," according to Andrew Carnegie. No expense was spared in its luxurious and sturdy construction, a seven story structure with two-foot thick concrete walls embedded with iron supports. It was the brainchild of William Ralston (1826-1875), who envisioned San Francisco as a world class city someday. Unfortunately he died just before his beaux arts hotel was completed, and it fell into the hands of his partner, William Sharon, whose family then held it for decades.

The opulent building had the first elevator west of the Mississippi, a "rising room" of sofas that could hold twenty to thirty people. 755 lavishly furnished guest rooms each had their own bathrooms with flushable toilets, air conditioning and electronic call buttons for room service. Meals were served with fine china, silver and crystal, and electricity was installed as soon as Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879. 

The Rebuilt Palace Hotel
Overlooking the Garden Court
From The French Parlor
The infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed the hotel, but it was painstakingly rebuilt in 1909 to more modern standards. The hallway of the second floor mezzanine level has a photo gallery of the original and rebuilt buildings.

The Garden Court, originally the horse carriage entrance, became a magnificent restaurant, with a tinted glass ceiling of 63,000 individual panes to bring in natural sunlight. The ceiling is reinforced with seismic webbing and attached to a second glass canopy. Crystal chandeliers weighing 750 pounds each suspend over elegantly set tables.

The cuisine always showcased the finest of local agriculture, introducing California's bounty to an international clientele. Some well known foods like Green Goddess salad dressing and chicken tetrazzini were created here. The list of luminaries who dined in the Garden Court are too numerous to mention, but one memorable guest was Nikita Kruschev in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. The kitchen crew called it "a horrible night" because he gave a speech in Russian lasting over two hours.

The grand ballroom is called the Ralston Room, and its signature feature are the chandeliers with their crystals cut into apple shapes and then chained together into giant pears. Another large room for conferences is Sunset Court, an area of new construction on the roof of the old building.

The French Parlor and The Pied Piper

French Parlor at The Palace Hotel

Overlooking the Garden Court is an ornate reception hall called the French Parlor with fancy arched windows. During Prohibition, the windows were boarded up and covered with red velvet, turning the parlor into a glorified speakeasy. Apparently San Franciscans didn't take the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution seriously during the fourteen years it was in effect, and the Palace Hotel was one of the worst offenders.

The Pied Piper Bar and Grill

City Guide Tour
Pied Piper Bar & Grill of
The Palace Hotel
The Pied Piper Bar and Grill is another intriguing part of the hotel. The old-fashioned gentlemen's bar with dark mahogany walls and rich, comfortable furnishings has witnessed the consummation of many business deals, the men puffing away on their cigars and pipes. The centerpiece of the bar is an amazing 1909 painting by Max Parrish called The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The famous artist was asked "to do a nice painting," and since children's fairy tales were highly popular, chose one of them for his subject. He painted his wife as one of the women, and the children depicted were ones he personally knew. He also included himself as the main character, tooting away as the Pied Piper.

The painting is a prize possession of the Palace Hotel. Someone once offered $7,000,000 for it, but they wouldn't bite. Prominently displayed under the painting is a 100-year old bottle of cognac. One shot costs $125 and the person who drinks the last drop will get to keep the bottle. The bar leads to another mahogany paneled room with a grand piano, glass ceiling and more artwork that pictures famous San Franciscans like Lotta Crabtree, an actress who got her start in San Francisco and gifted the landmark Lotta's Fountain to the city.

Also profiled is Emperor Norton, a beloved crackpot from the 1860's and 70's who told everyone he was the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He strutted around the streets in regal clothing, making public proclamations and printing his own currency. Everyone humored him, allowing him free meals, lodging and the best theater seats. When he died, 10,000 people attended his funeral.

The Palace Hotel is part of its San Francisco's cultural heritage, a fabulous place that has witnessed history within its walls and regularly hosts celebrities of all stripes. For anyone interested in learning more about the city's past, City Guide's walking tour of the hotel should top the list of things to do.

Glass Ceiling of French Parlor

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