San Francisco has its share of swanky historic hotels, but only one gets to hold the title of oldest surviving hotel. The Palace Hotel at the corner of New Montgomery and Market streets in SoMa has been the grand dame of San Francisco since 1875, and has enough stories within its walls to fill a book.
The original Palace Hotel opened in 1875 as a pet project of SF banker and financier William Ralston. It was designed by John P. Gaynor, who was a hot-shot architect in NYC at the time. Ralston instructed Gaynor to study European luxury hotels for ideas, wanting to outdo them all. Supposedly it cost $5M to build (that's over $100M in today's money) and was advertised as the largest and most luxurious hotel in the world. With 755 giant rooms, 804 fireplace mantels, private toilets, and its own brick factory and oak forest to produce materials, it wasn't an exaggeration. In addition to a fireplace in every room, it was one of the first hotels to offer air conditioning.
The entrance had this giant interior carriage entry, which by the turn of the century have been converted into an interior garden court.
Even though the hotel had a reportedly state-of-the-art earthquake defense system with cisterns and rooftop water tanks, the hotel was completely gutted. The hotel was torn down and a new one constructed in its exact same place.
While the new Palace Hotel was under construction, a two-story "Baby" Palace opened at the intersection of Post and Leavenworth for about a year. Afterwards the Palace Hotel Company leased the Baby Palace to the Olympic Club as a temporary clubhouse while they were rebuilding too.
The "New" Palace Hotel opened in 1909. With was designed by George Kelham of the NY firm of Trowbridge and Livingston (of SF Main Library/Asian Art Museum fame). He echoed the original garden court with a three-story Parisian-style open space often used as a banquet hall. This iteration contains a $7M stained-glass dome and Austrian crystal chandeliers. The Garden Court has been considered important from its inception, designated as (one of the rare interior) city landmarks in 1969.
Rooms in the new hotel reached maximum swankiness: brass beds and mahogany furniture, telephones in every room (a real novelty at the time), and three major luxury suites each with four bedrooms and a private dining room. There was also a full-time nursery, a kitchen with over 125 cooks, and Bavarian gold dinner china. The celebrated afternoon tea service started in 1910 and was an instant success, known as the place to see and be seen by society's elite.
The Men's Bar in the original Palace Hotel had been dubbed the "unofficial capital of California" since many of the infant state's most powerful men spent their evenings there. The New Palace recreated the club-like lounge, with a massive painting by Maxfield Parrish depicting the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Other than a hiccup last year when the hotel tried to sell the painting, it's hung in the bar ever since.
· PALACE HOTEL "100 Years of Tradition" A Chronology 1909-2009 [Palace Hotel]
· Palace Hotel [SF Museum and Historical Society]
· San Francisco City Landmark #18 [SF Planning]
· A Brief History of the Palace Hotel of San Francisco [thepalacehotel.org]