June 17, 2011

Palace Hotel stay fit for royalty

Posted in Between Us column, Travel, Women at 4:52 am by dinaheng

When it comes to history and elegance, The Palace Hotel in San Francisco is not to be missed.

Stepping into its grand lobby, meticulously maintained in a Beaux Arts style, transports you back in time to 1875 when guests arrived in horse-drawn carriages, and hundreds of gas jet lamps illuminated the seven-story hotel and courtyard.

When my sister Linda and I flew into town recently for a quick family reunion, we decided to treat ourselves to an overnight stay at the historic landmark hotel. Relatives on the West Coast had come together to celebrate the wedding of a cousin and her husband, who had gotten married on the East Coast a week before.

Before joining the family, Linda and I had time to take a San Francisco City Guides tour of The Palace Hotel, offered on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Thursdays at 2 p.m. Walking tours are free, with donations welcome to support the nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the history and folklore of San Francisco.

A tour and lunch in the hotel‘s Garden Court restaurant is also available for $25 per person.

Most of the time, I’d wager that guests who stay at older hotels — unless they’re true history buffs — don’t think much about the actual past of the building they’re sleeping in.

Rob Spoor, our volunteer tour guide, shared a colorful tale about The Palace Hotel that made Linda and me more appreciative of our surroundings. Behind the front desk are portraits of the hotel’s two original owners — William Chapman Ralston and Nevada Sen. William Sharon.

As the story goes, Ralston was a wealthy California investor and one of the founders of the Bank of California. He dreamed of creating the biggest hotel in the world, and in 1875, The Palace Hotel was built with 800 rooms for $5 million, the equivalent of $100 million today.

“It was the most expensive, luxurious hotel of its time, and was technologically advanced with safety features for fire and earthquake,” Spoor explained.

Unfortunately, just before its opening, the Bank of California collapsed, and the next day, Ralston’s body was found in the San Francisco Bay, presumed to be a suicide. Sharon, known for being a disreputable senator who rarely appeared in Nevada, living instead in San Francisco, took sole ownership of the hotel and opened it in 1875. Hmm… guess history hasn’t changed much in some respects.

The luxurious lodging, fit for royalty, attracted society’s finest. Over the years, it hosted Don Pedro III, Emperor of Brazil, who was the first reigning monarch to visit the United States in 1876; King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Presidents Warren G. Harding, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt,  notables like Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and more.

But when the famed 1906 San Francisco earthquake — somewhere between a 7.9 to 8.3 on the Richter scale — struck, all that was left of the hotel was its exterior walls. The Palace was razed and rebuilt in 1907, then was sold to Sheraton Hotels in 1954, which sold it in 1973 to the Japanese group Kyo-Ya. The hotel continues to be owned by Kyo-Ya, and in the 1990s became part of the Starwood Luxury Collection.

We walked through The Pied Piper Bar & Grill, which features an amazing 1909 Maxfield Parrish painting of “The Pied Piper” and two murals by San Francisco artist Antonio Sotomayer, admiring the marble mosaic tiled floors, oak carved walls and colored glass ceiling as they would have looked in 1909.

We learned that half of the Grand Ballroom, once called The Rose Room, was once a private dining room for women. Apparently, women traveling alone in 1909 who didn’t want to be hassled by men in public had to sequester themselves in separate hotel dining rooms. Thankfully, that’s not the case today — at least not in this country.

The tour doesn’t take you to the guest room floors, but the hotel’s long corridors are brightly lit with historic-looking sconces. Rooms are spacious, and Linda and I were lucky enough to get upgraded to a corner parlor suite for the night. Room rates, depending on date of arrival,  start at $179 a night. Parking is $48 a night.

The elegance of the past is reflected in furnishings and bed linens that invite you to sit back (or lie down) and just relax. While we loved the Gilchrist & Soames amenities in the bathroom, Linda declared, “I refuse to get on the scale.”

With a location in the financial district, guests can expect to hear the sounds of the city and an occasional ambulance siren in the background. But you’re also within walking distance of Union Square and Chinatown.

The next morning, Linda and I sampled the breakfast buffet in The Garden Court downstairs. This, perhaps, is the most beautiful room in the hotel, with a domed ceiling made of iridescent glass that allows filtered sunlight into one of the largest public rooms in the world (about 8,000 square feet). Austrian crystal chandeliers add to the opulence.

On Sundays, breakfast from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. is the buffet ($29 per person) that we sampled. From 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the restaurant offers a more extensive Sunday Jazz Brunch for $68 per person, with entertainment.

Unfortunately, the earlier breakfast buffet was a disappointment. While the offerings were varied, the dishes were standard fare that was lukewarm in their chafing dishes. The only truly hot items we had were the oatmeal (which was creamy and delicious with numerous available toppings) and the bread, which you can toast yourself. The house baked pastries were hard to the touch.

All in all, our stay was lovely, though. We may not have been royalty or luminaries, but it sure was fun to walk in their footsteps and imagine life in the Gilded Age. Clearly, The Palace Hotel was the place to stay, and for loyal fans today, it still is.




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