The most vivid memory I have of my senior prom is not the boy (it was a date of convenience) or the place (a downmarket hall for a blue collar high school). It‘s the post-prom party at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. This palace high atop Nob Hill was out of the question for teens who were not on the debutante track – much too expensive and intimidating ritzy. But there was one exception: the Tonga Room, every inch of it decorated in South Sea kitsch, from hanging coconuts to a floating band and intermittent rainstorms. Prom-goers still go to the dimly-lit restaurant bar, with its over-the-top decor. The oversized umbrella-covered fruit drinks can still pass for Mai Tais or something alcoholic, useful when the drinking age is 21.
Of course, the room, converted in l947 by MGM set designers, is a relatively new add-on (and oddity) to this grand hotel. The world‘s first Fairmont was built 40 years before, with money from James Fair‘s silver fortune. It, along with other Fairmont Hotels around the world, is winding up year-long 1907-2007 centennial celebrations to mark the occasion this year.
With unbeatably bad timing, the hotel was only two weeks away from opening when the l906 earthquake struck. Its sturdy Italian Renaissance- style exterior withstood the shock, but the fires (in many places worse than the earthquake) severely damaged the interiors. The controversial choice to oversee the renovations was Julia Morgan, the first woman architect in California, who later went on to design the Heart Castle.
Exactly one year after the earthquake, on April l8, l907, the Fairmont opened its doors, the first hotel in San Francisco to reopen after the earthquake. To celebrate the occasion fireworks illuminated City Hall, hundreds of ships clustered in the Bay and the hotel had an enormous banquet. San Francisco as well as the Fairmont had come back.
The fortunes and traditions of the city and the hotel have remained connected. The hotel, perched on one of the highest hills in the city, could not have been built without San Francisco‘s first cable car, which hauled building materials up the hill too steep for horses to climb.
Throughout the years the Fairmont was the location for debutante balls, Yehudi Menuhin‘s first violin concert, and the drafting of the United Nations Charter (hence the multiple flags flying outside the entrance). The first concierge in America, Tom Wolfe, has worked for the Fairmont for decades. The Venetian Room, once considered the best supper club on the West Coast, was where Tony Bennett left his heart;. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole often played the room. Flamboyant owner Benjamin Swig not only hired black entertainers, a daring move the late l940’s; he was one of the first to let them stay in a major hotel
The co-existence of high society and social conscience is typical of ths city of second acts, which cherishes its traditions and takes on adversity with stylish resilience. When the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook the city in l989, it traumatized citizens and scared away tourists. San Franciscans seized the moment, voting to demolish the damaged double-decker Embarcadero Freeway. The result was a new life for the neglected l898 Ferry Building, now a major foodie destination for locals as well as tourists.
San Francisco might be known for its iconoclasm and its next new thing, but this is a city that can be formal as well as freewheeling, often at the same time. It‘s a place where women wear a long gowns to opera galas, and where even in the l960’s white gloves were de rigeur for downtown shopping in the city‘s elegant department stores. When the beloved I Magnins store was acquired by Macy‘s l996, its spacious marble powder room (considered the best in town) was preserved intact, right next to Macy‘s shiny new one.
The Fairmont, despite all the requisite high tech upgrades, is also preserving its past, even returning to it. During an $US 85 million restoration, decades of decor were peeled back to reveal murals and marble floors. In the mid-l940’ss, it had been redone with red carpets and black lacquer. The rakish decor made a splash in the post-war era, but by the l990’s some were describing it as Gold Rush bordello. Thanks to an historically meticulous restoration, the lobby, with its marble floors, Corinthian columns, gold trim and velvet sofas, looks much the same as it did in l907. The adjacent Laurel Court, covered for decades, is once again serving high tea. Of course, the bread is sourdough and there is Sonoma goat cheese in the sandwiches.
The restoration team was helped by blueprints and century-old photos; some hang in the main corridor, next to photos of movie stars, European royalty and US Presidents (every president since William Howard Taft has stayed at the hotel).
Looking at the city from my room at the Fairmont, I see a panoramic view that scans the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit tower, the twin steeples of St. Peter and St Paul Church in North Beach, and mostly low rise buildings. Incredibly, this side of the city looks strikingly similar to the photos of SF in the early part of the century.
The Fairmont was bought and sold many times, and the last decade brought a Canadian connection. In l999, Canadian Pacific Limited acquired the hotel and it joined with such landmarks as the Chateau Laurier and Empress. The company sold the Fairmont a few years later. Now the company that manages the Fairmont and the one that owns it are both based in Toronto The name Fairmont now is plural, and includes 51 hotels in ten countries.
Yet for anyone who grew up in San Francisco, there is really only one Fairmont. Its bumper sticker might read, My Fairmont includes the Tonga Room. A few years ago, word got out that the Polynesian decor might be scrapped. San Franciscans spoke up, as they always do, and tradition won out. The Tonga Room stays the same. It‘s worth a toast, with a real Singapore Sling.