The Stories Behind 5 of SF’s Most History-Rich Hotels

Because brand-spankin’-new can be boring

By Diane Rommel

The Stories Behind 5 of SF’s Most History-Rich Hotels
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11 October 2018

Tired of antiseptic corporate rentals? How about a return to something a little more authentic?

San Francisco doesn’t have an endless number of historic hotels — no doubt because many of them burned to the ground in 1906. But the ones that did survive did so with style: marble-columned, antique-decorated, dripping-with-gold style.

Whether you’re scouting a spot for guests or looking for a staycation with some grandeur, we recommend these five historic hotels — including the one that in the space of a single year witnessed the birth of both the United Nations and the Tonga Room.

Plus: presidential ghosts, Mark Twain and a monastery.

argonaut (4 images)

The Argonaut
Neighborhood: Fisherman’s Wharf
Dating from: 1907
Historic bona fides: The Argonaut is so historic that it shares a space with the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park — guests can walk straight into the visitor’s center from the hotel lobby. It’s built in the one-time Haslett Warehouse, originally constructed by the California Fruit Canner's Association for the packing of central California’s agricultural bounty: peaches, cherries, apricots, and more. After the canning operations moved elsewhere, the beautiful brick warehouse stored various strange things — including a disassembled Italian monastery belonging to William Randolph Hearst. Down Hyde Street, guests will still find 19th-century schooners, now on view courtesy of the national park.

Images via Noble House Hotels and Resorts

galleria (4 images)

Galleria Park Hotel
Neighborhood: Union Square
Dating from: 1863 (sort of) 
Historic bona fides: The Galleria Park just underwent a massive renovation — but its bones are old. The hotel occupies what used to be the Lick House, known as the best hotel west of the Mississippi at its height, with a dining room meant to mimic that of the Palace of Versailles; the Galleria similarly assumes the space of the former Occidental Hotel, which Mark Twain called “heaven on a half-shell” in his book Roughing It. Both hotels burned to the ground in 1906; from the ashes rose the Sutter Hotel, allegedly the birthplace of the martini. Today? Honor bars, free wifi, and Illy espresso machines.

Images via Galleria Park Hotel

palace (4 images)

Palace Hotel
Neighborhood:
Dating from: 1875
Historic bona fides: When it opened in 1875, the Palace Hotel was the biggest and priciest hotel in the world. (Sounds about right.) Modeled on the palace hotels of Europe — and founder/Gold Rush millionaire William Chapman Ralston’s own 80-room mansion — it offered guests both toilets and fireplaces. Of course it all came down in 1906, to be rebuilt and reopened three years later. Many presidents stayed in this new incarnation; one — Warren Harding — died there, following a heart attack.

Images via Marriott International

whitcomb (3 images)

Hotel Whitcomb
Neighborhood: SoMa
Dating from: 1916
Historic bona fides: Every historic hotel in San Francisco was impacted in some way by the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Whitcomb is no exception, but unlike, for example, the Palace, it didn’t burn to the ground. It was, in fact, still under construction when city planners pressed it into service as a makeshift city hall from 1912 to 1915 — look hard and you’ll see some governmental signage. Plus there’s the small matter of the basement-level cells once used as the city’s jail, which is definitely not at all creepy.

Images via Ryan C. on Yelp and Hotel Whitcomb

fairmont (2 images)

The Fairmont
Neighborhood: Nob Hill
Dating from: 1907
Historic bona fides: The Fairmont was just about to open in 1906 when disaster struck: The exterior survived, but the interior was destroyed by fire. With the help of architect Julia Morgan — the first woman licensed to practice in California, and better known for her work on Hearst Castle — the hotel reopened a year later. The hotel witnessed two landmark events in 1945: the signing of the charter creating the United Nations, and the opening of the hotel’s Tonga Room. (Taking reservations now for Rumtoberfest, BTW.)

Images via AccorHotels

Main image via Marriott International

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