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The Story Of… The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen

High on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco a hotel was planning to open its doors on 18 April 1906 only to be struck by a massive earthquake in the early hours of that day. The hotel survived relatively unscathed, but the interior was destroyed by a fire the next day. The Grand Opening was delayed to 1907. It was named after US Senator James Graham Fair and right here The United Nations were founded in the summer of 1945. Mr. Tom Wolfe joined the hotel in 1973 as the first concierge in America and he is still there to this day. Tony Bennett sang his signature song “I Left My Heart In Francisco” in the hotel’s Venetian Room for the first time in 1961. The 1980s TV show “Hotel” used the hotel’s exterior and interior to create St. Gregory’s. If you get a chance, go inside and take the elevator up to the roof terrace with unspoiled views over San Francisco.

KB: I read that the hotel was named after US Senator James Graham Fair? Tell me the story.

Fairmont San Francisco’s thrilling origin story begins with the California gold rush and Irish immigrant James Graham Fair. Along with the hundreds of thousands of others who flocked to the West during the mid-1800s, Fair came to California with golden ambitions. Instead, he found his fortune in the silver mines of Nevada and soon reaped a life of wealth and political influence in booming San Francisco. He purchased a plot of land atop Nob Hill, home to the ornate mansions of railroad tycoons such as Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, with plans to construct a palatial estate. Though he didn’t realize these dreams during his lifetime, following Fair’s death in 1894, the land was passed to his daughter Tessie. Along with sister Virginia, she eventually fulfilled their father’s vision, constructing a majestic hotel named after Fair, taking the family name (Fair) and the hotel’s location on top of a hill (Mont) to create the stately moniker.

KB: The 1906 earthquake damaged the interior, but not the exterior. Tell me the story.

The highly anticipated hotel was scheduled to open the morning of April 18, 1906, but at 5:12 a.m., a massive 7.9 earthquake rocked San Francisco. While the Great Quake felled thousands of buildings, Fairmont San Francisco survived relatively unscathed, and even served as a temporary command post for city officials. However, twenty-four hours later, the hotel’s lavish interiors were gutted by a fire that consumed much of the city. One year later, under the direction of Julia Morgan, California’s first female licensed architect who would later design Hearst Castle, Fairmont San Francisco became the city’s first major business to open following the quake. It threw open its doors with an extravagant fête featuring 13,000 oysters, rivers of champagne, and a night sky aglow with bursting fireworks. It was an opportunity for attendees to toast not just the hotel, but the rebirth of San Francisco. Hence, Fairmont San Francisco would come to be known as “a hotel so grand they built a city around it.”

KB: You have the first concierge in America working in your hotel? Tell me the story.

One of the people who tells Fairmont San Francisco’s story best is Tom Wolfe, who not only became the first concierge at the hotel, but within the entire United States. Before arriving at Fairmont San Francisco in 1973, Wolfe had worked alongside notable concierges in London and Paris, and in short time, he would bring those practices to Fairmont San Francisco and go on to find the U.S. branch of the renowned concierge association, Les Clefs d’Or. From presenting an eyelash-batting Marlene Dietrich with post-performance flowers to separating M&Ms by colour, Wolfe has seemingly fielded every request imaginable. “My wife jokes that I don’t get unusual requests anymore because I’ve already done it all,” he says. One of Wolfe’s more peculiar requests was securing a rare sports car. “After relaying a list of relatively commonplace requests, a guest suddenly turned on his heel, and asked me if I could track down a Ferrari GTO,” remembers Wolfe. Fortunately, Wolfe was a car buff, and knew of the rarefied vehicle. “They’re amazing cars, but hard to find,” he said. “I was able to locate one that day, and the guest motored happily ever after.”

KB: The United Nations was founded at The Fairmont?

As leaders and delegates from fifty nations descended upon San Francisco for the inaugural United Nations Conference on International Organization during the summer of 1945, Fairmont San Francisco played a role in the formation of the new global peacekeeping organization. The idea for the United Nations was formed during the throes of World War II, and President Truman’s Secretary of State, Edward R. Stettinius Jr. suggested that delegates draft a charter in San Francisco. While some of the assemblies took place at San Francisco’s Opera House and Veterans Building, smaller gatherings were held in Fairmont San Francisco’s Garden Room where, today, a plaque commemorates the launch of the UN charter. Stettinius spent the summer in Fairmont San Francisco’s magnificent Penthouse Suite, displacing heiress Maude Flood who famously remarked that the next time she left Fairmont San Francisco would be in a pine box. Apparently, Stettinius’ lavish quarters were the preferred spot for VIPs to gather after the day’s formalities and mingle over cigars and brandy.

On June 25th, 1945, Truman arrived at Fairmont San Francisco to greet the delegates amidst great fanfare. Later that evening, the United Nations’ much-debated charter was formally approved, and it was signed by delegates the following day. San Francisco had so wooed its international visitors that it made the short list for the United Nations’ permanent home (though it ultimately lost out to New York). Today, the flags of every nation represented at that historic meeting fly above the hotel’s grand entrance. Over the years, dignitaries have reportedly requested that a rival flag be removed during their stay, yet Fairmont San Francisco has stayed true to the UN’s charter, politely declining and letting all the flags wave.

KB: The 80s series Hotel used the exterior for the fictional hotel St Gregory. Was the interior also used?

The interior of Fairmont San Francisco was also used for various scenes in the 80 series Hotel. Throughout the series you’ll see our lobby with grand marble columns, guestrooms and suites, including our Penthouse Suite, our ballrooms, and panoramic bay and city views that only Fairmont San Francisco has to offer.

KB: Mr. Tony Bennett sang his signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” for the first time at your hotel. Tell me the story and the story about his statue outside.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, Fairmont San Francisco’s glamorous Venetian Room was the place to be with lush red interiors, a swinging house orchestra, and jacketed waiters whisking about candlelit tables. In December 1961, a well-dressed crowd at the fabulous supper club became the first to hear Tony Bennett serenade them with what would become his signature tune.
Since that night, Mr. Bennett and Fairmont San Francisco have enjoyed a special bond.

In 2016, Fairmont San Francisco hosted Bennett’s 90th birthday and unveiled an 8-foot-tall bronze likeness of the singer, which stands in front of the hotel. On that day, Mayor Ed Lee declared August 19th to be “Tony Bennett Day,” and a local ice cream shop scooped the Bennett-inspired flavor “Duet” with limoncello and biscotti in a nod to the crooner’s Italian heritage. Two years later, Fairmont San Francisco, along with the City of San Francisco, renamed the stretch of street that fronts the hotel as Tony Bennett Way, and christened it with a celebrity-studded block party. Yet, it was Bennett’s entrance that wowed the crowd, as he — or rather, a stuntwoman dressed as Bennett — rappelled down the front of the hotel to excited cheers below.

Today, guests can leave their own heart in San Francisco by booking Fairmont San Francisco’s Diplomat Tony Bennett Suite on the 22nd floor of the Tower Building, which offers panoramic views of the city so beloved by the legendary singer, along with original artwork from Bennett himself.

KB: What movies did The Fairmont appear in?

Fairmont San Francisco is famous for setting the scene for various movies and films. A few of the many well-known movies filmed on property are Towering Inferno, Hotel, The Rock, Vertigo, The Intern, and more recently, Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, where a replica of Fairmont San Francisco was recreated and filmed in Australia.

KB: Can you tell me which famous celebrities are calling The Fairmont home away from home since the hotel’s opening?

Fairmont San Francisco has hosted almost every president along with many celebrities since its grand opening in 1907. Speaking of films, the Kardashians filmed an episode of their hit television series Keeping Up with the Kardashians in our historic Penthouse Suite and were of course guests of the hotel during their filming. Nowadays, we partner with many influencers and celebrities. To stay up to date with our influencers and celebrity guests, visit our Instagram pages about the hotel and the Tonga Room.

KB: Tell me about the history of The Tonga Room in the basement.

Hidden below the lobby on the property’s terrace level, Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is regarded as one of the grandest tiki destinations across the globe — famously, Anthony Bourdain even referred to it as “the greatest place in the history of the world.” Swathed in thatched huts and towering ship masts, Tonga Room has enchanted visitors (including the beloved Bourdain) with its exotic cocktails and Asian-inspired nibbles for decades. The lava rock landmark embodies the history of tiki culture and has inspired a burgeoning tiki revival in San Francisco and beyond. Opened in 1945, one year after the world’s first Mai Tai was poured in nearby Oakland, CA, the 75-year-old Tonga Room continues to pack its richly decorated interior with regulars and first-time visitors alike. That’s no small feat in food-obsessed San Francisco, where dining trends change yearly. Sure, dishes have kept current with the times — today’s diners can enjoy crispy kalua pork tacos, ahi poke tostadas, and cauliflower fried rice — but the Tonga’s magical allure transcends the menu.

“The Tonga Room is frequented by visitors from all generations because it provides an experience beyond food and drink,” says Sven Kirsten, tiki scholar and author of numerous tiki tomes, including the seminal Book of Tiki. “It’s a prime example of a Polynesian Pop-theme restaurant that, despite never being recognized by art and architecture critics in its heyday, was loved by the people.” Like much of American pop culture, the tiki bar concept was born in Hollywood. In the years following Prohibition, the burdens of the Great Depression and a scarcity of commercial air travel each contributed to the seduction of a Polynesian escape — real or imagined. Donn Beach (neé Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) is credited with inventing the tiki aesthetic with the opening of his Don the Beachcomber bar in 1933, which immersed diners in tropical decor and rum-fueled creations such as the Zombie and Navy Grog.

Four years later, Beach’s success led competing restaurateur Vic Bergeron — who would go on to create the tiki bar’s signature drink, the Mai Tai — to rechristen his Oakland bar and eatery as the South Seas-inspired Trader Vic’s. The tiki craze was on, and soon after, every major U.S. city would have a tropical-inspired refuge to sip exotic drinks and feast on gussied-up versions of American-Asian plates.

In 1945, the Fairmont tasked famed MGM set designer Mel Melvin with transforming the hotel’s indoor pool — a celebrity magnet dubbed the Terrace Plunge — into a restaurant and bar that mimicked a pool deck on a luxury cruise ship. With parts salvaged from the S.S. Forrester, a lumber schooner that sailed from San Francisco to the South Pacific, Melvin decked the new themed eatery with lifeboats, metal air vents, and life preservers. The pool remained the centrepiece, but a small boat was added to host musicians who serenaded diners. In the 1950s, the dining room’s nightly thunderstorms were installed, showering the pool with downpours, flashing lights, and thunderous booms every thirty minutes. By the late 1960s, the Tonga Room was reimagined once again into the tiki masterpiece you see today.

KB: Is it correct that non-guests can go up to the roof terrace?

Correct! Our rooftop garden is open to the public and it is what we like to call San Francisco’s best hidden gem. You’ll often see locals from our community on a stroll with a coffee and their dog, along with our hotel guests sitting near the fountains and under the palm trees, enjoying the wonderful San Francisco cityscape. From our rooftop garden, you can actually see the only place in the entire city where the cable car lines cross, on Powell and California Street. Tower Tours offers wonderful, guided tours where anyone can explore Fairmont San Francisco’s history and the city itself in great depth.

KB: How did The Fairmont survived the Covid Pandemic? I read it was boarded up for some time.

During the pandemic, we followed the city’s precautionary guidelines, as the health and safety of both our employees and guests is always our top priority. We are so delighted to see our community gathering together once again in our lobby and to have guests, company events, weddings, our gingerbread house event, and local choir performances return and bring life into the hotel once again.

KB: Why should people visit and stay at The Fairmont?

The landmark Fairmont San Francisco has been defining luxury for generations of travellers. But here are a few of my very favourite amenities that set the hotel apart: Family- Friendly Accommodations, Private roof-top garden for guests and their four-legged friends, Panoramic Bay Views from many of the hotel’s rooms and suites (a number of suits also feature balconies!),
Unmatched location atop Nob Hill- walking distance to Union Square, Chinatown and Market Street and home to the world famous Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar.

Check out The Fairmont Hotel’s website: HERE
Find the hotel on Instagram: HERE
Find The Tonga Room on Instagram: HERE

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