Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Fairmont. 1906-1947.


The Fairmont, 1906.

The earthquake of 1906 hits San Francisco - just two weeks before the opening of San Francisco's first luxury hotel.

The Fairmont remarkably remained relatively unharmed, save the damage to it's structure on the interior.  However, when the earthquake had finished, it was not the end of the devastation.  Twenty-four hours after the earthquake, the fires of San Francisco finally reached the top of Nob Hill.  The mansions of Hopkins, Stanford, Huntington and Crocker all fell victim to the fire.  At 5:30 AM, the Fairmont's windows began to crack from the heat.  

Still intact, The Fairmont sits atop Nob Hill.

Writer Gertrude Atherton was crossing the Bay at the time and notes, 'I forgot the doomed city as I gazed at The Fairmont, a tremendous volume of white smoke pouring from the roof, every window a shimmering sheet of gold; not a flame, nor a spark shot forth. The Fairmont will never be as demonic in its beauty again.'

Julia Morgan.

Herbert and Hartland Law, the owners of The Fairmont at the time,  began the process to repair, redecorate and where necessary restore the hotel.  The Law brothers chose Julia Morgan, who would later rise to be known as the nation's preeminent female architect.  The first woman graduate of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Julia Morgan was just starting out as an architect when she was commissioned to work on The Fairmont.


The Fairmont, 1907.

Exactly a year after the earthquake, a grand banquet celebrating the opening was held at The Fairmont, with 600 pounds of turtle, 13,000 oysters and $5,000 worth of California and French wines. At precisely 9:00 PM, fireworks began, illuminating the beautiful new Fairmont, the thousand ships at anchor in the Bay, City Hall and all the buildings that had risen up, phoenix-like, in defiance of nature's wrath.

The Fairmont quickly became the social hub of the City.  Wealthy families, displaced by the earthquake, took up residence inside the hotel, some for many years.  Meanwhile, the Law brothers had signed a ten year deal for the Palace Hotel company to manage The Fairmont.  Not too many months later, a familiar figure came back to town on a mystery mission. 


Tessie (Fair) Oelrichs.

Tessie (Fair) Oelrichs returned to her beloved city of San Francisco.  By May of 1908, she became the owner and hostess of San Francisco's most famous hotel.  She welcomed Teddy Roosevelt, President Taft, and even Rudolph Valentino.  By 1917, D.M. Linnard took over the management, and in 1924, bought the controlling interest from the Oelrichs family.  Linnard had a chain of hotels in California.  In 1929, he sold the Fairmont to George Smith, a mining engineer, who had just completed the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Smith undertook a major renovation, including adding an indoor pool, the 'Fairmont Plunge.'


By 1941, The Fairmont had fallen victim of the depression and entered an era of 'benign neglect'.  The clientele consisted mostly of permanent residents, who blended in with the potted plants and old furniture.  Benjamin Swig purchased the hotel and The Fairmont began once again to 'rise from the ashes'.

The end of World War II, as well as the purchase of the hotel by Swig, was the catalyst that transformed her completely.  The International Conference was held at The Fairmont, which led to the birth of the United Nations. 

Ben Swig was an East Coast businessman who, 'had a knack for seeing a good thing and turning it around.'  Ben Swig knew that the interior of the hotel badly needed a facelift, and so he hired Dorothy Draper, the most famous decorator of the time, to transform the lobby and the public areas. 

Dorothy Draper.

Mrs. Draper came up with quite a different vision for The Fairmont.  She visualized the hotel as an enlarged copy of a Grand Venetian Palace, but at the same time she wished to capture the charm and romance of San Francisco. Her goal was to restore The Fairmont to its position as the center jewel in the crown of the Golden Age of San Francisco. With this in mind, she introduced new design innovations unheard of until then - black and red carpets, geranium and strawberry colors, gold and black lacquer - all replicating the charm and flamboyant atmosphere associated with the California Gold Rush.  

The Fairmont Lobby, 1941.

The result was magic.  Kings, Queens, Presidents and all who visited, were in awe by their surroundings.  The American public had been starved from new things for too long during the war.  The Fairmont was exactly what they craved.  The 'Draper touch' was a success.  The Fairmont was once again the place to see and be seen. 

Meanwhile, The Fairmont was making headlines of its own with its role as the meeting place of the United Nations.  Once again, history was being made in a big way. To this day, the plaque commemorating the drafting of the Charter for the United Nations can be seen outside the Garden Room on the lobby level.

The country flags of the original signatories fly proudly above the porte cochere.


Venetian Room.

Dorothy Draper also added her 'Draper Touch' to the Venetian Room.  Its grand reopening took place in 1947 as San Francisco's premier Supper Club.  The Venetian Room went on through the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies and even into the eighties, thanks to the insistence of Richard Swig, Benjamin Swig's son who later became President of The Fairmont Hotel Company, on having a place where hotel guests, as well as locals, could dine, dance and enjoying big name entertainment.  And what names they were too: Ella Fitzgerald, Nat 'King' Cole, Marlene Dietrich, Tina Turner, Joel Grey, Bobby Short, Vic Damone, James Brown, and many, many more. Ernie Hecksher and his orchestra came for a limited engagement, and never left, becoming the official band for the Venetian Room. The Venetian Room is most famous as the place in which Tony Bennett first sang 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.'

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