Mighty Life List: Palace Hotel Tour

“Getting to know San Francisco like the back of my hand” is on my life list, and I’m taking five city tours as part of that goal. I started with the Market Street tour through San Francisco City Guides, a non-profit that hosts dozens of free walking tours.

The Palace Hotel was once the largest hotel in the Western U.S. I had no idea it was a big deal until this tour. Working for presidential candidates has given me most of my fancy hotel experiences here, and I wondered why none had stayed at the Palace that I knew of, apparently it’s because there’s no secure basement parking, which the Secret Service frowns upon.

Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to stay here, but presidents swarmed the place before that. In fact, Warren G. Harding died in one of the rooms, and family legend suggests his wife poisoned him. She tried to blame the hotel kitchen until one of the owners tried to have the glass near his bed tested for poison, whereupon Mrs. Harding snatched the glass and rinsed it out. Dun-dun-DUN!

The hotel originally cost $5 million to build, and rooms were only 50 cents a night. (They run about $250-$1jillion now.) At the time, pneumatic tubes carried room service orders, there was a telegraph operator on every floor, and a fire brigade roamed the halls every half hour to make sure no one was too drunk to be trusted with the wood-burning stoves in the rooms.

There have been two hotels on the site, the first erected in 1879. It was made to be earthquake and fire proof. The foundation went down 12 ft., the exterior was made of concrete blocks banded in iron and bolted together, there were four wells in the basement and 638,000 gallons of water in tanks on the roof. That building withstood the 1906 earthquake, but was gutted by fire days later when the windows exploded and fire jumped into the building’s interior. It took twenty-one months to tear the exterior down.

This is the main event space, the Garden Court — a wedding here starts at $50,000. It was originally a driveway for carriages:

It has one of the largest expanses of glass ceiling in the world:

To celebrate the end of WWI, handlers released Doves of Peace into the dining room at a dinner with President Woodrow Wilson in attendance. Several escaped and had to be recaptured days later. Local newspapers accused the hotel of shooting the birds, to which the hotel responded coldly that they had not killed the Doves of Peace. During a renovation in 1989, pellet holes were found in the plaster near the glass ceiling. So now we know the real story behind WWII.

For a time, the hotel owner kept a mistress, who stayed across the street at the Grand Hotel, which he also owned. He built a covered walkway between the two hotels so his mistress couldn’t be seen when she crossed to see him. Other fellows got the same idea, and soon everyone knew what young ladies were up to if they were staying at the Grand. Harlots.

This is the French Parlor, which overlooks the Garden Court. The parlor was a private space for women who needed to pass out momentarily while maids unlaced their corsets. Once they could breathe again, they were cinched back up and returned to the festivities.

Maxfield Parrish’s Pied Piper hangs in the bar. It is jucier in person.

The bar’s mosaic tiles were restored after wall-to-wall carpet was glued to them in the ’50s.

The bar’s glass ceiling was revealed when new owners removed the dropped acoustic tiles that had been installed well beneath it. The walls feature murals of early San Francisco personalities, including the eccentric Emperor Norton who printed his own money, which was accepted by local businesses. When he died, tens of thousands attended his funeral.

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