The Westin St. Francis Hotel is a relic of the past, but functions with modern efficiency. Its vivid opulence is a window into a time when beauty could motivate limitless expense and inconvenience, and art was created to be lived in as much as seen. In honor of its 110th anniversary the hotel is offering free tours and “complimentary historic bites” on the 21st of every month at 1:10 p.m. until the end of the year. We took an hour off work to check it out.
12:55: Walking through Union Square, always a pleasant and relaxing choice for a mid-afternoon in the Summer. Plenty of low priced, high quality clothing and independent, businesses. I love the real San Francisco!
1:00: Jogging slowly uphill. The Westin St. Francis, San Francisco's most iconic hotel, looms phallic in the distance. It is a lightly flesh colored tower with a distinct tip.
1:03: Ah. That tower belongs to the Sir Frances Drake Hotel, which sounds a lot like the Westin St. Francis. The real St. Francis is distinctly less phallic.
1:05: Running into the hotel lobby. Have decided not to reveal my status as member of the press. Feel like Woodward and Bernstein combined in a single sweaty and gasping body.
1:06: Concierge staff and other hotel employees distinctly less helpful than would likely be if had revealed self as member of press. Have not been offered gift bag or moist towlette of any kind.
1:07: Have accidentally wandered into dimly lit subterranean mini mall that I can only assume the St. Francis built as a nuclear war bunker for the obscenely wealthy.
1:08: Two minutes to go and no one else is standing by bathrooms where concierge said tour will begin! Maybe I will get an in-depth solo tour.
1:08: Concierge thought I was asking for the bathroom. Running towards Grand Lobby.
1:09: Approximately one hundred million people have arrived for tour and are milling around under giant grandfather clock. Looks like children of Israel gathered around Sinai. Blonde woman in Westin nametag bearing the word “Elaine” and underneath that, “My Passion: Bubbles!” looks panicked.
1:11: Elaine has the attention of the crowd and has regained her cool and her Meg Ryan-like good looks.
1:11: I, and one hundred million others, learn that the Westin St. Francis was built in 1904 by the Crocker family, who envisioned it as the epicenter of what would be “the Paris of the West.” The sumptuousness of the original hotel is apparent in the Grand Lobby, which is decked in geometrically pattered art deco carpeting, crystal chandeliers, towering marble pillars, and gold accents on everything.
1:12: Children of Israel stream through doors onto tiny balcony, denying laws of physics to see two towers that were part of original hotel in 1904.
1:17: Crowd takes the same amount of time to return indoors and as it would take me to read every article on my newsfeed right now that includes the phrase “Middle East.”
1:17: Originally the hotel was just 250 rooms which was gutted two years later by the fire that swept through in the wake of the Great Earthquake, which itself afforded almost no damage to the hotel. The Magneta Grandfather Clock, built in 1856, once controlled all of the clocks in the building until, as hotel legend has it, a visiting Russian dignitary grew paranoid that his delegation was being spied on and snipped a vital wire that linked it to the rest of the hotel. It is this iconic piece of mahogany that spawned the phrase, “Meet me at the clock.”
1:20: Elaine's hair touches my face as she moves swiftly past! Feel famous.
1:21: We have arrived in a more modern lobby, which includes a swanky bar and cafe. In front of us is a dainty cart holding a few dozen crackers with spread on them. There are murmurs from the crowd — is this the complimentary historic bite from the 1910 Hotel St. Francis cookbook? A woman behind me hisses to her husband, “If it's dessert, get it.” Elaine begins to explain that this is a steak tartare created by the Victor Hirtzler, the first chef of the St. Francis, but the crowd surges forward on the word “steak,” trampling an adorable vegetarian reporter.
1:26: Steak-smeared and confused, we watch as a woman with no discernible ties to the hotel points out one of the glass cases the Westin has curated for the anniversary in collaboration with the de Young, filled with panels on the history of the hotel. This case describes fine dining in the early years of the hotel, arguing that Victor Hirtzler was not only one of the world's first celebrity chefs, but was also responsible for popularizing “California Cuisine.” The bottom of the case, like the many others that we see, is littered with sepia toned photographs and tarnished silver implements that are all worth examining. All this I discover after the tour ends, when it is finally possible to come within five feet of the informational displays.
1:28: It seems that Gena, the new tour-guide, is not replacing Elaine but supporting her. She shows us a case that depicts the hotel during the 1920s, when the St. Francis was known as the Jazz Hotel and Charlie Chaplain and Mae West frequented its rooms. In one unsavory episode, the actress Virginia Rappe partied steadily for three days in the 12th floor suite of comedian Fatty Arbuckle and then abruptly expired. Arbuckle was found innocent of murder after three trials, and years later Al Jolson (of Jazz Singer fame) died in the same suite. This “legendary hotel history” inspires many hotel visitors to wish to visit the suite on the 12th floor, but Gina assures us, “There is no ghost.”
1:29: Gena takes questions. One man asks how alcohol entered the hotel during Prohibition. Gena says it came through a hidden tunnel where a Victoria's Secret Pink store now stands. She leads us to another case and tells us that during World War Two employees of the hotel helped collect thousands of pounds of rubber and metal for the war effort. The hotel was subject to government regulations that converted it into a cavernous barracks that hosted sailors waiting to be shipped off from San Francisco. In 1945 San Francisco hosted the founding meeting of the United Nations and 27 national delegations plus General MacArthur stayed at the hotel. Later Emperor Hirohito and the Shah of Iran also stayed at the St. Francis. Elaine is nowhere to be seen. Has Gena orchestrated a silent coup?
1:30: Trying out life at the back of the group. I can't see or hear anything but I'm enjoying the physical contact and collective warmth of group members. Gina is exercising her right to not raise her voice above a whisper when she talks about Ansel Adams. A sign I read later says that in 1939 he was hired to photograph the hotel's Patent Leather Bar, by San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger. The original silver prints are hanging here.
1:33: Elaine has retaken the tour! She points out a case by the elevators that holds, incredibly, a coin washer. In 1938 the general manager of the hotel noticed that the silver dollar coins used at the time were soiling women's pristine white gloves, so he hired a man solely for the purpose of washing coins. “We are still the only legal money launderer in the US!” says Elaine, to big laughs from the group. Interest in clean currency has dipped today with the advent of the credit and debit cards, but coins are still washed at the hotel twice a week. Elaine explains that in the 1950s post-war business at the St. Francis soared due to increased jet travel and national wealth, leading the hotel to add on a 32-story tower. The hotel rose in prestige and began to see an influx of world leaders. In 1956 President Eisenhower broadcast the first ever presidential news conference from the St. Francis Italian Room. President Ford survived an assassination attempt as he exited the lobby, and in 1969 President Nixon demanded 160 rooms for his retinue during peak tourist season.
1:35: Celebrity sighting! It's not a President, but Rob the Hotel Coin Washer walks by. The crowd swarms him like he's the last piece of steak tartare. Rob says he's headed off to wash some coins. The crowd roars with laughter.
1:37: We are shown a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Regan, both looking foxy. When they visited the hotel in 1982 the Queen and her husband stayed in the Presidential Suite, while the Regans stayed in the London Suite. The group does not find that ironic. Elaine shows us pictures of a bellboy who worked at the hotel for 60 years, eventually becoming “Head Bellman.”
1:39: Gena appears and announces that we have a special opportunity to see the original Grand Ballroom and Borgia Room, as well as the original chandelier from the Fox Theater in Oakland. We are now being asked to follow a svelte brunette named Yuri up the stairs. Who is leading this tour?
1:41: We attempt to get up the staircase with 900 others. Elderly man thumps me on the butt. We make prolonged eye contact and he shrugs.
1:43: Walking over thick white carpets through a hall of gilded mirrors lit by golden and crystal light fixtures. We arrive in a room with a domed bronze ceiling and a massive chandelier. Each cluster of light encircling its gold-leafed body is a baby cherub playing a trumpet, strapped to a headdress of 6 electric candles.
1:44: Yuri stands on a low staircase, surveying the enormous crowd, most of whom are staring up at the chandelier. She takes one more look at the swarm, turns her back, and leaves. There is an uncomfortable silence. A voice from the crowd says, “Where has Yuri got to?” and Gena emerges from the crowd.
1:46: We enter the Borgia Room, a former chapel of smooth wooden paneling and aquamarine accents. Gena explains that the startlingly beautiful room was dissolved as a chapel for the most San Francisco reason ever: “There were too many different religions and denominations and we just didn't want to offend anyone.” The gold, lapis, and woodwork are all original, as is the secret door concealed in the back wall. Gena says it “goes nowhere” and closes it quickly, but the crowd senses conspiracy.
1:49: We walk past the Grand Ballroom but Gena now says we “Can't get in there today.” I overhear the conversation of the couple behind me. Husband: “So we're not going to go into the Grand Ballroom?” Wife: “No.”
1:50: Gena ushers us into the Colonial Ballroom, which sits adjacent to the Grand Ballroom. The walls are painted with floor-to-ceiling Renaissance-style murals and red curtains obscure tiny golden balconies.
1:51: Someone has found a door that opens into the ballroom and a breakaway faction of the group is trying to force their way in! Gena uses her body as a shield to protect the ballroom.
1:53: In an abrupt non sequitur Gena mentions that she once met Squeaky Fromme, President Ford's assassin, but reveals no other details. She hastily concludes the tour by saying, “This is the end of the tour.”
1:54: The crowd refuses to concede that after 44 minutes in three rooms we have seen all of the enormous, 110 year old hotel. Some members of the crowd reveal that they have been saving their steak tartare and eat them smugly. Others wander in the direction of the Victoria's Secret Prohibition Tunnels.
The Westin St. Francis is a sumptuous historical landmark, unparalleled by other hotels in the area. While the tour itself was fiasco-like, the historical information cases were well done and the hotel is worth a peek. Stop in before the year is out, and maybe bring Elaine some bubbles. God knows she deserves them.