Historic Hotels: The Palace

San Francisco, 1906

The Palace Hotel has stood on Market Street, at the corner of New Montgomery, since 1875.  The hotel that stands there now was built in 1909 on the ashes of the first Palace which was lost in the Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

The Palace is seven stories high and covers a full city block.  It was the largest hotel in the world when it first opened and soon became known as the most luxurious hotel ever built up to that time.
Palace Hotel 1875
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made San Francisco a popular destination for businessmen and toursits.  Demand for hotel space was also bolstered by wealthy people who preferred living in a hotel to maintaining a house.

.  William Ralston spent four years and $5 million building the Palace.  Ralston  was the president of the Bank of California and made his fortune from speculating on silver mines.  Just before The Palace was set to open, a fraud in mining stocks came to light and caused a run on Ralston's bank.  Just as the scandal broke, Ralston's body was found floating in the Bay.  Since Ralston was known to be an avid swimmer, some thought his death wasn't an accident. Ralston's partner, William Sharon, took over the Bank of California and the Palace, which was getting ready to open.

The Palace opened on October 2, 1875 and people were dazzled. The hotel had every modern luxury of the time -- lavishly furnished elevators called "rising rooms," pneumatic tubes for sending messages around the hotel, gardens of rare exotic plants, classic statuary and elegant fountains.


The main entrance to The Palace is tucked off market, around the corner on New Montgomery.  Until the turn of the century, carriages pulled directly into the Center Court and guests could look down from seven stories of white-columned balconies to see who was coming and going.

Later the Court was filled with palms and seating and renamed the Palm Court.

The top floor of the hotel offered and elegant promenade where guest could stroll under the glass domed ceiling and, according to a former hotel manager, breathe the "balmy breath of incense laden air (that) may at once refresh and recreate delighted guests."

The hotel had over 700 rooms, but rooms were often put together to form suites or apartments.  Some lived there full-time, like Bulletin editor Fremont Older.  Sharon also owned the Grand Hotel across the street and a glass walled "Bridge of Sighs" stretched over New Mongomery connecting the two hotels.

The bridge gave Grand Hotel guest access to the amenities of the Palace and some say it also gave Palace guests  access to their mistresses.

Ralston had spared no expense in making the building safe.  The core of the building is a self-supporting frame of iron which had helped the hotel withstand two major earthquakes with little damage. The iron frame is surrounded by massive walls of brick and stone for fire protection, and in addition  four artesian wells fed a massive reservior under the central court as well as seven tanks on the roof.  These proved no match for the inferno of April 18.  The fire gutted the hotel, but it was rebuilt at a cost of $8 million and re-opened on December 15, 1909.

Photo credits:

Illustration thanks to Bruce Cooper who beautifully restored two Palace brochures, one from 1895 and one from the 1920. See them, and read of description of the hotel by a former manager, at thepalacehotel.org

Grand Court entrance and Bridge of Sighs, thanks to the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Palm Court and Promenade, thanks to the San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library.

Tour and Explore

Visit the Palace:  The Palace Hotel is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its 1909 re-opening with special menus in the Garden court and anniversary cocktails in the Pied Piper Bar and Maxfield's Grill.   The current management spent $15 million renovating the hotel in 1989 (before the earthquake) and it is magnificent.  even if you can't get in on the $19.09 Anniversary Lunch (it was sold out when I called), the Pied Piper is one of the most beautiful bars in town and the Garden Court served an elegant afternoon tea that is pricey but fun.  Get info at: sfpalace.com.

Tour the Palace:  SF City Guides gives free tours of the Palace Hotel. For schedules and information on all City Guides tours, go to sfcityguides.org.

Have a Drink Across the Street:  The House of Shields on New Montgomery is popular among locals for happy hour drinks and live music.  The Shields' bar was originally built for the Palace, but the Maxfield Parrish painting was larger than expected and the bar was put here instead. Get info at house of shields.com.

1 comment:

  1. This article definitely makes me want to visit the Palace Hotel again, plus the House of Shields. Field Trip!