The Fairmont Hotel: Nob Hill Grande Dame

The luxurious Grande Dame atop Nob Hill in San Francisco was named after U.S. Senator James Graham Fair (1834-1894) by his daughters, Theresa Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt. When the silver king James Fair purchased the site back in the late 1800s, his interest was to build the largest mansion in the neighborhood. However, when he died in 1894, the lot was still undeveloped until 1907 when his daughters commissioned the architectural and engineering firm of Reid & Reid to design a large hotel in Italian Renaissance style.

The Reid brothers: James (1851-1943), Merrit (1855-1932) and Watson (1858-1944) designed a 600-room, seven story building made of gray granite, cream marble and terracotta stone. Before the new hotel could open, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire gutted the structure. New owners Herbert and Hartland Law, makers of a popular patent medicine, undertook the major effort to rebuild the Fairmont. They hired Stanford White of the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. Unfortunately, White was involved in a love triangle and was shot and killed by multimillionaire Harry Thaw. The Law brothers then hired local architect Julia Morgan, the first woman graduate of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (and the genius behind the grandiose Hearst Castle). One year later, on April 18, 1907, the Fairmont Hotel opened and in 1908, Theresa Fair Oelrichs reacquired the restored hotel.

The Fairmont quickly became San Francisco’s most famous
hotel attracting families for long stays of two to three months. The Fairmont
provided a thoroughly-equipped school featuring music, dance, art and a
complete curriculum of subject matter. In 1926, the eighth floor was added
including the 6,000 square foot Penthouse Suite.

By 1917, D.M. Linnard assumed the management and in 1924
bought the controlling interest from the Oelrichs family. 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 and installed an indoor pool,
the Fairmont Plunge.

For eleven weeks in 1945, the Fairmont was the Capital of
the World hosting delegates from more than forty nations representing eighty
percent of the world’s population to write the United Nations Charter. On June
26, 1945, President Harry Truman signed the new Charter. At about the same
time, financier and philanthropist Benjamin Swig purchased fifty-four percent
of the Fairmont for $2 million which he described as follows: “When I bought
the hotel, it was obsolete. It was more of an apartment house for the extremely
rich, many of whom were characters in the true sense of the word. It was
rundown and neglected. The plumbing was bursting – we had ten to fifteen leaks
a day – there was no carpet on the floor and the whole thing was just an old
ladies home.”

Swig quickly learned that the Plunge pool was not a money
maker. He decided to convert it into a restaurant and bar called the S.S. Tonga
after Mel Melvin, MGM’s leading set designer found an old four-masted schooner
by that name rotting in the mud near Martinez. Guests were soon dining on
Chinese food, enjoying exotic drinks on the schooner’s deck, gazing into the
blue water of the former Plunge now featuring a floating stage for the
orchestra in the Tonga Room. The ambiance was heightened by staged tropical
storms, complete with lightning and misty rain falling from concealed
sprinklers. Swig hired Dorothy Draper, the famous decorator, to transform the
lobby and the public areas. The million dollar modernization program was
completed in 1950. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that almost
six miles of fabric and three miles of carpeting had been used in the
renovation. One critic raved that Draper had “captured the spirit of the past,
the romantic glamour of the Champagne days, the traditions of the city blended
with the modern.” She added the “Draper Touch” to the Venetian Room Supper Club
which opened in 1947 with 400 seats. It attracted top-flight entertainers like
Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, Sammy Davis, Jr.,
Lena Horne, Red Skelton, James Brown, Judy Collins, Tony Bennett (who sang “I
Left My Heart in San Francisco” for the first time here in 1962) and the Ernie
Heckscher Band that played for 36 years.

In 1961, Ben Swig built an adjoining 23-story tower with the
Crown Room on the top floor and a glass elevator on the outside of the tower
with the best views of the city. He also added the Merry-Go-Round Bar to the
famous Cirque Lounge with its wild animals murals and wrap-around bar designed
by Art Deco architect Tim Pflueger in 1933.

The famous 1983 television series “Hotel” based on
the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey was filmed in the lobby of the Fairmont
for the fictional “St. Gregory Hotel.”

The Swig family sold the hotel in 1994 to Maritz, Wolffe
& Co. and Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talel who operated 94 hotels
worldwide under the Raffles, Fairmont and Swissotel brands. In 2012, Oaktree
Capital Management and Woodridge Capital Partners acquired the Fairmont San
Francisco for $200 million after Maritz, Wolffe & Co. failed to win
permission to convert part of the property into residences.

In 2009, it was reported that the Fairmont’s Tonga Room, the
venerable tiki bar, which opened in 1945, might be demolished to make room for
a condo conversion in an adjacent tower. The New York Times reported
on April 3, 2009 that “… San Franciscans have rallied around the Tonga Room.
They’ve written letters, signed petitions and defiantly consumed more than
their fair share of deep-dish drinks in this temple of tropical kitsch at the
top of Nob Hill….one of the finest examples of faux Polynesian paradise
around.” As of May, 2016, the Tonga Room has enjoyed a resurgence and there’s
been no decision as to its ultimate fate.

In 2015, Oaktree and Woodridge sold the Fairmont San
Francisco for $450 million to affiliated companies of Mirae Asset Global
Investments, a large financial services company based in Seoul, South Korea.
Since 2011, the firm has acquired commercial real estate properties valued over
$8 billion including the 317-room  Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, the 531-room
Four Seasons Hotel Sydney, the 540-room Fairmont Orchid Hotel and the 282-room
Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Pangyo.

The Fairmont San Francisco was added to the National
Register of Historic Places on April 17, 2002.  It is a member of Historic
Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic


Turkel was designated as the 2014 and the 2015 Historian of the Year
by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for
Historic Preservation. Turkel is the most widely-published hotel consultant in
the United States. He operates his hotel consulting practice serving as an
expert witness in hotel-related cases, provides asset management and hotel
franchising consultation. He is certified as a Master Hotel Supplier Emeritus
by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. [email protected]

My New Book
“Hotel Mavens Volume 3: Bob and Larry Tisch, Curt Strand, Ralph Hitz, Cesar
Ritz, Raymond Orteig” has just been published.

My Other
Published Hotel Books

Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2009)

Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York (2011)

Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (2013)

Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt, Oscar of the Waldorf (2014)

Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2016)

Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels West of the Mississippi (2017)

Hotel Mavens Volume 2: Henry Morrison Flagler, Henry Bradley Plant, Carl Graham
Fisher (2018)

Great American Hotel Architects Volume I (2019)

All of these
books can be ordered from AuthorHouse by visiting
and clicking on the book’s title.

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