Part One by Gray Brechin
Part Two by Dr. Weirde
Palace Hotel, 1887, corner of Market and New Montgomery Streets.
Photo: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA
Palace Hotel courtyard, 1880s.
William Ralston's Palace Hotel was to be the opulent capstone of his career and ego. When completed in 1875, it was quite literally the grandest hotel in the world. Its luxurious appointments, high-tech gadgetry, Parisian restaurants, and tiered central lightwell placed it in a league with the finest hotels of Vienna, Paris, and New York. One historian noted that "the state of California was run from the Palace bar," though he might have added several other Western states, territories, and Hawaii as well. Cost overruns ultimately drove the price of the Palace to nearly three times the original estimate. For San Franciscans, the hotel proved that their city had become world-class in only 25 years.
The Palace was also approximately four times too large for Ralston's city. It would not fill for decades.
The current version was rebuilt in 1909. When much of San Francisco was razed in the earthquake and fire of 1906, San Franciscans mourned the loss of the Palace Hotel more than that of any other building. The old Palace Hotel, a monumental edifice, had come to symbolize the grandeur (some would say the pretensions) of Victorian San Francisco. Its immense glass-covered courtyard was a classically San Francisco innovation, exemplifying San Franciscans' penchant for combining indoor and outdoor spaces in order to experience nature without suffering the chilly, fog-laden wind. After its destruction in 1906, the Palace was rebuilt, and its glass-covered courtyard, a nearly perfect replica of the old one, converted into a dining room. According to Professor Arthur Chandler, the Palace Hotel dining room is a brilliant reconstruction of a 19th century public space; having a meal there is about as close as you can come to physically inhabiting 19th-century San Francisco.
Murder in the Presidential Suite?
The Presidential Suite, Sheraton Palace (formerly Palace Hotel). 639 Market Street at New Montgomery. August 2, 1923.
President Warren G. Harding died under mysterious circumstances in this room, in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal. Some suspect oil-related conspiracy, while others suggest that Mrs. Harding may have put the President out of his misery in order to save him from the shame and degradation of the scandal. In honor of the late President's legendary corruption, the golf course next to Lake Merced, where many a sleazy deal is cut, bears the name “Harding Park.”
Harding wasn't the only head of state to die at the Palace Hotel. King David Kalakaua, the reigning monarch of Hawaii, died at the Palace in 1891.
Palace Hotel interior 1996
Photo: Chris Carlsson