From the freewheeling Swig era to the Tonga Room’s near-death experience, San Francisco’s most famous hotel has stories to tell. And then some.
By Laurie Udesky
It was the “largest banquet ever held on the Pacific Coast,” according to the April 19, 1907, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Nearly 1,000 men were served 13,000 oysters, 4,000 French rolls, 600 pounds of turtle and untold numbers of tarts as part of the grand feast celebrating the reopening of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, exactly a year after a fire ravaged its interior following the 1906 earthquake. Wine was flowing, spirits were high and with a flip of a switch at the Fairmont, a cascade of lights shone brightly down on City Hall. The City of San Francisco was rising from the ruins.
From its rebirth onward, the Fairmont has entertained a steady stream of notable guests, ranging from presidents William Howard Taft and Barack Obama to international dignitaries and entertainers such as Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Tina Turner, who serenaded patrons of the Venetian Room. Other memorable guests included a penguin that was escorted to a room with a filled bath, a small elephant tethered to a post outside, and “Babou,” an ocelot and constant companion to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, according to Fairmont Chief Concierge Tom Wolfe and a 2007 book about the hotel titled The Fairmont: The First Century of a San Francisco Landmark.
“Back in the day, we were not dog-friendly at all, the notable exception being the TV dog star Lassie, who came with her trainer, Rudd Weatherwax,” Wolfe recounts. “I remember seeing them, and Lassie was indeed very beautiful.”
The Fairmont has been called a “Grande Dame,” “Democratic Central” and the “Bordello on the Hill”—the last a nod to the interior designer Dorothy Draper, who in the 1940s draped and carpeted the hotel in deep reds, paisleys and black.
Indeed, the Fairmont has been repeatedly redecorated and expanded. “To use a metaphor, she’s had a lot of facelifts, and they’re good facelifts, she’s still recognizable,” quips Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik, who spent many a night at events in the hotel’s Penthouse, “a fancy Democratic Central, where you kept expecting Cole Porter to walk through the door.”
The Swig Family
April 1945. The war was winding down. By day, dignitaries from around the globe gathered at San Francisco’s War Memorial hashing out the language of the United Nation’s Charter. By night, a handful of them discussed behind-the-scenes business in the lavishly appointed penthouse suite at the Fairmont Hotel that was occupied by then-U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
After 11 weeks of negotiation, the United Nations was born, and President Harry Truman arrived at the Fairmont to sign the charter. Greeting him was new owner Ben Swig, the patriarch of the city’s prominent Swig family, who would own and manage the hotel for the next 50 years.
Describing the hotel he inherited as “run-down and neglected,” Swig transformed it to its former glory while immersing himself in life. “I’ve got one thing I don’t think anyone else in this country has got,” Swig told the Chronicle years later. “I’m a Jew, a 33rd degree Mason and I’ve been knighted by the Pope twice!”
He was a philanthropist who gave to many causes, though his fundraising style was unorthodox. Historian Charles Fracchia, who enjoyed Swig and called him “an explosive force of nature,” recalls, “I remember a board meeting for Catholic Charities up in the [Fairmont] Penthouse. [Swig] took out his key and locked the door, and then proceeded to tell everyone that they could leave when they paid up.”
Swig turned the Fairmont into a center for jazz, soul and big band, with headliner acts that included Bennett, Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Peggy Lee and James Brown. According to Roselyne “Cissie” Swig, one of the great contributions her family made was a personable sensibility evident in the long careers of the hotel’s staff. “There is a sense of loyalty that is quite notable,” she says.
A case in point is Tom Wolfe, who sports a red bowtie and a wry smile. Although he’s not a magician by trade, Wolfe, who’s worked at the Fairmont since 1974, might be mistaken for one based on some of the requests he’s fulfilled over the years. “There was one guest who asked me to confirm his dinner reservations, get his wife’s shoe fixed, and reconfirm his flight reservations,” he explains. “As he walked away, I asked him if there was anything else. He turned on his heel and said, ‘Could you buy me a Ferrari GTO?’” Without missing a beat, Wolfe asks what color. Red. “And don’t spend more than $6 million.” It’s all in a day’s work.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision about a new song his pianist had tucked away that made history for the legendary singer Tony Bennett.
“It was a song that almost didn’t make it, as my pianist and music director Ralph Sharon was packing to go on tour and found the song in a drawer, and on impulse put it in his suitcase, since he knew we were going to be performing in San Francisco for this run of shows,” Bennett tells the Nob Hill Gazette about his classic “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
When Bennett introduced the song to the world at the Venetian Room in 1961, he figured it would be a local hit. But after recording it, the groundswell of enthusiasm took him by surprise. “Even after the song had started to gain listeners, I still thought the A-side of the record—a beautiful song called “Once Upon a Time,” from the musical All-American—was going to be the big hit.” He didn’t realize it, he says, “until Columbia Records called me and said, ‘Turn the record over!’ as ‘San Francisco’ was on the B-side and had taken off.”
Bennett has performed at the Fairmont countless times over the last 50 years. His close association with the hotel and celebrity also provided a convenient marketing strategy for the Fairmont, which offers a Tony Bennett Suite complete with “breathtaking views of the city and the Bay,” a signed reproduction of Bennett’s painting of the Golden Gate Bridge and his complete CD collection, among other perks, for the nightly rate of $4,999.
Just last year, the ties between the 91-year-old icon and the Fairmont were further memorialized with the unveiling of local artist Bruce Wolfe’s statue of Bennett on the Fairmont’s front lawn.
On a recent Saturday, tourists were lining up to photograph themselves in front of it.
“When people walk by and see the statue, they start singing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ to it—and I just love that,” says Bennett.
A murder, a natural disaster and architect Julia Morgan’s own ingenuity and talent are the forces that helped her land the coveted job of restoring the Fairmont Hotel in the early 20th century.
The 1906 earthquake had gutted the Fairmont’s interior a few months short of its grand opening, but Morgan—the nation’s first woman to receive a certificate in architecture—was not the first choice to restore it. That prize went to the highly successful and flamboyant East Coast architect Stanford White, the Fairmont’s original architect, who wore an enormous, broomlike red moustache and was known for producing neoclassical masterpieces with Italian Renaissance flourishes, as well as for his taste for underage females, which ultimately led to his demise.
On June 25, 1906, as White was dining at the rooftop garden of New York’s Madison Square Garden—a building crafted by his own hand—he was shot dead by the multimillionaire husband of Evelyn Nesbit, of “Gibson Girl” fame. Nesbit had told him and others that White had raped her soon after she was introduced to him as a teenager, according to news reports.
White’s death created an unexpected opportunity for Julia Morgan. “The owners had asked other architects if the building could be saved. Each said no,” said biographer Mark Wilson, the author of Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty. The building had sustained serious structural damage. Fortuitously, in addition to a certificate in architecture from the renowned École des Beaux-Arts, Morgan had earned an engineering degree from UC Berkeley. As she strolled through the Fairmont’s Laurel Court with a reporter in June 1907, her deep understanding of structural engineering, which gave her an advantage over competitors, was apparent.
“It was necessary to replace the entire glass dome,” she told the Call-Bulletin reporter. “And you have no idea how much important detail is involved in a skylight of such magnitude.” In sum, Morgan made the Fairmont earthquake proof, replacing the damaged Mazzara marble columns and walls with reinforced concrete, a relatively novel approach at the time.
The Fairmont restoration project “launched [Morgan’s] career like a rocket,” said Wilson. Her commissions, he said, jumped from 10 percent the year before to 35 percent immediately after she completed the project. Thanks to the Fairmount, her time had come.
The Tonga Room
Fights to preserve a historic landmark have rarely attracted as colorful a crowd as the battle to save the Fairmont’s fabled Tonga Room.
On November 20, 2010, “Tiki Chris” the editor of the website Tiki Lounge Talk, sounded the alarm that the Tonga Room was imperiled. Writing from his outpost in Florida, he was chiming into a debate already brewing in San Francisco, well beyond the tiki bar aficionado pipeline. Maritz, Wolff & Co., which had jointly owned the Fairmont Hotel since 1998, had been moving ahead with plans to repurpose parts of it, plans that would include dismantling the Tonga Room.
The den of tropical escapism was the brainchild of the hotel’s previous owner, Ben Swig, whose son-in-law had suggested a Polynesian theme, according to the book The Fairmont: The First Century of a San Francisco Landmark.
“Our soldiers had been in the South Seas [during World War II] and were coming home, it was Bali Ha’i, Polynesian songs were popular and people wanted to party,” says Kay Rabin, who has been leading tours through the Fairmont for City Guides since 2012.
The Tonga Room opened to great fanfare in 1946. Swig had the walls and floor of the ground-floor room redone with the dark, woody innards and rigging of an old schooner, the S.S. Forester. Besides the signature Mai Tais garnished with tiny paper umbrellas, the Tonga Room transported guests to a fantasy island via a live band that descended to a floating barge in the pool and sang to guests as the sound of piped-in thunderstorms clattered in the background at regular intervals, accompanied by periodic rain showers misting the air.
More than 50 years later, preserving the Tonga Room became a mission for preservationists, tiki bar fans and a host of other interested parties.
“I had never seen such a groundswell of support for a historic bar before,” says Mike Buhler, the executive director of the nonprofit SF Heritage, which advocates for the preservation of the city’s architectural and cultural identity. Thousands of people signed online petitions and wrote letters to City Hall. SF Heritage wrote a letter opposing the plan on the ground that the environmental impact report failed to appropriately justify the changes that were proposed. Notably, the letter also included mention of the opposition to the Fairmont owners’ proposed plan to convert half of the hotel’s guest rooms into condos, a move opposed by Local 2, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union.
“It might be easier to take down the Washington Monument than the Tonga Room,” jokes Lewis Wolff, one of the Fairmont’s former owners. Wolff insists that news reports about the proposed plans were embellished, “saying that we were going to do it, rather than the fact that we really just wanted to evaluate it.”
In the end, the Tonga Room prevailed. Significantly, San Francisco’s Planning Commission approved a finding that the Tonga Room was eligible to be considered for preservation based on an entirely novel argument by the City of San Francisco that would lay the groundwork for preserving historic businesses in the city, explains Buhler. It cited so-called intangible resources, or objects and features that defined the historic character of the Tonga Room: its pool, dance floor, thunderstorm soundscape and rain showers. “There were a few precedents that were the basis for that approach, including the moon-landing capsule, which was another object that had been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.”