Hotels with histories; in downtown San Francisco, the Palace reopens and Ritz-Carlton restores a temple of commerce

Hotels with histories; in downtown San Francisco, the Palace reopens and Ritz-Carlton restores a temple of commerce – Sheraton Palace Hotel, San Francisco

A hotel can be more than a place to spend the night when you’re traveling. Sometimes, it’s a piece of history. That certainly holds true for two major hotels opening (or reopening) this month in downtown San Francisco.

Erected during the wholesale rebuilding of the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire and now official city landmarks, both hotels give visitors an opportunity to relax in time-honored, architecturally distinguished environments. To varying degrees, the hotels have restored key historical features, while adding such contemporary amenities as computerized business centers and health spas with swimming pools.

A palace once again fit for a king On April 3, the Sheraton Palace Hotel unveils the results of more than two years of work and $150 million spent renovating its historic structure, completed in 1909 on the foundation of the original Palace, the world’s largest hotel when it opened in 1875. Since then, presidents, royalty, and other heads of state have joined famous entertainers and captains of industry on the guest register, and the hotel’s glass-roofed Garden Court has served as a favorite dining place for generations of San Franciscans.

Other than a thorough cleaning of the brick walls, little has been done to the relatively restrained exterior of the hotel (at New Montgomery and Market streets). Outside the entrance, however, the addition of a metal grillework awning recalling the 1909 design signals more obvious changes inside.

Entering the hotel, the visitor is greeted by a marble sunburst on the foyer floor. Polished marble, for years hidden by carpet but now uncovered and restored, continues underfoot as you proceed into the lobby. But one’s attention is drawn from immediate surroundings to arches on the far side of the lobby; formerly filled in with French doors, the arches now allow an unobstructed view of the opulent Garden Court.

A remarkable amount of painstaking work was undertaken to restore the Garden Court to its original grandeur. The 70,000 pieces of leaded glass that make up the vast domed ceiling, yellowed by decades of tobacco smoke, were all removed, then cleaned or replaced. All 10 of the 700-pound crystal chandeliers were also removed for the first time for cleaning and restoration.

In the past, the Garden Court was frequently closed for private functions. Now there will be far more opportunities for basking in its wonderful natural light. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner will be served there daily (brunch replaces lunch and tea on Sundays) and a lounge area in the front of the room will be open from 11:30 A.M. to 1 A.M. Another venerable Palace fixture, the Pied Piper Bar, has moved its location, along with its famous mural by Maxfield Parrish. A new restaurant, called Maxfield’s, now occupies the bar’s former location. These rooms have also benefited from the restoration of once-carpeted mosaic tile floors and blacked-out skylights. The Pied Piper is open 11:30 A.M. to 1 A.M. (closed Sundays). Maxfield’s serves dinner only (closed Sundays).

The hotel’s 550 guest rooms were reconfigured and standardized during the renovation, but the high ceilings characteristic of older hotel rooms have been retained. Single rooms go for $180 to $240 a night, doubles for $200 to $260. For reservations, call (800) 325-3535.

Putting in a Ritz in San Francisco The old Metropolitan Life building, at Stockton and California streets, will host overnight guests for the first time when it opens April 8 as the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. Occupied by the insurance company until 1973, then by Cogswell College for the next 11 years, the U-shaped building has now been transformed into a 336-room luxury hotel.

Although its original section was completed in the same year as the Palace, the building took on its present monumental appearance in the 1920s. Ionic columns and a pedimental tableau alluding to the business of its original owner adorn a facade designed by Miller and Pflueger, the prominent San Francisco architectural firm responsible for some of the city’s finest buildings. Its glazed terra-cotta facing and ornamentation, including winged hourglasses and lions’ heads, were carefully hand-washed and repaired during the renovation.

Unfortunately, the original entrance and grand staircase did not receive such loving treatment; the stairs were replaced with a porte cochete and ground-level entrance to accommodate arriving guests, stranding the old entrance a floor above the street. Another change, involving a larger but less conspicuous area, is the addition of two floors above the building’s original roof line.

Construction of a subterranean ballroom required removal of a garden designed by renowned landscape architect Thomas Church in 1954. But the new garden raised two floors replicates some of its features and still provides a sunny retreat sheltered from the city’s brisk winds. You can dine alfresco in the garden at tables served by The Cafe, open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The other restaurant created in the hotel is the more formal Dining Room, open for dinner only (closed Sundays). The Lobby Lounge, overlooking the garden, is set up for breakfast buffet in the morning and for tea in the afternoon.

The hotel’s location on the east slope of Nob Hill gives its guest rooms good vantages of Chinatown and the Financial District. An introductory room rate of $139 is in effect through May; after that, rate will range from $185 to $285. For reservations, call (800) 241-3333. El

COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group