The Enduring Fairmont Hotel

October 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

photo by Michael Forester

Last week, my great pal from my KABC/LA radio days, cookbook writer Diane Worthington, author of the classics The Cuisine of California, The California Cook, and her recent Seriously Simple series, was in San Francisco to meet with her editors at Chronicle Books, and to catch up with her good friends at the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel, atop Nob Hill.

She kindly asked me to tag along, knowing my long-standing love affair with the Fairmont, the setting for much of my forthcoming historical novel A Race to Splendor, due out from Sourcebooks Landmark in April, 2011, on the 105th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm.

Inspired by the early professional life of Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect,  this is the tale of a race against time to rebuild two luxury hotels (the Fairmont and a fictional hostelry) after the 1906 disaster destroyed 400 city blocks and left 250,000 homeless.

Morgan’s fictional protegee, Amelia Hunter Bradshaw and client J.D. Thayer will sacrifice anything to see the city they love rise from the ashes.  In the process, they find themselves transformed from fierce rivals to unwilling partners who fight political corruption, endure back-breaking hardship, and ultimately can’t help but lose their hearts.

As many times as I’ve visited this awe-inspiring hotel during my childhood and in the years when I was researching the historical novel, chills go down my spine whenever I walk into the magnificent lobby, seen here from the Mason Street entrance, and hear the clang of the California Street cable car that was running when Julia Morgan returned to San Francisco in 1904 from her architecture studies in Paris, just two years before the cataclysmic temblor.

Morgan was only thirty-four-years-old when she received the commission to rebuild the Fairmont’s burnt-out hulk after  the 3000 degree fire raced through its beaux arts facade.

Flash forward to the year 2000.  I witnessed the most recent transformation by the historic preservation architects Page & Turnbull of the gaudy (but lovable) red upholstered Fairmont of my youth to the golden confection you see in these pictures I took last week.

Like dogged detectives, these historic preservationists uncovered evidence of what the hotel looked like before fifties interior designer, Dorothy Draper, gave it her “Hollywood” treatment,as you see below–a style that endured half a century.

To celebrate the Millennium, the hotel was restored to a near-perfect replica of the work wrought by Miss Morgan between 1906-07 under impossible conditions.

It is that incredible story that forms the spine of A Race to Splendor and what a treat to be hosted in a place I know and love so well by Diane’s friend, Michelle Heston, the Fairmont’s Regional Director of Public Relations for the Western US & Hawaii.

Thanks to her and the hospitable staff, a stunning array of delectable offerings as part of their Afternoon Tea service was set before us in the Laurel Court Restaurant–one of whose domes had been unexpectedly discovered by a sleuth for Page & Turnbull when he crawled between the floors in the early days of the most recent renovation. Ms. Draper had lowered the ceiling, and over the decades, the beautiful dome had been forgotten.

Last week during our delightful afternoon, Halloween was upon us, and the staff had produced a variety of carved pumpkins for a contest that asked guests to vote for their favorite creation.

The hotel was jammed with fans in town to root for the Texas Rangers who are playing our beloved San Francisco Giants in the current World Series.

In fact,  as you see here, I whipped out my iPhone as one guest was headed to the game and then booked on a private jet that would take her back for Game 3,4, and 5 in Texas

Needless to say, our group raised our porcelain teacups and saluted the Giants, as well as my heroine, Julia Morgan, the creator of such beauty that has endured….