Renovating a historic hotel is a very fine line to walk, both for owners and designers. While it’s important to preserve the elements of time and place that made the original iconic, it’s also necessary to provide comfortable, modern touches that keep pace with contemporary guest tastes. The trick is to find a common ground somewhere between the dusty museum quality of a time capsule and the digital age sensibility of an Apple Store.
The Palace Hotel, San Francisco has undoubtedly gone through many a restoration in its day. Opened in 1875, the hotel had at least one major renovation as it neared the turn of the century when changing tastes in transport turned the carriage entrance into a gracious indoor palm court. The original structure had bay windows and was designed like a 19th century Embassy Suites with open interior corridors to a soaring atrium with a top floor solarium. Although the original structure survived the initial jolt of the 1906 earthquake, it was gutted by fire later the same day. The Beaux Arts structure that survives today is in fact the “new” Palace Hotel, which opened its doors to the public in December 1909.
As a landmark hotel in one of the world’s great cities, the hotel was also witness to several historic events. In 1891 King Kalaukaua of the then-sovereign Kingdom of Hawai’i died in one of the rooms of the original structure. In 1919 President Wilson gave speeches in support of the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations at the hotel, and President Harding’s term ended in 1923 when he died at the hotel following a visit to Alaska, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. In 1945 the Palace hosted a banquet to mark the opening session of the United Nations. For more history, visit this delightful website.
The hotel last went a comprehensive refresh from 1989 to 1991 when it was closed and remodeled for major structural refurbishment and interior redesign. The hotel remained open during this latest modernization, which updated the guest rooms, lobby, public spaces, dining spaces, fitness center, and pool. The design was the vision of Beatrice Girelli of the Los Angeles design firm indidesign.
Longtime fans of The Palace will find many of the update subtle, keeping with the spirit of the original design, but necessary, such as the replacement of many of the carpet and upholstery designs which were somewhat more in fashion at the time of the most recent remodel 25 years ago. The wide corridors and high ceilings are unchanged (period hotels were designed for guests who traveled with steamer trunks, necessitating wider corridors) The new color palette is a calming one of midnight blue, charcoal, dove grey, and plum, but there’s a sense of historic style that’s preserved with the maintenance of the original oak guest room doors and brass doorknob’s bearing the hotel’s initials. Upper floor rooms and suites have upgraded bath amenities including Toto washlets, and beds are infallibly sumptuous with crested accent throws and luxurious tufted leather headboards. All furnishings in the refurbished guest rooms have been custom designed for the Palace, and the accents on each suggest the glory days of travel with embellishments that suggest vintage luggage and trunks.
In public spaces, more modern touches mingle well with old. The Garden Court has been split into a restaurant, which is accessible via one of the pillared cloisters along the side, and the GC Lounge at the front, which is open with the grand gallery and lobby space, which invites lingering over a drink or at one of the bar-height communal tables with friends or colleagues. The new furnishings have contemporary patterns and colors but their bone structure is still that of yesteryear. The Garden Court maintains it’s renowned menu, including the famous Green Goddess dressing which was invented here, and the GC Lounge has its own bar for afternoon refreshments or nightcaps.
The refurbished pool and fitness center are on the fourth floor, and the pool is topped by a striking rounded atrium with clean lines, soft colors and an atmosphere of calm. There’s poolside service for those interested, as well as a jacuzzi. With windows open to the fitness center, one can indulge in the curious sensation of swimming toward another guest running in place on a treadmill. Men’s and women’s changing rooms are available, for it feels almost shameful to traipse through such a gorgeous property in one’s swimming costume.
The Pied Piper bar is another San Francisco notable, particularly for the eponymous Maxfield Parrish mural that is in residence behind the bar. As the bright and airy Garden Court is a breakfast-and-lunch establishment, dinner guests at the hotel can enjoy either the lively bar, or after 5 P.M. an elegant dark wood dining room reminiscent of the excesses of the Gilded Age, although the cuisine has certainly undergone a contemporary California update, with plenty of Pacific Rim inspiration, such as a quite faithful chicken satay. There’s also a fine selection of craft cocktails, plenty of which do some remarkable things with whiskey (try the Charlie Chaplin, which comes in a martini glass topped with an orange peel in the shape of the comic’s trademark mustache).
The best refurbishment of such a beloved classic classic edifice should almost leave a guest aware of the changes, but unable to quite put their finger on the finer details, like a slightly different hairstyle or new shade of lipstick. This grand lady of a hotel might have a new frock and a fresh coat of paint, but the familiar touches that made this hotel iconic of the grand excitement of travel in the last centuries remain as vibrant as ever in the Palace Hotel’s 141 year history.
Check out the author’s Instagram for additional photos of a recent stay. Accommodations and some meals were furnished or discounted by The Palace Hotel in preparation for this story.