PALACE HOTEL GARDEN COURT
The history of the Palace Hotel is written in grandeur and tragedy. The brainchild of wealthy businessman William Chapman Ralston, the Palace was conceived of as grand hotel to rival any in Europe or the Americas. It would be a centerpiece of San Francisco society, bringing the glamor of the East Coast to the West. From the very beginning, the hotel found its place among San Francisco’s elite, gaining a reputation for class, style, elegance and beauty. The mission of the Palace was nothing less than to be the finest hotel establishment on the West Coast and, by all accounts, it delivered. In all respects, the Palace lived up to its name, providing a palatial residence for anyone who chose to stay.
However the Palace had hardly started to rise on the street when the first sorrow befell it. Ralston’s Bank of California, which had financed the 5 million dollar project, collapsed. Ralston himself drowned in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. Control of the project went to Ralston’s friend, Senator William Sharon. Ironically, it was Sen. Sharon’s choice to dump his interest in the Comstock Lode that had caused the financial ruin of the bank. Sen. Sharon gained control of the Palace at just pennies on the dollar.
Even with the tragedy, the hotel persevered and opened to the public in October of 1875, hosting the finest clientele in its six story Grand Court. The Grand Court was so large that when the hotel was built, horse-drawn carriages drove right inside, unloading their passengers out of the gray San Francisco cold. Eventually this practice was stopped and the Grand Court was converted into an area variously called the “Garden Court” or the “Palm Court”. The space was filled with tropical palms and flowers that made it an oasis in the urban landscape.
Among the hotel’s many delights were the open corridors of the seventh floor. Called the Conservatory floor, from its lofty perch, a guest could look down into the Grand Court, so many floors below, while enjoying the clean, open space with its Grecian inspired statues, lush display of tropical plant life and luminous steel and glass roof. It was the perfect place for a lover’s walk or to wile away the afternoon with a quiet rest.
The glory of The Palace was not to last forever. In 1906, the same earthquake that devastated the rest of the city, counted The Palace among its victims. Though it survived the initial tremors, later in the day, the hotel caught fire and was destroyed.
For a few years, the Palace was relegated to a small space remembered now as the “Baby Palace.” But it would take until 1909 for the “New” Palace to open. Rebuilt from the ground up, the new Palace was a modern marvel, keeping the grandness of the old Palace while looking to the future. Sadly, in the march forward, some elements of the Old Palace were left behind. The Conservatory Floor that once stood as a marvel in engineering was left out. All we have of this once majestic space are a few photos.
However tragic the loss of the Old Palace, the current Palace Hotel remains a historic and beautiful site. The Garden Court in the new Palace calls back to the glory of the original. It’s a dining experience not to be missed, allowing the guest to enjoy their meal under a beautiful glass ceiling surrounded by lush plants. Sunday brunch and afternoon teas are a hallmark of the Palace’s commitment to old world grandeur, calling back to days long since passed.
For a cozier space, many enjoy having a drink in the hotel’s famous Pied Piper Bar, so named for the Maxfield Parrish mural which dominates the bar area. A more casual space, it is nevertheless an excellent example of the unparalleled service provided in this San Francisco landmark.
The New Palace allows guided tours for those interested in the history of the place. These free tours are provided by the San Francisco City Guides, a program run by the San Francisco Public Library.