America’s 29th president, more infamous than illustrious, made news unexpectedly last week with the freshly unearthed (but hardly surprising) revelations that a) he fathered a child with his long-time mistress and b) he was not the country’s first black president (thank you, ancestry.com).
As it happened, I was in San Francisco, so I stopped by the Palace Hotel, where Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly almost 92 years to the day on August 2, 1923 of an apparent heart attack. (The exact cause of death remains unknown as his wife, said to be reading him a flattering newspaper article when he keeled over, vetoed an autopsy; perhaps she knew about Harding’s 26-year-old paramour all along.)
With a long, proud history dating from 1875 and a majestic Beaux Arts building hailing from 1909, the Palace figures prominently in San Francisco history. Hawaii’s King Kalakaua died here on a state visit in 1891, and the original building was destroyed by fire following the 1906 earthquake (tenor Enrico Caruso, a guest at the time, vowed never to return to San Francisco). It wasn’t all death and destruction. Woodrow Wilson hosted a lunch in the towering Garden Court to support the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. And the list of glittery guests includes Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin and Nikita Khrushchev. Ulysses S. Grant and Richard Nixon are among the presidents whose stays proved less life-changing than Harding’s.
As expected with a flourishing 106-year-old building, renovations are nothing new at the Palace. The most recent wrapped earlier this summer, and as I discovered, it’s a beauty. Architect Beatrice Girelli of Los Angeles-based Indidesign hit the elusive sweet spot, making a historic building feel contemporary without rendering it fusty or twee or stripping it of the gorgeous stuff that awarded it landmark status in 1984. The reborn Palace looks so right it wasn’t until I dredged up old images online that I realized exactly what had been done.
Since changes to the hotel’s elegant bones are off limits, the designers lavished attention on movable parts. The high-ceilinged, marble-floored promenade bisecting the ground floor is a showpiece. Out went the blood red oriental rugs and medieval throne chairs that looked like they were on loan from Hearst Castle. In came cool ink blue handwoven rugs and chic (and comfy) side chairs supported by wide suede strips twisted like ribbons (like Philippe Starck’s Royalton chairs a generation ago these could make a killing on the retail market).
The Garden Court, the spacious, glass-ceilinged cousin to The Plaza’s Palm Court, is subtly reconfigured to accommodate a generous dining area and a new cocktail lounge complete with the requisite communal table (a guy in a suit worked a laptop at one end while a stylish couple sipped martinis at the opposite). And yes, there’s still a pianist, playing light jazz instead of Chopin.
Other ground floor components fall together seamlessly. A large round table laden with towering bouquets greets guests in the lobby. Check-in occurs in a handsome wood-paneled room to the side. The wood-lined Pied Piper Room, anchored by Mayfield Parrish’s iconic painting, exudes a sleeked up Edwardian vibe.
I wasn’t able to see a newly renovated guest room let alone Room 8064 where Harding died, so I had plenty of time to check out the history in the vitrines interspersed between the potted palms and bespoke club chairs on the promenade. In the past enormous glass showcases displayed china, newspaper clippings, napkins, matchbooks, menus and flatware with descriptions on a flurry of little white cards. (There’s still a showcase on the mezzanine if you’re interested in learning how Green Goddess Dressing came to be.)
Elegant and minimal, the new vitrines perch on slim wood legs and display isolated objects like a jewels — a gilded French telephone, a pair of silver candlesticks, an enormous silver water pitcher. Good design needs no explanation.
The Palace, 2 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 415 512-1111.