Our Union Square boutique hotel’s history
Imagine the scene in 1928. Stock markets are soaring. Ford's Model A car has just rolled off the assembly line and coffee is going for five cents a cup (or about 1% of the cost of a shade grown Ethiopian vanilla latte). And a new star is born in San Francisco - Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel – built in the bustling heart of the city on the corner of Sutter and Powell at Union Square. Posh, polished and the city's newest status symbol, the hotel was built for the then staggering sum of $5 million by Midwestern hotel magnates. Named for the 16th Century explorer who almost discovered San Francisco Bay, the hotel immediately upped the ante for what luxury looked like, surging past other properties which in comparison were red velvet-clad dowagers from the Barbary Coast era.
At its grand opening, the city's mayor, California's governor and Hollywood celebrities showed up to help inaugurate the hotel in a glamorous swirl of orchestras, tuxedos, gowns and clinking Champagne glasses. That weekend, 10,000 people turned out for some gawk-and-awe during a two-day open house.
What they experienced at the 21-story hotel was the very latest in amenities and luxury touches including radios in every guestroom, an indoor golf course, fresh ice water on tap to all rooms and the country's first Servidor doors -- a handy panel in the guest room doors which allowed staff to discreetly deliver dry cleaning or other items without disturbing guests. No question these came in handy during Prohibition too, because it's rumored more than a few bottles of alcohol passed through them as well.
But the real star here was the Drake's lavish and luxe interiors, stylized by San Francisco architects and engineers, Weeks & Day, to evoke Renaissance splendor. Called "The last word in hotels" by newspapers, public spaces like the two-story lobby living room were adorned with vaulted gold leaf ceilings, hand-painted murals by artist W.F. Bergman, graceful iron grills, enough French and Italian marble to fill a cathedral and a show-stopping entryway staircase perfect for dramatic entrances. Banquet rooms, restaurants and guestrooms were equally elegant, accented and accessorized with everything from fine Irish linens to Reed & Barton Silver. All this glam could be had for starting room rates of $3.50 per night.
During the ensuing decades, the Drake became a showcase for all of the marvels and changes that were happening in society at large. Even with the stock market crash, the Drake remained a haute spot where well-heeled locals and visitors flocked to see and be seen. Hollywood celebs like Dolores Del Rio, Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy, dance troupes and Vaudevillians made the scene at the hotel's swank Persian Room which opened in 1936. With Prohibition over, it's also where the hotel served its first legal drink that same year for 35 cents a pop. (Persistent rumors of an underground bottle service on the premises means these probably weren't the first cocktails ever served). News accounts described the swank space as "enveloped in an aura of romance" accented with midnight blue carpets, black-topped tables inlaid with gold, bronze table lamps with colored lights and a spun glass foundation illuminated by constantly changing lights. Let's just say it was important to go easy on the Dry Martinis. Famed local columnist Herb Caen dubbed the Persian Room "The Snake Pit," for all the writhing and hissing among a "who's who" list of patrons who enjoyed amenities like crepes suzette prepared table-side in silver chafing dishes.
During World War II, blocks of rooms were taken over by the U.S. military and the hotel was the scene of many tearful farewells and joyous reunions as troops made their way to and from the Pacific. You can only imagine the swooning that went on at the hotel's Starlite Roof (now the Starlight Room), a legendary nightclub that's still very much a part of the San Francisco scene today.
Like a gracefully aging diva, as the Sir Francis Drake approached its 50th anniversary in the 1970's, it was time for some nip-and-tuck. An extensive $5 million restoration – the cost of the original construction -- was begun in 1971 that uncovered and restored lobby paintings depicting Drake and original ironwork and chandeliers that had been covered in several layers of paint. Completed in 1974, the project also revealed and restored the grand marble staircase to its original splendor and reduced the number of rooms from 600 to 386 more ample guestrooms and suites. It was also during this time that famed doorman Tom Sweeney assumed his post in his fabulous Beefeater uniform.
The Drake remained a centerpiece of the San Francisco experience but in the late 1980s ran into financial difficulties in a very competitive hotel environment. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants founder Bill Kimpton rode to the rescue in 1993 when he saved the hotel by forming an investment partnership that purchased the property for $22 million. Another $9 million was invested to renovate the entire building inside and out, resulting in a carefully curated refurbishment and upgrade.
Today, the grande dame of San Francisco hotels still anchors vibrant Union Square. Regal, opulent and oozing history and rich textures, the property remains vitally current with elements like the glam lobby bar's sophisticated cocktail program, locally fresh rustic Italian cuisine served at Scala's restaurant and 16,000 square feet of meeting and event space. Add to the mix refined accommodations, the reimagined Lizzie’s Starlight on the 21st floor and of course, the ever-present red-suited Beefeater doormen, and you have one of San Francisco's most enduring and loved landmarks.