1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published August 1946

San Francisco: Readers of Dr. Holmes's celebrated Breakfast Table essays will recall the enchanting if outrageous self-satisfaction of the Beacon Street young lady to whom Boston was the geographic be-all and end-all of the known universe, which expressed itself with the remark: “Why should I travel when I'm already there?”

It had been the intention in the current dispatch of this department to report in some considered measure on the state of travel, the gay and gracious life and rompin' and stompin' generally on the Pacific Coast as the war years and their inconveniences are fading into history. It has, in actual fact, engaged in skirmishes with what the French like to call la vie sporting in Los Angeles, Phoenix, old Mexico, and the High Sierras not a million miles from Reno's Virginia Street, and could submit canceled cheques, autographed menus, and port of entry clearances to authenticate the circumstance. But once in the incomparable precincts of San Francisco, the mood of the Beacon Street young lady seemed entirely valid, even if removed in time and locale. “Why should I travel when I'm already there?” is so applicable to this department's entire attitude toward the world's most exciting and beautiful city that this report will limit itself to conditions in the shadow of Telegraph Hill and vicinities.

At the outset it may be reported that, long experienced as it has been in crises and catastrophes of a much more serious and immediately personal nature, San Francisco was able to brush off another world war as the merest inconvenience to its traditional way of life and that its immemorial institutions, social, personal, and political, have survived almost without scathe. It has emerged from the urgencies of military necessity and their occasional exaggerations the same resplendent city of bannered rooftops, cable cars, sun-swept hillsides, beautiful hotels, magnificent seascapes, and a sailor-turbulent Market Street that it always was. It is still the city where, unlike Paris, good Americans were once supposed to go when they died, good Americans who can secure a drawing-room on the Overland Limited go when they are alive and better able to appreciate things.

More, probably, than any other city in the United States with the exception of New York, San Francisco is an urban midst where hotel and restaurant life is both by the terms of tradition and in actual fact of paramount communal importance. Only a generation or so ago the great luxury hotels of the American scene played a commanding role in daily public life. There was a time when New York newspapers carried financial columns under standing heads: “Heard at the Windsor” or “The Day at the Waldorf,” but today, while many luxury hotels occupy places of the first importance as centers of the social and professional worlds, only two, to the knowledge of this department, are still predominantly important in the interlocking spheres of banking, business, and government as well as for the carriage trade and as the background for professional celebrities.

They are the Brown Palace in Denver and, of course, the ever glittering Palace in San Francisco. To be sure, other hotels exercise a vast hold upon public imaginings as focal points of fashion and the great world, but only at the Brown and the Palace (no San Franciscan needs to add the redundant word “hotel”) does the daily life of their communities ebb and flow through their lobbies and bars in such intense concentration, and only here is it possible to watch the spectacle of wealthy and worldly communities as vividly as they may be seen in the pattern and fabric of a medieval tapestry.

This dispatch is being written from the fabulous Palace in Market Street, the wonder and glory of all American hotels, built in an era when money meant nothing except as the source from which to create more wealth, and happily surviving into a meaner generation still in the hands of owners who know that its spacious magnificence is its best advertisement and excuse for being. The Bonanza Inn of Pacific Coast legend, the one-time stamping ground of the old, bearded Kings of the Comstock, a panache of splendor in an already splendid community, the Palace is still, in 1946, the most vital nerve center of California's very abundant existence.

To discover the Palace at this late date would be a superfluous naïveté, but it is impossible to put up amidst its acres of courtyards, miles of stately gangways, and other devisings of spacious magnificence without remembering that here is a hotel that, in one of its redactions or another, has seen more glamour and excitement than any other hostel in America.

When the first Palace was opened in 1875 no lodgments open to the public had ever even approached its de luxe appointments. The first electrical systems to be installed on any practicable scale activated its bell-pulls, call-buttons, watchmen's posts, provided service communications between floor waiters and downstairs kitchen offices, and the eyes of the West bugged at the first electric clocks ever seen. Pneumatic tubes sped messages to all parts of the hotel in a few seconds; there were 800 “practically noiseless” water closets; five hydraulic elevators hoisted the delighted guests of the President Grant era to their proper floors; an entire furniture factory was built and maintained to furnish it by William C. Ralston, who conceived the Palace; acres of carpet were commanded from W. & J. Sloane in New York, who opened their San Francisco branch store, in business to this day, to fill the order; forty thousand service dishes were specially designed and fabricated by Haviland in France.

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