As this wall-painting at Fairmont San Francisco implies, this is a luxury hotel that is associated with weddings – about 70 a year. It is so convenient. The walk from the cathedral, atop Nob Hill, takes only five minutes, although of course it always seems to be blowing a gale up here. Nonetheless, this is where all the barons of San Francisco’s past wanted to live. In the early 20th century two of the four co-founders of the Central Pacific Railroad built palaces on Nob Hill. Both are now hotels, namely the Mark Hopkins and the Huntington, built by Collis Huntington, 1821-1900.
The Fairmont, however, was different. It was built 1902-1906 by two sisters, Theresa Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, in memory of their late father, James Graham Fair. This building became the Fairmont (Fair – hill), which has its legacy today in Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. The original building was destroyed during San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, but the following year it was rebuilt by Julia Morgan. Oh, the history of this building. This is where, in 1962, Tony Bennett sang ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’. Madeleine Allbright was lunching there when I dropped in this week. On an earlier visit, I had just missed Hillary Clinton. It is that kind of place.
The 591-room hotel has one of the most glorious marbled lobbies anywhere – it competes for any list of the world’s ten outstanding lobbies. Tourists come in just to take photos. Wander along on this level to the new tower at the back of the original building and you pass an outside terrace that has been turned into a herb garden, with hundreds of thousands of honey-bees buzzing around (do the chefs have to shroud themselves in beekeeping gear when they go out for a sprig of rosemary?).
There is another garden at the back too, formed out of yet another terrace. The hotel is full of surprises. The Presidential Suite, which has a mini terrace just big enough for three to dine outside, when the weather permits, can accommodate 50 diners inside. The suite has three bedrooms, and a two-floor oval-shaped library with a domed ceiling decorated in 1927 by Robert Howard with celestial signs (Howard also painted a map of the world over the walls of one of the bedroom). A secret passage behind the bookshelves has been associated with discreet trysts of a 20th century President…The suite’s games room is tiled like a Turkish hammam.
I went from one bit of history to another. The Langham Huntington Pasadena is the focal point of one of the wealthiest areas in the USA, Pasadena. Hundreds of locals use this hotel’s extremely busy wellness and fitness facility – and at least 70 weddings (that magical number!) are held here every year. It is a maze of a hotel, with 381 rooms, but I found my way really easily. The main building was started in 1907 but not finished. That was left to Henry Huntingdon, four years later. After periods as Sheraton and Ritz-Carlton, the Huntington, as it is called by these discerning locals, is in the tender loving care of Langham.
There is a portrait of Henry Huntington in the lobby of this luxury hotel and of course a bit of research is required. Henry Huntington, 1850-1927, was nephew of Collis Huntington, and after his uncle’s death in 1900 Henry not only took over his business roles but in 1913 he married the widow, Arabella Huntington (his own wife Mary Alice, whom he had divorced in 1910, had conveniently just died but this still shocked the society world. Arabella was on her second widowhood, by the way, and Collis had kindly adopted his stepson Archer. Presumably Henry therefore added Archer to the four offspring he had had with Mary Alice. Huntington was such a busy man. His Huntington trolley system stretched over 1,300 miles of southern California, with over 20 different streetcar lines. He built a road to the top of Mount Rubidoux in Riverside. He also gave his name, by the way, to the Huntington Library, and Huntington Beach, Pasadena’s Huntington Hospital, and to Huntington Parks on both the east and west coasts of the USA.