20 July 2004

That room off the main lobby

The Café, St. Francis Hotel, c. 1910 (postcard courtesy of Anthony Bruce)

The St. Francis Hotel boasts a grand history, whose beginning is summarized in the hotel’s website:
At the turn of the century, the guardians of the Charles Crocker family announced plans to build the finest hotel on the Pacific Coast. Their vision was to make San Francisco the “Paris of the West.” After studying all of Europe’s grand hotels—from those in Berlin, Vienna, and Monaco to Claridge’s in London to The Ritz in Paris—construction on the original St. Francis Hotel began. Two years and $2.5 million later, on March 21, 1904, the doors of The St. Francis opened.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle provides a chronology of the main-floor restaurant, which was just renovated beyond recognition:
1904: The room off the main lobby is a ladies’ and gentlemen’s café. The architecture was inspired by the Cluny Museum in Paris.

1907: The space was restored after the earthquake and fire, and named The Café.

1913 or thereabouts: The space was turned into a reading room holding 4,000 books. Tables and Tiffany lamps gave hotel guests a place to write letters.

1939: The Patent Leather Bar was born. Black patent leather covered the walls, the banquettes and the 60-foot bar that snaked through the room. Ansel Adams’ photographs of the bar still hang in the St. Francis lobby. The ornate ceiling was covered, as were the windows; they wouldn’t be opened for 40 years.

1939 or ’40: Several vases of orchids were spread around the Patent Leather Bar, which had been dubbed the “coffin corner” by the media.

1954: The room became a cocktail lounge called The Terrace Room, with a bar, limited food service and kimono-clad waitresses. It wouldn’t change for 26 years.

1980: The Compass Rose was designed with a sense of “oriental wickedness,” according to media at the time. The name came from the multipointed design on the back of a compass. Embracing cobras made up the bases for cocktail tables. Buddhist prayer screens from Burma provided focal points. Marble covered the stairs, and griffins decorated the bar. The ceiling was lifted to reveal the original design.

Sources: Westin St. Francis Hotel historian Howard Mutz and Chronicle files

According to the hotel’s media representative, “This room has historically changed every 20 to 30 years, so we’re at the 23-year mark with the Compass Rose. The public wants to see another fine-dining establishment, so because we are at the juncture of 23 years, and because the hotel is turning 100 next year, this is all done as part of the natural evolution of change.”

Not everyone is delighted. Every day brings a new lament. One Chronicle reader complained, “More painful than any visit to the dentist are the views of the Michael Mina restaurant and the once-grand lobby.” Another asked, “We mourned the demise of Newbegin’s Books with a glass of champagne at the Compass Rose, but where can we go to mourn the passing of the Compass Rose?” Gerald Nachman was considerably less charitable:
The recent “renovation” of the gorgeous Compass Rose Room at the St. Francis Hotel, to make way for the unstoppable duck-confit mob, occurred with not even a fraction of the controversy over the threatened decapitation of the Doggie Diner head on Sloat Boulevard. [...]

I only hope that those wondrous frosted etched-glass partitions, the carved bar and plush rose banquettes were stored somewhere handy, so that when the buzz-crazed foodies desert the new St. Francis restaurant, as they will for the next fashionable joint, the old Compass Room can be restored to its former beauty.


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