San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel a Treasure Trove of History

Last month I stayed at the Fairmont San Francisco as part of Accor’s Global Meeting Exchange conference.

I have stayed in numerous hotels, but few have the rich history of this Nob Hill pile that sits opposite IHG Hotels & Resorts’ InterContinental Mark Hopkins, which I am sure also has a few stories to tell.

One meeting was held in the penthouse, the largest of the hotel’s 606 rooms.

You should visit the Fairmont San Francisco for its billiards room alone, a splendid spot that reminds me of Granada, Spain’s Moorish palace of The Alhambra, deep-blue glossy tiling, arched windows and overall splendor.

The Fairmont San Francisco’s penthouse billiards room. (Terence Baker)

The rotunda library has a hidden door where supposedly Marilyn Monroe could access the penthouse from the roof’s helicopter pad and visit President John F. Kennedy without anyone knowing of her presence in Northern California, let alone San Francisco.

The books in the library are a private collection of the family that formerly lived in the penthouse, and Fairmont executives later asked a book specialist to look at what specific books were contained in it.

Several priceless first editions were then removed for safekeeping.

On the ground floor, a long corridor displays approximately 100 photographs explaining the rich history of the hotel, perhaps most notably that it was there that another president, Harry Truman, and other world leaders drafted the constitution of the United Nations.

During the conference, Accor’s CEO and Chairman Sébastien Bazin talked passionately about another legendary addition to the French hotel firm’s portfolio, the Orient-Express train, which started service in 1883, 20 years before the Fairmont was built.

Three years later the entire city was devastated by the 1906 earthquake.

This dramatic date in the city’s history was mentioned by the MC of the Accor conference, who, like me, is British.

After he gave some history, he introduced the first speaker at the event, Joe D’Alessandro, president of the San Francisco Travel Association.

“Typically, we do not start presentations with photographs of the 1906 earthquake … but, yes, it is part of our history,” he said, which was amusing to me in the context of how so often history has to be sugar-coated to be better sold.

Bazin, continuing his conversation about passion, said the train service would start in 2024 on private rail lines in Italy and beyond, visiting small Italian towns and its major centers.

Accor has recently discovered some of the train’s original carriages, or at least a fan of rail travel did who is also a historian.

Watching an anonymously posted YouTube video of train tracks and sidings — which is not weird; well, maybe, I do the very same for rare birds — this person caught a glimpse of a line of blue carriages.

Books keep secrets at the Fairmont San Francisco, with its penthouse library bookcase being a secret door leading to the hotel’s roof. (Terence Baker)

An eureka moment came, which led to a great deal of searching online and in the field.

Pausing one video, frame by frame, Arthur Mettetal could just about decipher a place name, Małaszewicze.

There is more than one Małaszewicze in Poland, although the spelling of the name would have led one immediately to that county. Eventually, using Google Map’s 3D live view, the carriages were tracked down to an obscure railway halt on the Belarus-Poland border, approximately 120 miles east of Warsaw.

“I think they were owned by some drunk oligarch,” Bazin said.

Huge expense has gone into restoration, he added, suggesting the expense is far higher than doing the same for any hotel room.

Mettetal now heads up the Orient-Express Endowment Heritage Fund, which is tasked with preserving the culture, history and importance of the train service.

The pandemic has not halted the need for glamor in travel, and, my goodness, I cannot think of anything more glamorous than being on the first journey on this classic train.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Hotel News Now or CoStar Group and its affiliated companies. Bloggers published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

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