San Francisco Shines for Birthday, Earthquake

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

It will be a birthday on Earthquake Day, the Lady's 80th.

It will also be a celebration for a city that was rising from the rubble and ashes of the 1906 earthquake to celebrate its Festival of Lights on April 18, 1907.

That was the day the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill lifted the spirits of San Francisco by becoming the first new hotel to open after the earthquake and the even more destructive fires that followed.

Built with the architectural styling and all imported luxuries made possible by wealth that flowed from a Nevada silver discovery, the Fairmont had been ready to uncrate its furnishings exactly one year to the day earlier.

But at 5:12 a.m. in the predawn light of April 18, 1906, the morning after Caruso had been thunderously applauded for his role in "Carmen" at the Opera House below Nob Hill, another kind of thunder shook the city. Then waves of earth three feet high swept through the landfill of downtown. Buildings twisted and crashed around terrified people trying to get to the middle of the streets.

Entrance Remained

Up on the solid ground of Nob Hill, the Fairmont and the red stone walls of the Flood mansion across from its imposing entrance remained standing. So did the great redwood mansions of the Huntington, Stanford and Hopkins families.

After the quakes came the fires, roaring across downtown, then crackling up Nob Hill. The redwood mansions flamed. Heat cracked the Fairmont's windows. Fire reached inside, found the packing crates of fine furniture, swept on and upward to everything that would burn.

How the Fairmont could have been ready for a gala opening only a year after the earthquake struck is above all a story of San Francisco and the spirit of the people who have always helped to lift this city above a crisis.

This has been part of the history of the Fairmont for 80 years, during which it has been one of the world's most distinguished hotels and has also provided a setting for such conferences as those that helped form the United Nations. It will be reflected again when the "Lady's 80" birthday party begins on Saturday, April 18.

Festival of Lights

The Fairmont will glow like a birthday cake, with 80 eight-foot candles circling its roof.

A "Shake, Rattle and Roll" dance will be a benefit for the performing arts of San Francisco, which came of age in this city with the tenor voice of Enrico Caruso on Earthquake Eve.

That will also be the weekend of Easter Sunday. People will begin climbing before dawn in the annual pilgrimage to the Sunrise Service at the base of the 103-foot cross on Mt. Davidson west of Twin Peaks.

In the city's Japantown, April 18 is the first weekend of the Cherry Blossom Festival. More than 2,000 Californians of Japanese descent will join with performers from Japan in cultural and artistic presentations of an ancestral heritage that has become part of the City by the Bay. The San Francisco Symphony will be performing Beethoven's 9th.

Gerald Booth's history in words and photos is available at the Fairmont. Historical photos are on display in the hotel. Archives are in the San Francisco Room at the Public Library in the Civic Center.

Personal Memories

Being here at this time has stirred personal memories of my father, who in his young wandering years found himself in San Francisco with the earthquake fires flaming around him. He tried to help by carrying buckets of water up Nob Hill. Years later, when he met and married my mother in Minnesota, she wrote down his San Francisco memories so they could someday be shared with their children.

The era that made the Fairmont possible began when Jim Fair and his partner were wandering through what was believed to be the played-out area of the Nevada silver mines. They wondered what might be found if they could dig deeper than had ever been attempted, and promoted a grubstake from two San Francisco traders and former saloonkeepers.

Returning to Nevada with the necessary equipment, they dug down to one of the largest silver strikes ever recorded. Fair found himself one of the richest men in the world. He put up more than enough campaign funds to win a seat in Congress.

As his family life developed, with ups and downs of happiness, Fair bought a block on the crest of Nob Hill with the idea of sharing mansion life with the city's financial aristocracy.

Marital problems interfered and he died without ever building the mansion. Eventually his daughters Tessie and Virginia decided to build more than a mansion as a monument to the Fair name on the mount of Nob Hill.

But building a hotel for high society posed more construction problems than they had ever imagined. They traded off the unfinished structure to Herbert and Hartland Law, who had amassed a tremendous fortune selling a patent medicine.

Unlimited Funding

Deeply moved by what the earthquake and fires did to their adopted city, the Law brothers became civic leaders in the monumental task of rebuilding San Francisco. They knew what a new Fairmont Hotel would mean atop Nob Hill and put up unlimited funding for its rebuilding--to the highest possible standards of quality.

But the Fairmont scenario was only beginning, as Gerald Booth has researched it. The Laws made a choice that was a daring one for their era. They selected as their architect a young woman just beginning what would become a legendary career. She was Julia Morgan, the first woman to graduate in architecture from Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. She astounded San Francisco by climbing scaffolding in her long gown to inspect work in progress.

Gala Celebration

She made sure the work was finished in time for its April 18 opening. California Gov. J. N. Gillette presided over a banquet of a thousand diners who were served $5,000 worth of California and French wines.

At precisely 9 p.m. the city and bay were illuminated by the Festival of Lights and fireworks flashing from the top of the Fairmont and the dome of City Hall.

Guests at the Fairmont were soon sharing it with wealthy families who moved in while their homes were being rebuilt. The Laws turned their interests to other parts of the city.

Jim Fair's daughter Tessie slipped quietly back into the city and negotiated with the Laws to regain possession of the hotel--that no longer had any construction problems.

Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan and Rudolph Valentino were just a few of the famous names registered over the decades.

About that time, East Coast financier Benjamin Swig bought controlling interest in the Fairmont and spent a million dollars to refurbish its grandeur. His son Richard came out of the Navy in 1947 and went to work in the stockroom.

New Company Chief

Richard Swig became president of the family company in 1953, and now has other Fairmont Hotels in Dallas, Denver and New Orleans. The Fairmonts of San Jose and Chicago will open next fall.

In its 80th birthday year, the historic main building of the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, with its carriage entrance and stately lobby, has 340 deluxe rooms and 40 suites, many with terraces. The tower completed in 1961 has 20 suites and 200 rooms with sweeping views of San Francisco.

Recently a prince of Saudi Arabia phoned the Fairmont from his jet to say that he would be arriving in San Francisco four hours ahead of schedule and wanted to be sure that the Penthouse Suite would be ready for him. This suite with outdoor terrace rents for $5,000 a night, but for less princely budgets, rooms for a twosome start at $175.

We breakfasted in the Brasserie, and for dinner the choices at the Fairmont depend on your mood. If it's exotic, you can dine in the Tonga, where a tropical rainstorm splashes and flashes over a lagoon. A live band plays from the Asian vessel adrift on the lagoon. The award-winning Squire restaurant offers continental dining. The Crown Room, 29 stories above San Francisco, has a buffet with more than 40 selections.

The San Francisco Chronicle has called the Venetian Room the "last of the elegant supper clubs." Big-name entertainers are part of an evening there.

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