The Inn at the Presidio in San Francisco is a march in time


San Francisco — Many California hotels strive for the today-meets-yesterday look. But the newly opened Inn at the Presidio gets a historical leg up: Its Georgian Revival structure has stood since 1903, having served as officers’ quarters until the Presidio was decommissioned as an Army post in 1994. Last year, the Presidio Trust, a federal agency, scraped out the building’s insides, replacing them with a modern 22-room inn trying hard at charm.

And succeeding, for the most part, based on my stay earlier this month. Walk through its red-brick façade, which doesn’t hint much at the tourist housing inside, and you’ll notice breezy, jazzy tunes — Louis Armstrong, maybe, or a big-band go-to — and a check-in desk.

It’s staffed by eager-to-please personnel who seem spread thin: When I arrived, the front desk man kept smiling at me as he spent a good five minutes helping someone on the phone figure out whether there’d be enough space here to accommodate her wedding party. There wouldn’t be, as it turned out, but he rattled off a list of alternatives.


I thought I should be annoyed, but I wasn’t. The guy was likable. Plus there was much to look at: worn compilations of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. A vintage Corona typewriter. On the entryway wall, a fetching collage of antique trumpets looking as though they might all come to life at once with a rousing “Reveille.”

Finally he checked me in and handed me a key card bearing Gen. John Pershing’s half-smiling face. I clomped up to my second-floor room (there’s no elevator to the guest rooms), a forest-view king, one of the hotel’s least expensive offerings ($222.30 with tax). Never mind that the forest is a thick eucalyptus grove and that the view was interrupted by a sleepy intersection of avenues. My window did overlook some tall trees, as well as a modest fire pit encircled by a rotating cadre of well-dressed guests in rocking chairs.

The room itself, at 380 square feet, is perhaps the size of a twentysomething’s Manhattan apartment but with higher ceilings. It’s crisp with subtle nautical elements and a sparse design that favors today over yesterday — more shiny surfaces than real artifacts. I yearned for the historical whimsy so apparent downstairs and in the hallways.

The white-tiled bathroom did display a framed postcard dated 1909 from an antsy fellow stuck at the Presidio. It was to a lover in Honolulu (“If I am still here when you come, look me up”). But aside from that and a few other touches, the room is so new that the carpeting and paint still had that just-put-in smell. The remodelers were wise enough, though, to leave what looks like original window glass. Though dappled from decades of duty, it keeps out noise well enough, save the occasional birdsong or dog bark.

You can hear the hard steppers on the stairs too, and an occasional voice does waft up from downstairs. But the real racket, in my case, came from the room’s two alarm clocks — I’d set neither — which collectively went off three times. If you value your rest, preempt these eager time-tellers. In fact, move the analog clock by the bed to the bathroom: It’s cute but ticks loudly enough to have given me passing thoughts of throwing it out into the fire pit. Good thing I wasn’t strong enough to open the windows.

Still, the efforts at endearment outweigh the frustrations: There’s a copy of Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” in every room (plus a guide to power-hiking San Francisco), and everything that’s labeled is done in Army-style font: “HOT AIR” on the cloth cover for the hair dryer, “COFFEE” on the burlap sack that holds a Viennese dark roast made by an organic, fair-trade company called Equator. (You brew it in the provided Cuisinart).


The other amenities are mostly boutique and local: Telegraph Hill robes, Pan Im-Ex Pacific 350-thread-count sheets. The towels are Monarch microcotton and the citrus-scented toiletries are EO. The 32-inch flat-screen TV was an LG.

Other things to know about the rooms: Cellphone reception is poor. Coffee and Wi-Fi are free. There’s no bottled water, but there is a selection of other kinds of drinks for sale in the mini-fridge. Lighting is good, with sun streaming in during the day and enough lamps to make bedtime reading comfortable. The bathroom is attractive and the shower divine. The dark wooden door has a latch for safety but its eyehole is too high up for petite women like me.

My room wasn’t dirty, but it wasn’t perfectly clean either. During my overnight stay, housekeeping didn’t visit me but I did see the workers in the hallway. The linens are washed only by request, one of the inn’s many efforts at greenness. It’s on national-park land, so conservation makes sense. Shredded jeans serve as insulation in the walls, checkout is paperless and food scraps are composted — all gestures the managers hope will help qualify their property for LEED gold certification.

There’s no restaurant on site (unlike its cousin, Cavallo Point, also with converted military housing but with a well-reviewed restaurant) but at the academic-style “mess hall,” Northern California wines and cheeses are set out during a 5-7 p.m. happy hour. For dinner, the staff recommends the Presidio Social Club, a nearby restaurant that’s also housed in onetime barracks. But if you’re content, like me, just to pick up some takeout on your way in, it’s nice to eat out back by the fire or on the front veranda.

A continental breakfast, served from 7 to 10 a.m., comes with your stay and includes cereals (the granola is worth trying), yogurts, pastries and meats. The coffee was gone by 9 a.m. so I asked reception to refill it. It took 15 minutes but it happened.

Which is symptomatic of what seems to be the Inn at the Presidio’s biggest issue and my only real criticism of it: It’s short on staff. The front-desker is often the only person on duty and seems to be trying to juggle it all: checking people in, taking all phone calls, being a concierge, keeping food and drink stocked.

Once the managers deploy a few more hands on deck, things should run like, well, clockwork.