The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco is the choice of world leaders

The elegant Fairmont Hotel perched atop Nob Hill has long been a choice of world leaders, and the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit will be no different. Nicknamed the “White House of the West,” the hotel has hosted every living US president since its opening – with the exception of former President Donald Trump.

President Joe Biden is expected to stay at the hotel for the second time this year when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum visits the city in mid-November.

Going back into history, he explains the Fairmont’s connection to the political sphere, and reveals how the nine-story Edwardian hotel at 950 Mason Street almost never opened.

Related: The concierge of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco pours over the lifestyles of the wealthy and demanding

The story begins with James Fair, a treasure hunter who moved to San Francisco in 1849 in search of gold but became rich on silver instead. He was notorious for his dalliances—including an affair with schoolmistress and future San Francisco Ghost Miss Mary Lake—and his wife divorced him in 1883 on the grounds of “habitual adultery.” She was forced to raise her four children alone.

Fair purchased the Nob Hill property and gave the land to his two daughters, along with his desire to one day build a hotel there. The daughters, Theresa Ver-Ulrichs and Virginia Ver-Vanderbilt, respected his wishes, but did not keep the hotel. They sold their interests shortly after it was built, just days before the 1906 earthquake and fires destroyed the city.

Shown here is the Fairmont Hotel’s Laurel Court room in 1907. | source: Courtesy Fairmont Hotel

In fact, the grand dame was scheduled to open on the morning of the earthquake, April 18, 1906. Although the building survived, its elaborate interior was completely destroyed.

One year to the day, the Fairmont rose from the ashes in the most spectacular way possible: with a massive party featuring 13,000 oysters, rivers of champagne and fireworks. The renaissance came about thanks to local architect Julia Morgan, who helped pioneer the use of reinforced concrete and went on to design Hearst Castle.

“It’s female leadership that created this place,” said Ahsin Muqlat, director of food and beverage at the Fairmont Hotel. “It was built by two daughters and designed by a woman.”

Morgan, who would become one of the country’s most famous architects, stepped into a job that no one else wanted.

“It took this recent Berkeley graduate student to take a risk,” McClatt said.

The hotel has achieved historical achievements in the speed of the cable car line that runs on California Street. It was the site of the drafting of the United Nations Charter, as noted by the array of flags hanging above the entrance, one flag for each participating member state. It housed the city’s first post-Prohibition cocktail bar, the Circus Room designed by Timothy Pflueger.

The Cirque Room bar opened at the Fairmont Hotel in 1933. | source: Courtesy Fairmont Hotel

The Fairmont Hotel also likely had the country’s first concierge program, thanks to pioneer Tom Wolfe. It is the first place where Tony Bennett sang his famous song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” There is a life-size statue outside in memory of the city’s beloved baritone, who died at the age of 96 last July.

Thus, the Fairmont Hotel is a place that generates emotional connections that span generations.

At the elegant Laurel Court restaurant, a widow recently dropped in for her first solo meal after having visited the hotel several times over the years with her husband. Mothers bring their daughters to the same high tea service – which has been in place since the hotel first opened in 1907 – attending them as girls with their mothers. It’s the location of the irresistible Tonga Room tiki bar, and one of the few places in the world where it rains.

Concierge Thomas Wolfe poses for a photo in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. | source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

But it is the hotel’s opulent interior design that attracts attention as a destination for world leaders. The front parlor is clad in green and gold marble, and the walls are decorated with Venetian mirrors brought back by the Fair sisters from their European travels.

The penthouse is a lavish full-floor residence fit for royalty — royalty has stayed there (King Charles was a guest when he was a prince) — and includes a Moorish billiards room and a two-story library with a secret passage and balcony. Spacious terrace overlooking the city.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also the person who may be the first concierge in the United States, still working in his 80s to attend to guests’ every need.

“I love what I do,” Wolf said. “And I do what I love.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct address of the hotel.

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