The Westin St. Francis

The History Of The Westin St. Francis

The St. Francis Hotel was begun by the trustees of the estate of Charles Crocker, one of “The Big Four” railroad magnates who had built the western portion of the transcontinental railway. It was built as an investment for Crocker’s two young children, Templeton Crocker and Jenny Crocker. It was originally meant to be called The Crocker Hotel, but instead it took the name of one of the earliest San Francisco Gold Rush hotels, the St. Francis.
“Designed by Bliss and Faville, the St. Francis followed the style pioneered by architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago; its simple face was bare of the bric-a-brac and ornamental frosting that made much of San Francisco look like a baroque toy shop.”[7] The Hotel opened on March 21, 1904, and, along with the older Palace Hotel on Market Street, immediately became one of the city’s most prestigious addresses.

1906 Earthquake

Damage to the dining room from the 1906 fire subsequent to the great earthquake
The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 badly frightened the guests, but did no structural damage to the hotel. John Farish, a mining engineer staying at the hotel, described the experience: “I was awakened by a loud rumbling noise which could be compared to the mixed sound of a strong wind rushing through a forest and the breaking of waves against a cliff…there began a series of the liveliest motions imagineable, accompanied by a creaking, grinding, rasping sound, followed by tremendous crashes as the cornices of adjoining buildings and chimneys tottered to the ground.”[7]

Enrico Caruso
The earthquake lasted 55 seconds. A hotel page described the pandemonium inside the hotel: “I found the floor crowded with screaming guests running every which way. As the elevators were all out of order the guests headed for the marble stairs, which were broken and cracked and falling below.” The hotel manager, James Woods, wearing his bathrobe, tried to calm the guests, but most of them rushed outside onto Union Square. Later in the morning, opera singer Enrico Caruso and Alfred Hertz, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, who was hosting a tour by Caruso, who were both staying at the nearby Palace Hotel, fled the Palace and came to the St. Francis, where the restaurant was still open for breakfast. Caruso carried with him a signed photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, and swore he would never return to San Francisco; he never did.
The earthquake did not cause major structural damage to the hotel, but it did begin a series of fires along the waterfront which began to sweep west across the city. It also broke the water mains, so firemen were unable to fight the fires. An hour after midnight the fire reached Union Square and gutted the hotel.
When the fire was finally put out three days later, it was found that the St. Francis had suffered little serious damage. The copper cornice had been warped, and some of the enamelled facing bricks had fallen off in the heat, but otherwise the building was intact. Reconstruction began almost immediately. A small temporary hotel, the little St. Francis, with 110 rooms, was built in the middle of Union Square, to house temporary guests. The hotel re-opened in late 1907.
Through the Jazz Age

Woodrow Wilson in 1919
After its re-opening, the St. Francis hosted dozens of celebrities who came to San Francisco to see the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, ranging from Helen Keller, three-time Presidential candidate and orator William Jennings Bryan, who came to San Francisco to speak against American involvement in the First World War, and former baseball player and evangelist Billy Sunday, who came to San Francisco to denounce sin and the theory of evolution.[7] Former President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the hotel in July 1915, and used the occasion to denounce his bitter enemy, President Woodrow Wilson, and to call for American entry into the War.
In September 1919, President Woodrow Wilson stayed at the St. Francis as he toured the country as part of his unsuccessful effort to win support for American entry into the League of Nations. The 1920 Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco, and several presidential candidates stayed at the St. Francis, including another visit from William Jennings Bryan.

Mabel Normand
During the 1920s, the St. Francis became the fashionable place to stay for celebrities and film actors coming from Hollywood. St. Francis guests included silent film stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, cowboy star Tom Mix, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and directors D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.Other guests included novelist Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, circus impresarios the Ringling Brothers, dancer Isadora Duncan, songwriter George M. Cohan, and Duke Kahanamoku, the champion swimmer of the world, who popularized the sport of surfing.
One of the appeals of the St. Francis was its jazz orchestra, led by a young musician named Art Hickman. He played in the Rose Room of the hotel, before going on to greater fame at the New York Biltmore Hotel and the roof garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre. During his time at the St. Francis, he helped popularize such musicians as Paul Whiteman and Ferde Grofe who, after leaving the St. Francis orchestra, went on to compose the Grand Canyon Suite.
Part of the fame of the St. Francis was due to its legendary chef, Victor Hirtzler. Hirtzler learned to cook in Strasbourg, France, and then cooked for royal courts across Europe. According to Hirtzler, he had created a dish for King Carlos I of Portugal, called La Mousse Faisan Lucullus, a mousse of Bavarian pheasant’s breast and woodcock flavored with truffles, with a sauce of cognac, Madeira and champagne. The dish was so expensive, and the King ate it so frequently, that he bankrupted Portugal twice and was assassinated in 1908, followed by the downfall of Portuguese monarchy in 1910. Victor moved to New York, became the Chef of the Waldorf Hotel, and then was persuaded by the manager of the St. Francis, James Woods, to move to San Francisco.[7]

Charles Evans Hughes
In 1916 Hirtzler again cooked a dish which had political consequences. The Crocker family were fervent Republicans, and they hosted a dinner at the hotel for Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate for President of the United States, who was locked in a close race with incumbent Woodrow Wilson. Twenty minutes before the banquet began, the waiters, who were members of the culinary workers union, went on strike. Hughes wondered if the banquet should be canceled, but Hirtzler insisted upon it going ahead, and served the meal himself. When the Union learned that Hughes had crossed a picket line and eaten the dinner, they distributed thousands of leaflets denouncing him as anti-union. On election night, Hughes went to bed believing he had won the election. The next morning he awoke and learned that he had lost California by only 3,673 votes, and by losing California had lost the election to Wilson. The margin of his defeat was less than the turnout of union voters in San Francisco. By saving the dinner, Hirtzler had lost the election for Hughes.[7]
Fatty Arbuckle Scandal

Pictures, July 23 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on the cover
In 1921, the St. Francis was the scene of Hollywood’s first great scandal. The silent film comedian Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, whose fame at the time rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, and a number of friends were guests in rooms 1219, 1220 and 1221. On September 5, 1921, they had a party in their suite, with friends and acquaintances from Hollywood. One guest was a young actress from Hollywood named Virginia Rappe. In mid-afternoon Arbuckle summoned a house doctor and reported that Virginia Rappe was sick, and the young woman was taken to another room and put to bed. Arbuckle himself went to a personal appearance at a movie theater, and returned to Hollywood the next day.
A few days later Arbuckle learned that Virginia Rappe had been taken to the hospital and had died, and that a friend of the young woman, Maude Delmont, who had been at the party, claimed to police that Arbuckle had assaulted and raped her. (Delmont’s testimony was later regarded as unreliable by the police, when it was discovered Delmont had a lengthy prior record of extortion. She was not called as a witness.) The story was soon in the headlines of newspapers around the United States. “Girl Dead in Wild Party at Hotel” was the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, and “S.F. Booze Party Kills Young Actress” was the headline in the San Francisco Examiner.
Arbuckle was brought to trial for manslaughter in December 1921 in one of the most publicized trials California had ever known. Arbuckle’s lawyers argued that Virginia Rappe had died of natural causes, caused by too much alcohol. The jury was unable to reach a verdict. Arbuckle’s second trial also ended in a hung jury, but he was found innocent by a third jury in under five minutes.
Arbuckle was free, but his career was ruined. His films were withdrawn by Will H. Hays, the President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and what became known as the Hays Office began the systematic censorship of American motion pictures, as a result of the Arbuckle affair.[7]
1930s and World War II
The 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, attracted many celebrities to San Francisco and to the St. Francis. Salvador Dalí posed for newspaper photographers in the bathtub of his hotel room, with a lobster on his head, holding a cabbage in one hand, and wearing a pair of emerald-green goggles, and Cary Grant stayed in the hotel, entertaining friends with scenes from Noel Coward’s play Private Lives.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, San Francisco became a major transit point for soldiers and sailors going to the Pacific Theater of the War. The shops in the lobby of the St. Francis were turned into small rooms for military officers. Hundreds of soldiers, sailors and officers danced in the Mural Room of the St. Francis to the big band music of Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians, and his vocalist, Hilo Hattie.
In April 1945 the St. Francis played host to twenty-seven delegations attending the founding meeting of the United Nations, held in the San Francisco Opera House. The St. Francis was host to the delegations from Iran, Canada, Turkey, Egypt and France, represented by French foreign minister Georges Bidault, who stayed in the same suite where the Fatty Arbuckle scandal had taken place. The St. Francis also hosted several Latin American delegations, along with the U.S. Undersecretary of State for the Americas, Nelson Rockefeller. The Soviet delegation, led by Soviet foreign minister V.M. Molotov, and the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Andrei Gromyko, also stayed at the St. Francis.
1950s to the present
In April 1951, the St. Francis hosted General Douglas MacArthur, who received a tumultuous welcome when he returned from Korea after having been dismissed from command by President Harry Truman. Entertainer Al Jolson died while playing cards at his suite at the St. Francis on October 23, 1950 — Jolson had just returned from entertaining the troops in Korea.
The St. Francis was still owned by the Crocker family until the end of middle of World War II, when the Crocker family sold it to hotel magnate Ben Swig, who then sold it to Edwin B. DeGolia. In 1954, the hotel became the twenty-third property of the Western Hotel Chain, based in the Pacific Northwest, which eventually became the Western International and then Westin Hotels.
With its acquisition by Western Hotels, the hotel was changed from a home of elderly San Francisco socialites, some of whom lived in large suites in the hotel, to a modern hotel focusing on tourism and especially conventions. The old Mural Room, decorated by Albert Herter in 1913 with seven murals comprising The Pageant of Nations, a banquet and ballroom which had hosted many of America’s famous big bands, was replaced in 1970 by a six hundred room tower, designed to help the St. Francis compete with The Fairmont, its rival on nearby Nob Hill. Architect William Pereira designed the new building which was completed in 1972. The murals were rolled up and removed to storage.

President Gerald Ford, Secret Service personnel and bystanders pictured outside the St. Francis one second after the assassination attempt by Sara Jane Moore.
The St. Francis became the hotel where Republican presidents stayed when in San Francisco, while Democratic presidents usually stayed at the Fairmont. President Gerald Ford was almost shot while leaving the hotel in September, 1975 by a woman named Sara Jane Moore. A former Marine named Oliver Sipple moved her hand so that Ford was not hit. President Ronald Reagan was a frequent guest of the hotel. The St. Francis also hosted many world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Emperor Hirohito of Japan.
Labor Relations
Beginning in November 2009 Unite Here Local 2, representing San Francisco hotel workers, asked the public to boycott the Westin St. Francis Hotel[8] because the hotel’s owner, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide had not renewed a previously settled contract with workers with respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions.[9] The hotel was one of eight in San Francisco being boycotted, and was scene to many protests including picketing[10] and even a flash mob.[11]

The Hotel Today

The hotel is distinctive for a historic lobby master clock, the first in the Western United States, and celebrity chef Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steakhouse restaurant, which replaced his self-named restaurant and was formerly the Compass Rose and before that the Patent Leather Bar, designed by Timothy L. Pflueger.
The hotel displays a small collection of photographic prints produced by Ansel Adams to advertise the former Patent Leather Bar, and keeps some old traditions such as an official hotel historian and the industry only remaining coin cleaning service for guests.[12]
A collection of hotel memorabilia is on display in the lobby, arranged by decade and featuring items such as vintage keys, dining ware, room service bills, photographs, media articles, and more.