One of the difficulties an author faces in writing historical fiction is recapturing the feel of cities in a prior period. In the United States, city landscapes are constantly changing at the whim of urban renewal/development projects that tear down and rebuild buildings in succession, often making it difficult to imagine the city fifty years earlier much less a century before. My series of novels and short stories are set in late 19th century San Francisco, and there are particular problems for picturing this city in this period because the 1906 Earthquake and Fire wiped out a great deal of the physical history of the city, so that even the kind of civic buildings or historical landmarks that other cities have preserved are missing from that city in modern times. In addition, people who have visited San Francisco have a very strong image of the city as it is today.
While there are some buildings from the late 19th century still standing in San Francisco, (see the Haas-Lilienthal House and the famous row of Painted Ladies), they are generally the middle class homes that were being built in the Western Addition. The older center of the city, with its financial and theatre districts, commercial buildings, and grand hotels, was almost entirely demolished, with fire ravaging what the earthquake hadn’t already toppled.
The Palace Hotel, touted when it was constructed for its modern fire and earthquake protections, was no exception. This beautiful hotel, located on the corner Market and New Montgomery Streets and advertised as the largest hotel in the American West, if not the largest hotel in the world, was completely destroyed by the disaster of 1906.
Fortunately, the Palace, completed in 1875, was such an important landmark that there are numerous photographs in existence that document what it looked like before, during, and after the 1906 disaster. Additionally, the hotel was rebuilt on the same block with a similar footprint, and this building is still standing, permitting some sense of what the building would have looked like before 1906. So far I have used the Palace Hotel three times in my work, and I think that, like the Golden Gate Park, this historical place will pop up repeatedly in future work.
The first time I used the Palace Hotel came early on in Maids of Misfortune, my first Victorian mystery set in San Francisco in August of 1879. I had Annie Fuller, my primary female protagonist, walk to her home on O’Farrell Street from the offices Nate Dawson, a local lawyer. While there was a lot of information I needed to convey during this walk, this was a perfect time to weave in some history about the city. I was therefore delighted when I discovered that their route would take them by the Palace Hotel.
Across the street from them rose the mammoth Palace Hotel, and its rows of bay windows glowed golden in the afternoon sun. ‘Ralston’s Folly,’ Beatrice always called it. It was, in its way, magnificent, but people said it had bankrupted Ralston and driven him to suicide four years earlier. Because of this too painful reminder of her own husband’s death, she had so far avoided even entering the carved archway that led to its central court. Looking up at the building’s symmetrical facade, Annie found herself fervently hoping that she could prove that Matthew Voss had not died in a similar fashion, crushed by fortune’s fickleness. Nate caught up with her, and they continued walking side by side in silence.––Maids of Misfortune, Chapter 7
The Palace Hotel was indeed the vision of William Ralston, co-founder of the Bank of California, but he did not live to see its opening. The Bank of California, weakened by the 1873 depression, the dropping value of the Comstock Lode mining stocks, fraud, and Ralston’s over extended debt, collapsed after a run on the bank. In response, the Bank’s Board of Directors ousted Ralston, and the next day he died during his daily swim on the Bay. While the autopsy said his death was due to a stroke, rumors of suicide were very prevalent and would have been very well known to Annie in 1879.
While Annie Fuller, at least as of this writing, has never entered the Palace Hotel, both Nate Dawson and the two elderly dressmakers from Annie’s Boarding house, Miss Minnie and Miss Millie Moffet have.
In the second novel of the series, Uneasy Spirits, Nate Dawson has a meeting in one of its dining rooms, the Gentleman’s Grille, where ladies were not permitted. I was delighted to discover that the week in 1879 when I set this scene former President Grant was visiting the city and was staying at the Palace. The Gentleman’s Grille was one of several restaurants that catered to both the public and hotel guests. In fact, many of the Palace residents made the hotel their permanent homes, drawn there by amenities like the restaurants, elegant parlors, a billiard room and beautifully furnished rooms.
The rooms are expressly arranged for use, either singly or in suits of two or more. Their connections and approaches are such that an individual, family, or a party of any size, can have a suite of any number of rooms, combining the seclusion of the most elegant private residence, with the numberless luxuries of the most perfect hotel. Every outer room has its bay window, while every parlor and guest chamber has its own private toilet, ample clothes closet and fire grate.––“Historical Souvenir of San Francisco, 1887
“It was intended to be the height of luxury and to contain the newest technologies. It had five hydraulic elevators (reputedly the first in the West), electric call buttons in each room, plumbing and private toilets, shared baths every two rooms, closets, telegraph for staff on each floor, a pneumatic tube system throughout the hotel, air-conditioning in each room, and fireplaces and bay windows in each room. Encyclopedia of San Francisco
The dressmakers who I feature in my short story, The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, have a client who lives in the Palace Hotel. This gave me a chance to describe what it would feel like for two impoverished elderly women to ride in one of these elevators, glance out into the Grand Court that was overlooked by seven stories of balconies, and look up at the ceiling with its dome of glass.
In short, as an author I get to spend a good deal of my creative life imagining what places were like in the past, and I hope that you might like to spend some time with Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson and the Misses Moffet in my novels and short stories and get to experience San Francisco in the late 19th century.
For the next two days, May 25-26, Uneasy Spirits will be free on Kindle. Try it out and get to spend some time in the gracious Palace Hotel.