The Victorian San Francisco Palace Hotel: Gone but not Forgotten

The Palace Hotel

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.

10 thoughts on “The Victorian San Francisco Palace Hotel: Gone but not Forgotten

  1. Sounds absolutely lovely. While not as grand, obviously, the Red Victorian B&B in SF is one of the settings for my most recent Wizard Tale. It’s where the Wiz likes to crash when he’s in town. I *wish* I were not so blasted far behind in my TBR queue. I’ll pass on word about your book, though, to my Readerly Friends group. Thanks for this entry!!!

  2. I will have to read your books! Something you may not know is that Annie Fuller may very well have been standing in front of my great great grandfather’s cigar store on the corner of Post, Montgomery, and Market while she was looking up at the Palace Hotel. It was located directly across from the Palace Hotel and he operated it from about 1870 to 1893, along with another store on the corner of Fifth and Market. If you look at photos of the era you’ll see the small triangular shaped building with the Palace across the street on Market, and the old Masonic Lodge across the street on Post. There’s actually one photo that has the sign, “Gannon’s Cigar Store.”

    As a fifth generation Californian the “Golden Era” of San Francisco has always fascinated me. If you’ve never read it, take a look at Adela Rogers St. John’s book about her father, “Final Verdict.” There’s a wonderful sequence where she writes about riding in a carriage through pre-earthquake San Francisco as a child. Fascinating!

    • Dear Susan,

      Thanks so much for this and the suggestion about Adela St. John’s book. I love it when readers find a connection between my fiction and their reality. I will have to go look the Cigar store up in my old maps and the business directory. Maybe I will even use the store as a landmark in one of my books or stories!!

      Mary Louisa

      • There’s actually a great story connected to Peter T. Gannon, who was the owner of the store. I’d heard about it all of my life but thanks to the internet have been able to confirm it.

        His wife left him in the early 1890s to run off with the grocer who ran a store a block from their house. His name was John Poole and they ended up getting married after she divorced my great great grandfather. Actually, he filed the divorce action after he found a letter she’d written Poole that made it clear they were having an affair.

        At the time they were living on the SW corner of Sixteenth and Castro, Poole’s store was at Sixteenth and Noe. I haven’t found a photo of it, but he is listed in the City Directory. The family story was that Peter worked so much, (he owned two stores, a farm near Winters, and a lot of real estate), that he asked Poole, a younger man, if he would escort his wife to various events. How she managed to pull off the affair is beyond me as they had a total of nine children, the youngest of whom was about a year old. Of course, according to the census they had Irish servants.

        The story in the family is that she ran off with “the butcher boy,” which sounds exactly like the term my ancestor would have used. He was quite a character. He had been born in Ireland in 1840, emigrated to Illinois in 1844, ran away at the age of 14 to Boston, and ended up in San Francisco in 1858 at the age of eighteen. There’s an article in the Winters paper where he talks about being an eye witness to the Broderick-Terry duel at Lake Merced in 1859. He ended up being one of the founding members of the Olympic Club, where he was known as an excellent fencer, runner, and boxer. He actually fought an exhibition match with Gentleman Jim Corbett. His cigar stores were in prime locations and supposedly most of the major characters of the day were his customers. After his wife left he sold up and moved to Winters, California, where he’d owned property for a while. He died there in the early 1930s when he was in his 90s. My grandmother knew him when she was first married to his grandson and said he could still dance a jig the last time she saw him. I also found out that he was once arrested for selling “lewd” pictures in his shop. He had to pay a fine, but it did make the papers. I found it totally in keeping with his character. Supposedly, he was very ambitious and would do just about anything for a buck.

        I’ve recently hooked up with a relative who inherited some family documents. We were raised by different sides of the family, (my great grandfather and her grandmother were brother and sister). but our stories all match up. It’s been great to share photos and information, and to realize that although our Irish ancestors had their share of “blarney,” at least as far as family history goes, they were surprisingly consistent and accurate.

    • Interesting. I am also interested in Peter Thomas Gannon, I am also his Great Great Grandson. I was named after Peter t. Gannon. However I carry my Grandfather’s name from my mother’s side Richmond as my middle. My Full given name is Peter Richmond Gannon son of Richard Micheal Gannon and my Grandfather Elwood Gannon. We are multi generational Almond orchard operators and Commercial Bee Keepers. Both Business are no more. Peter T Gannon I was told held an Olympic Gold Metal of sword jousting and was one of the original founders of the Olympic Club. In 1985 My Father Richard Gannon Took me to the club and the management new Peter T. Gannon’s legacy very well. We were given the tour and invited back to use the facilities any time comped. I have not been back since.

      • Another Gannon connection! We are definitely related. My father was Ross Gannon, and Elwood is his uncle, my great uncle! We may have met years ago at a reunion at Whiskeytown Lake up near Reading. I think we were at your house because I remember something about bee hives. That had to be around 1982?

        Over the last few years I have been in contact with two other relatives, one is descended from Peter’s daughter, Claire, and the other from his other daughter Virgil. They both have photos I’d never seen, as well as other information I didn’t have. Please contact me at susanoconnell98@gmail.com if you want to exchange info.

        Is Uncle Elwood still alive? My father passed away a year ago last November. His sister Glenda passed a few years ago as well, but Bryant is still alive.

        You might find this interesting. Just a few months ago Grandfather Peter’s house on Castro Street went up for sale, it sold for $2.1 million dollars. Here’s the link with some interior photos: http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/300-Castro-St-San-Francisco-CA-94114/15127442_zpid/

        I look forward to hearing from you.
        Susan Gannon O’Connell

      • Dear Susan,

        I am not sure how you came to the conclusion we are related…I don’t have any Gannon relatives…any relatives in San Francisco at all. I thought in earlier post that you discovered someone you read about in my post was a relative…not that we were related. Sorry for the misunderstanding, but glad you are finding the genealogy interesting.

  3. Pingback: The three reasons I have fallen in love with writing short stories | M. Louisa Locke

  4. So sorry for the confusion! I got the link to the comment on an app on my new phone and I thought I was responding to Peter’s comment but it seems I ended up confusing you, (understandably!). It was not my intention, just my ineptitude with electronic devices.

    I love your books and am always recommending them to my friends. I’ve spent years researching San Francisco history and am particularly fascinated by old photographs. Your books make the city of the past come alive. Thanks for the many hours of pleasure your writing has given me, and I’m so sorry for any inconvenience my ineptitude may have caused you.

    • Dear Susan,

      That makes much more sense. I just got the comment in an email and didn’t realize it was part of a conversation. So much fun you found a relative through this site!

      Mary Louisa

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