Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel
The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel is a 416-room boutique hotel located in San Francisco, California, at the corner of Sutter and Powell Streets adjacent to the city’s central urban entertainment and shopping district, Union Square. The property was named after the English explorer who, in 1579, narrowly missed discovering San Francisco Bay and instead sailed the Golden Hind into Drakes Bay 28 miles north. Built in 1928 by Midwestern hotel developers Leon W. Huckins and John A. Newcomb for the then princely sum of $5 million, the hotel was run by several major hotel companies before being purchased by an investment partnership led by Bill Kimpton, founder of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, in 1994. Kimpton sold the property in 2005, but still manages the historic hotel. In addition to its Union Square location, the Drake is known for its opulent, Renaissance-style interiors, Italian restaurant, Scala's Bistro, and as the location of a 21st story nightclub that has been a city attraction for decades, The Starlight Room.
Opened on October 23, 1928, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel attracted a crowd of 10,000 people during a two-day open house as well as officials such as San Francisco Mayor Jimmy Rolph, Jr. and California Governor, C. C. Young. Orchestras played and banquets were held to celebrate what headlines at the time described as “The last word in hotels” for innovations and amenities such as an indoor golf course, ice water on tap, and radios in every guest room. Another feature was the Servidor, a panel in the guest room doors which allowed staff to deliver dry cleaning and other items without disturbing guests. It’s rumored the primary purpose was actually so room attendants could discretely serve liquor bottles to guests during Prohibition.
After the stock market crash in 1929, the hotel still prospered, attracting Hollywood luminaries such as Dolores del Río, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck and the “Our Gang” child actors as well as dance troupes and vaudeville players. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and by 1936, the hotel served its first cocktails, prices at 35 cents. That same year, the hotel opened the Parisian Room, a supper club on the street level that became a popular San Francisco nightspot featuring dancing, dramatic lighting and murals painted by A.B. Heinsbergen. Legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen dubbed the Persian Room “The Snake Pit” because, he said, “You never heard such hissing or saw such writhing."
The Sir Francis Drake was sold to Conrad Hilton in 1938. It was his first hotel outside of Texas. Hilton sold the hotel to industrialist E. B. DeGolia on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and Western Hotels (later Western International, today Westin) assumed management of the property. World War II was another important era for the Sir Francis Drake, as blocks of rooms were taken over by the U.S. military and the hotel was the scene of many tearful farewells and joyous reunions as troops made their way to and from the Pacific. During the war and in the post-war era, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel become synonymous with San Francisco]nightlife thanks to the popularity of the Persian Room and Starlight Room (known then as the Starlite Roof), the 21st floor nightclub that featured dining, dancing and orchestras.
In 1965, Bewitched star Paul Lynde and James "Bing" Davidson, a 24-year-old actor, checked into the hotel together. After a few hours of drinking tragedy struck when Davidson fell to his death from an 8th-story window.
Princess Hotels bought the hotel in 1970 and assumed management from Western International on December 1, 1970. As the hotel approached its 50th anniversary, an extensive $5 million restoration was undertaken – the cost of the original construction. It was begun in 1971 and included uncovering and restoring lobby paintings depicting Drake's explorations and original ironwork and chandeliers that had been covered in several layers of paint. Completed in 1974, the project also revealed and restored the grand marble staircase to its original splendor and reduced the number of rooms from 600 to 386 more ample guestrooms and suites. It was also during this time that famed doorman and local personality Tom Sweeney assumed his post at the Drake’s entrance in the hotel’s trademark red Beefeater uniform. He reportedly takes about 500 pictures a day.
In subsequent years, the Drake remained a landmark attraction at Union Square but in the late 1980s, the property ran into financial difficulties in a very competitive San Francisco hotel environment. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants founder Bill Kimpton saved the iconic location in 1993 by forming an investment partnership that purchased the property for $22 million. Another $9 million was invested to renovate the entire building inside and out. Kimpton Hotels sold the property in 2005 to a group of international investors known as SFD Partners, LLC, who in turn sold the htoel in 2010 to Pebblebrook Hotel Trust for $90 million. Kimpton continues to manage the hotel.
The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel is located in downtown Union Square, San Francisco. The hotel is adjacent to Saks Fifth Avenue's San Francisco flagship store, and the iconic Powell Street cable car passes in front of the hotel. The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel is also adjacent to the Theatre District and Chinatown, the oldest in North America.
Hotel developers Huckins and Newcomb set out to make the Sir Francis Drake a hotel to impress. Even with exceptional amenities like an indoor golf course, it was ultimately the extravagant interiors that made the hotel famous. Designed to reflect the European Renaissance of Drake’s era, architectural elements included the grand marble staircase, vaulted gold leafed embossed ceilings and bas-relief detail.
It was the job of San Francisco architects and engineers Weeks and Day to evoke this Renaissance splendor. Banquet rooms, restaurants and guestrooms were equally elegant, accented and accessorized with everything from fine Irish linens to Reed & Barton Silver. News accounts of the time described the hotel’s Persian Room lounge as “enveloped in an aura of romance” accented with midnight blue carpets, black-topped tables inlaid with gold, bronze table lamps with colored lights and a spun glass foundation illuminated by constantly changing lights. The room rate to experience the Drake in these early years started at $3.50 per night.
For the past seven decades the 21st floor Starlight Room has remained part of the San Francisco nightlife. The club offers 180-degree city and bay views, and hosts a drag show brunch on Sundays.
A Prohibition Room exists just above the elevator lobby and can only be accessed with an elevator stop key. This secret room cannot be found in any of the original blueprints of the hotel as it was built as a way to store bootlegged liquor via Canada from the Moss Beach Distillery that was reportedly given to guests at check-in and through the hotels servidor doors as a way to circumvent the Prohibition laws of the day. If you look closely at the lobby ceiling you can still see the tiny peepholes that were drilled through the floor to keep a lookout for police.
If you look closely at the upper lobby ceiling and chandelier you will notice a few peculiar holes in the ceiling. These are said to be from a 1920s wedding when the father of the bride shot off a tommy gun in celebration.
It is rumored that guests have reported windows mysteriously open, curtains moving, eerie voices and strange shadows.
- "Historic Sir Francis Drake has new owner".
- "HNN - Pebblebrook acquires Sir Francis Drake Hotel for US$90m".
- "Sarasota Herald-Tribune - Google News Archive Search".
- "A Sir Francis Drake fixture / San Francisco hotel doorman celebrates 25 years of service".
- "Secret Prohibition Room in Sir Francis Drake Hotel, San Francisco". 20 July 2016.
- "Sunday's a Drag: Show changes Starlight Room view".
- Alvarado, Rhys. "It's no secret that SF's Sir Francis Drake had booze room during Prohibition".
- Kuchar, Sally (28 June 2013). "Your First Look Inside the Sir Francis Drake's Prohibition Room".
- Boutique, Paris Hotel (1 August 2016). "PHB Memorabilia at Sir Francis Drake Hotel!".
- "13 of the Most Haunted Places in SF".
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