SF hotel penthouse gets a facelift

JFK slept here. So did Prince Charles. Representatives of the Big Four presumably stayed awake as they worked on the United Nations Charter in 1945.

A lot of history has been made in the penthouse at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. For the past few months, teams of craftsmen and women have been hard at work bringing the suite up to date, hammering and sawing, cleaning and polishing and restoring its luster.

“You'll just be blown away,” says Tom Klein, regional vice president general manager of the hotel, which is reopening the suite this month with the wedding of members of two prominent wine families.

But this is not for the budget traveler. The rack rate is $15,000 a night.

For that, you get a suite that takes up the entire eighth floor: Three bedrooms with baths, a formal dining room capable of seating 60, a living room, a library and a terrace overlooking the city and the San Francisco Bay.

Plus there's a butler, housekeeper, chef, masseuse and personal trainer and a fully stocked gourmet kitchen. Oh, and use of a Ferrari California.

“It's a giveaway at $15,000 a night,” says Klein.

Built in the Roaring '20s, the penthouse has the over-the-top ethos of that time.

Take the billiard room, the brainchild of the original interior designer and Persian art expert Arthur Upham Pope. Tiled in brilliant blues, liberally daubed with gold and surmounted by a glass ceiling, it feels like the kind of place where Scheherazade might spin her magical tales.

“It is an expression of everything that was exotic, extravagant and telling of that time,” says hotel spokeswoman Samara Diapoulos.

The library has two stories topped by a ceiling featuring the night sky, constellations picked out in gold leaf. A secret passageway behind the upper bookcases adds a touch of mystery.

When it came time for a facelift, the goal was to preserve history while adding some modern luxuries.

The outdated kitchen went, replaced by gleaming work tops and state-of-the art appliances. But the hundreds of books lining the library stayed.

In the billiard room, the 1,800 pieces of etched glass making up the ceiling came out and got a cleaning.

“The challenge is 15 feet up in the air, 20 feet in the air on a ladder popping each piece out,” says Sue Kanke, who led that effort as well as restoring 2,000 pieces of crystal on the chandelier and sconces of the dining room.

Kanke is the fourth generation of her family to run an electrical/lighting business in San Francisco; her father installed and repaired many of the chandeliers in the hotel.

“It's a fun job,” she says.

The Fairmont — fans of '80s TV may recognize the exteriors, used for the series “Hotel” — dates back to the Great Quake of 1906. Days away from opening, the hotel made it through the shaking but succumbed to the ensuing fire. Exactly a year later, the rebuilt hotel opened with fireworks and a serious banquet — 600 pounds of turtle, 13,000 oysters and $5,000 worth of wine.

The penthouse was added in 1926 as a private residence for businessman John S. Drum, who offered $1,000 a month for the privilege — a substantial sum considering other suites were going for less than $10 a night. Other residents included a mining heiress and a former hotel owner, with the suite opening full-time to the public in 1981.

Along with posh parties and romantic honeymoons, serious business has been conducted in the suite. U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius used the penthouse as his headquarters during the United Nations Conference on International Organization in 1945.

“There's just so much history there,” says Klein. “If walls could talk, this suite could write a couple of books.”

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On the Net: http://www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco/

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