Intercontinental Mark Hopkins on San Francisco’s Hill of Palaces

When acclaimed novelist and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson sat beneath a tree at the lower southern slope of Nob Hill in 1878, it was less than a year since railroad magnate Mark Hopkins died. The palatial Hopkins mansion on the hill’s crest was months from being finished, and his widow Mary moved in alone before year’s end. Stevenson, just 29 years old at the time, occupied a small boarding house in the shadow of the multi-turreted Gothic castle that eventually became Intercontinental Mark Hopkins hotel.

Splitting wood and breaking coal for his daily fire in decidedly more humble accommodations, Stevenson noted that Nob Hill was “the Hill of Palaces” and most certainly the best part of San Francisco. “It is here that millionaires gathered together, vying with each other in display.” Hopkins and fellow founders of the world’s first transcontinental railroad did indeed crown the crest of Nob Hill with their lavish abodes. That tradition of opulence dug even deeper roots after the mansion morphed into a lavish hotel in 1926.

Fueled by Fire and Fate

But first, there was some history to be written. As Mary Hopkins moved into the gabled 40-room redwood mansion, she spared no expense with a built-in pipe organ, ebony panel inlays, marble carvings and priceless paintings. Upon her death just 13 years later, her much younger second husband honored her love of art by donating the entire home to what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Fate had its way when raging flames devoured the thriving galleries, studios and classrooms during the three-day inferno following the 1906 earthquake. Nothing remained but a looming granite wall and lonely chimney stacks where warm fires once fueled Hopkin’s now-forsaken dream.

One day, I’m Going to Build a Hotel There

Although a simple utilitarian structure rose from the ashes of the burnt foundation, the land had a much grander destiny. As the story goes, tramway and gold mining engineer George Smith strolled by one day in 1910 and spoke the future with his words: “One day, I’m going to build a hotel there.” And that’s exactly what he did.

Honoring the legacy of Mark Hopkins and his railroad’s enormous contribution to westward expansion, the new hotel flung open its doors in December 1926. With a glorious clash of Spanish Renaissance and French chateau architecture, the complex unrolls postcard-perfect views of the city. Once the highest point in San Francisco, the central tower sweeps in the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Ocean, Treasure Island and Golden Gate Bridge.

Weeper’s Corner at Top of the Mark

Like a mysterious crystal ball teetering over 19 stories, the glass-enclosed Top of the Mark cocktail lounge carries many a tale of love and loss. Once an 11-room penthouse, the lounge became the city’s “living room” during World War II as enlisted soldiers met for a goodbye drink before boarding their ships for the Pacific arena. Lining the glass windows at Top of the Mark, loved ones watched silently as battle-borne ships glided through the Golden Gate strait. The northwest section where they waved goodbye is still known today as Weeper’s Corner.

For many, the tears turned to joy as servicemen returned to that same spot to claim free drinks from their unit’s dedicated “squadron bottle.” After signing his name, the soldier who took the final sip replaced it for the next arriving service member, with a prayer and hope for his safe return. At the end of history’s bloody rampage, Mark Hopkins Hotel was a fitting place for world leaders to formulate the foundation of the United Nations in 1945.

Today, black-and-white sketches and photographs of those early San Francisco days hang between windows at Top of the Mark, framing dozens of dazzling skyscrapers. But the bay and Golden Gate Bridge still shimmer in the distance. Hotel guests and locals now gather for happier times while martini glasses and appetizer plates clink to the beat of Black Market Jazz Trio, Mirage Band’s jazz quintet and pianist Richard Scales. Executive Chef Chad Bayless continues a lavish Sunday brunch tradition, hosting a silver-service champagne buffet stacked with oysters on the half shell, regional Dungeness crab, rock shrimp eggs benedict and tenderloin medallions.

Presidents, Politicians, Princes and Performers

Celebrities have hobnobbed at Intercontinental Mark Hopkins from the very beginning. In the Roaring 20s through 40s, the Peacock Court ballroom hosted everyone from then-supper-club singers Betty Grable and Rudy Valley to dance bands Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. As the decades rolled on, dazzling dames Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland left long shadows for musical royalty Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones. Legendary film and stage actor John Barrymore even arrived with his pet monkey Clementine (who promptly shredded the suite’s curtains on its swinging, swaying ascent).

Renovations of the historic Peacock Court have retained the spectacular ceiling art, and the property has hosted at least 12 U.S. presidents and a parade of politicians, princes and royalty from across the globe. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Emperor Haile Selassie, French General Charles de Gaulle and Britain’s Prince Phillip have all darkened the doors. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev occupied the Presidential suite in 1961, which was outfitted with a black telephone containing only one button – a straight-shot to the Kremlin. Geiger counters buzzed away, sweeping for radiation.

The Presidential Suite still exists today, decked out in mahogany wood, soothing velvets, chandeliers, and Italian and Spanish marble. All guests get royal treatment with access to complimentary town car service during the week, secretarial services and farm-to-table dining in the elite Nob Hill Club.

Room of the Dons

Meetings and gatherings still take place in the ‘Room of the Dons,’ surrounded by nine seven-foot-high murals created by renowned California Western artists Frank Van Sloun and Maynard Dixon for the hotel’s opening in 1926. A year earlier, International Studio called Dixon a “master draughtsman and daring colorist” who portrayed the spirit of America. Known for sweeping montages of miners, Indians and cowboys, one of the artist’s first official mural commissions was for the Southern Pacific Railway station in Arizona. His murals for the opening of Mark Hopkins Hotel bring to life the history of California and the legend of Queen Califia, a black virgin Amazon warrior who was said to rule the “island” of California.

If I Could Climb a Higher Tree

It’s unlikely that newly acclaimed Scottish traveler and author Robert Louis Stevenson ever entered the elaborate Hopkins home spreading in glory above him that year – but he was certainly part of the American West experience in 1878. After stepping foot off the immigrant ship Devonia in search of future wife Fanny, he made his way west on the same railway system built by his neighbor up the hill, Mark Hopkins.

As Stevenson rested beneath that boarding-house tree on the southern slope of Nob Hill, there’s no doubt he wondered what lay above and beyond the mansions now cradling San Francisco’s storied hotels. Before making his way to California that year on the First Transcontinental Railroad, the perpetual wanderer penned his beloved poem “Foreign Lands” in which he dreamed of views like the one from Top of the Mark:

“If I could find a higher tree 
Farther and farther I should see, 
To where the grown-up river slips 
Into the sea among the ships

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