Posted by: acooksca | 02/15/2011

The Garden Court at the Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel Garden Court

When The Palace Hotel in San Francisco opened in October, 1875 it was reputedly the largest, most modern and costly hotel in the world. It was meant to rival the luxury hotels of Europe, offering proper accommodations on the edge of the wilderness.  Fortunes made in the Comstock silver strike financed Italian marble workers, German wood carvers, and the building of factories to make the furniture and brass accents.

The Palace was a marvel of ninetieth century innovation. Each plush guest room offered air conditioning and a call button to summons service staff. Four hydraulic “rising rooms” (elevators) deposited guests and their copious trunks up the many floors. A New York journalist exaggerated the hotel’s amenities by reporting there were 5 rising rooms for guests, 5 for food and 10 for mixed drinks.

So well built was the structure that some guests slept through the April 18, 1906 earthquake. The hotel’s own fire brigade watched from the roof as city blocks south of Mission Street vanished in smoke and flames. The Palace succumbed to the fire, like most of downtown San Francisco. The hotel was raised, cleared and rebuilt in record time using the original plans, sourcing most of the same materials.

When the new Palace Hotel opened in Dec, 1909 there was one significant change, the creation of the stunning Garden Court.  The original courtyard entrance was designed to allow guests to step from their carriages right into the heart of the hotel. The guest rooms above opened onto wide walkways overlooking the courtyard, providing a view of who was coming and going. It also resounded with carriage and livery noises, and the aroma of work horses. The hotel entrance was relocated and a glass ceiling closed the 7,000 square foot courtyard creating one of the largest indoor public spaces in the world.

Peace dove windows at the Garden Court

My uncle treated my sister and I to lunch at the Garden Court when I was seven and I thought it the most opulent room I had ever seen. Royalty, stars and presidents had charmed The City from the Garden Court. Our waitress pointed out three arched openings that were glassed over following a 1919 speech by President Woodrow Wilson. At the conclusion of the speech flocks of “doves of peace” were released through the openings into the Garden Court. Days later shotguns were used to bring down the peaceful doves who refused to fly back out. Buckshot still ornaments the gilded ceiling.

Although the Garden Court is less known for food than elegance, the kitchen originated several popular recipes. The herby salad dressing called Green Goddess was developed in the Palace kitchen in 1923 to commemorate the opening of a hit play. Another dish, named after the hotel’s general manager John Kirkpatrick, became popular in the late 1890’s at bars around The City.  See the next article for the story and a revised recipe for Oysters Kirkpatrick.

Crab salad with Green Goddess dressing at the Garden Court

Tours of the historic Palace Hotel are given several times a week by City Guides, a nonprofit organization that offers free tours of a number of San Francisco landmarks. It is a wonderful way to get to see some of the back rooms and hear history of the Palace. While at The Palace have a cocktail in the Pied Piper Bar, named after the whimsical painting by Maxwell Parish that graces the bar. This was voted by the New York Times as one of the ten top Mad Men bars in the country. Too bad they no longer serve Oysters Kirkpatrick.

For free historic tours:


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