It turns out that one of the most famous icons of San Francisco’s storied history almost never happened.
In 1939, when Mark Hopkins Hotel owner George D. Smith converted the penthouse of the Nob Hill property into a cocktail lounge with spectacular views, he was so skeptical that anyone would bother to ride an elevator for 19 floors “just for a drink and a view” that he installed a dance floor and hired a band. Within a week, the dance floor was covered to make room for throngs who waited hours to ride up to what became known as the Top of Mark.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of InterContinental Mark Hopkins
Historically speaking, The Mark Hopkins, known today as the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, is nothing if not adaptable.
Features such as the Top of the Mark, which has had many of renovations since it’s days as a cherished memory for soldiers, sailors and airmen going off to war, have made the grand dame hotel less about a place to lay your head and more about glamour, name recognition and the caché of staying (or even stopping) at The Mark. While the standards for what makes a hotel property great have been a moving target over the ages, The Mark Hopkins is proof that the best legacy hotels are able to adapt, celebrating the rich history while also embracing the future of modern guests’ needs.
When The Mark Hopkins Hotel opened on December 4, 1926, San Franciscans proclaimed it “architecturally perfect, flawless in its erection, comprehensive in its accommodations.” The hotel was designed by architects Peter Weeks and William P. Day to be a combination of French chateau and Spanish Renaissance, with a tower and outstretched wings that afforded every room a postcard-worthy view.
It was not, however, the first grandiose building designed for enjoying that specific view overlooking San Francisco. In 1878, workers finished a 40-room $3 million Gothic mansion on the site for Mark Hopkins, a founder of the Central Pacific Railroad, that was even more grand than the other Nob Hill mansions belonging to railroad magnates Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker.
Unfortunately, Hopkins himself died before the building was complete. His wife, Mary Hopkins, remarried and left the property to her new husband, Edward Searles, who in turn donated the empty mansion to the San Francisco Art Association to be used as a museum and art school. Everything was lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire, but in 1925, engineer and investor George D. Smith bought the property and began construction on a luxury hotel that would be named for the site’s original owner.
While the San Francisco skyline that The Mark overlooks has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, with new additions ranging from Coit Tower in the ‘30s to the Transamerica Pyramid in the ‘70s and the Salesforce Tower in 2018, the vantage point is unchanged and as popular as in the days when the hotel hosted its share of notable and glamorous guests, including US. Presidents, world leaders, international royalty, and stage and silver screen celebrities.
During the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, when The Mark was the top social center of San Francisco, it was not uncommon to see luminaries such as President Dwight Eisenhower, Prince Philip of Great Britain, Queen Juliana of Holland, ElizabethTaylor, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and The Rolling Stones (who took two entire floors for themselves and their entourage).
And the Peacock Court, one of the hotel’s two legendary ballrooms, regularly hosted dance-band legends such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Xavier Cugat, as well as top supper club entertainers such as Dorothy Lamour, Rudy Valley and exotic Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac. The other ballroom, the historical Room of the Dons, offered its own brand of celebrities: nine magnificent 7-foot-high murals painted by celebrated Western artists Frank Van Sloun and Maynard Dixon that depict California’s history, from before European settlement through the arrival of the westward expansion pioneers.
A few guests, apparently, were more “challenging” than others, requiring The Mark to adapt: Actor John Barrymore, a frequent guest, was less welcome after his pet monkey, Clementine, climbed — and shredded — the curtains in his suite; and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, during his stay in 1961, required the 17th-floor Presidential suite to be outfitted with a single-button telephone with a direct line to The Kremlin.
While the hotel has a legendary past, it has continued to adapt to the times with contemporary rooms, hip cocktail programs, a high-tech fitness center, electric-bike rentals and setting a trend in 1998 by being the first major luxury hotel in San Francisco to offer a charging station for electric cars.
During the second half of the 20th century, portions of The Mark Hopkins have undergone a dozen major renovations, including to the Top of the Mark, the Room of the Dons and all of the accommodations and, most recently, a makeover for the Peacock Court (set to reopen in August). There also have been restorations, one of which put back the landmark facade and its elaborate ornamentation in an effort to capture the hotel’s original character of old-world luxury and style. The hotel also changed hands in 1962 when Smith sold the property to financier Louis Lurie, and adapted in 1973 when InterContinental Hotels assumed long-term management.
Among the offerings that are unlikely to change is the “squadron bottle” at The Top of the Mark. During the Second World War, the club was a popular spot for Pacific-bound servicemen to enjoy their last liberty before shipping out. When servicemen returned, some would go to Top Of The Mark and ask the bartender for their unit’s squadron bottle: Once the serviceman signed his name on the label, he could drink from the bottle for free. The catch: whoever took the last drink had to replace the bottle.
The Mark’s charm is that it’s never been just about the celebrities and wealthier guests; part of the secret behind the enduring success is its accessibility. Features such as the Top of the Mark, the grand, historical ballrooms, and the historically loyal “squadron bottle” have served as a way for anyone to experience the luxe life, past and present.
Even if only for an evening.