The Palace Hotel: when history is part of your business model

Palace Hotel Garden Court, 2009 photo by Wally Gobetz

The Palace Hotel, situated on the corner of Market and New Montgomery Streets, will host programming now through December in celebration of the centennial of its 1909 re-opening following the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.  Central to this programming will be the invocation of the hotel’s history, which extends back to 1875.

The Palace Hotel was a project of William Ralston, who had made his fortune on the Comstock Silver Lode in Nevada and founded the Bank of California. Ralston had the ambition and resources to shape San Francisco. Scholars such as Barbara Berglund and Gray Brechin have discussed Ralston’s move to put San Francisco’s first world-class luxury hotel at Market and New Montgomery as a deliberate strategy to change the real estate market of 1870s San Francisco. By the time of the Palace’s opening in 1875, Ralston had recently died and the hotel was in the hands of fellow banker William Sharon. The Sharon family sold the hotel to Sharaton in 1954; it was later bought in 1974 by Kyo-ya Corporation (though Sharaton continues to manage the hotel). As reported by J.K. Dineen in the San Francisco Business Times, Kyo-ya is “controlled by Blackacre Capital Management, the real estate investment division of Cerberus Capital Management, a large privately held hedge fund run by financier Steve Feinberg.”

Carl Nolte reports in today’s San Francisco Chronicle that the management of the Palace conceeds that business is slow in the current economic climate. That the Palace has a history on which it can capitalize is suggested by the fact that no other hotel in San Francisco has a San Francisco City Guides walking tour or an Arcadia Press “Images of America” and “Postcards” book devoted exclusively to it. That the Palace management is ready to use that history to its business advantage is evidenced by the prominence given to images and accounts of that history on the hotel’s website, as well as the display cases on the ground floor of the hotel that exhibit artifacts from the hotel’s past.

Of the many ways San Franciscans use our history, pursuing profit is not the least of these.

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