Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Palace Hotel – Staging in the West

In today’s world, it’s not unusual to see early western vehicles on display in major hotels, banks, restaurants, theme parks, museums, and other public gathering places.  After all, the legacy and lore of the American West continues to be popular with audiences around the world.  What often goes unseen, though, is how these same vehicles were also used as promotional icons throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century.  Truth is, the allure of the West and its vehicles was well-known to nineteenth century marketers.  In fact, some were already visually tying these rolling works of art to the frontier as early as the 1860’s and ‘70’s.  Reinforcing that point, our Wheels That Won The West® Archives include a few examples of period paintings and engravings originally commissioned by the likes of Peter Schuttler, Milburn, and Studebaker Wagon Companies. 

What is harder to find are actual photos showing these vehicles directly involved with event marketing efforts (beyond trade shows, fairs, and Wild West shows) during these timeframes.  I know the challenge firsthand because we’ve been actively collecting early vehicle imagery for over two decades.  In that time, we’ve uncovered some amazing moments in time.  Things like tall-sided western freighters being righted after a mountain-side wreck, photos of legendary vehicle brands that are all-but-extinct today, early chuck wagon designs and descriptions, rare Exposition wagons from the United States’ first century as a nation, and even one-of-a-kind wagon factory images are just a few of the finds we’ve been fortunate to uncover. 

In the middle of it all, I can get lost in the history, nostalgia, and details of these old photos.  There’s so much going on.  From the people, clothing, scenery, and signage to vehicle designs, period tools, weather, and terrain, every original image is chock full of primary source information.  Even so, uncovering photographs of these vehicles being used as promotional tools can be a tall order. 

With great fanfare, the Palace Hotel opened in San Francisco in 1875.  The grand design and extensive accoutrements made it an instant landmark of the West.

Not long ago, I came across a photo from the mid-1870’s.  It’s a shot showing the interior courtyard in the Old Palace Hotel in San Francisco.  I say ‘old’ because the hotel still exists in the same location on Montgomery street but, it was rebuilt after its destruction in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Like other structures, it managed to largely survive the enormous ground-shaking but it couldn’t hold up to the relentless fires.  Almost immediately after the quake, the old hotel was razed and work began on a smaller, temporary Palace hotel.  By December of 1909, a new Palace hotel was completed on the original site.  Today, the facility continues to receive high marks as an exceptional and luxurious guest experience.    

This rare view of the Old Palace Hotel in San Francisco shows a period touring coach as part of a promotional display.

Upon completion, the original structure stood 120 feet tall and was said to have been the largest hotel in the West.  Similarly, it was San Francisco’s tallest building for a number of years.  The magnificent facility was designed so that the whole creation surrounded a huge interior courtyard.  White columned balconies fronted seven stories and a massive skylight.  With more than 750 rooms, there were accommodations for 1200 people.  Hydraulic elevators (referred to as ‘rising rooms’) were lined with redwood paneling.  Individual rooms included 15 and 16 foot ceilings as well as private baths and electric call buttons for attendants.  The exquisite lodgings also featured a barber shop, multiple dining rooms, billiard rooms, ballroom, reception rooms, and even fireplaces in the guest rooms.  Visitors were treated as regal nobility, wanting for nothing.  The central court was surrounded by marble-tiled promenades and a tropical garden filled with exotic plants, statues and fountains.  Just as notable, the courtyard was anchored by a paved, circular drive and huge doors allowing horse-drawn carriages and coaches to enter and exit the interior of the hotel.  Guests departing for depots, ferry landings, and the like were able to check their bags before leaving the hotel and avoid the logistics of keeping up with their luggage when departing. 

As I studied the old photo, my eyes ran over the beautiful columns, globed light fixtures, and flourishing plants.  Then, focusing on the far end of the courtyard, I noticed a seating area.  Centering that section, a twelve-passenger (including driver) Yosemite stagecoach was on display.  The wheels of the coach were secured inside a grooved rail and signage was positioned near the front of the coach.  When considering the clientele of the hotel, it’s not hard to deduce how this piece was being used.  There were countless excursion sites near the city as well as those taking in the scenic California coast and historic interior.  Capitalizing on those opportunities, these open-sided touring coaches were among the most popular ways to view America’s western wonders.  From Yellowstone to Yosemite and numerous other locales, these carefully crafted designs were used in all types of recreational outings.  Thousands upon thousands experienced the majestic beauty of America while surrounded by the style and splendor of a thoroughbrace-cradled ride.  

With its circular drive, the interior courtyard of the Old Palace Hotel offered extraordinary comfort and convenience to hotel guests.

Looking closely at the vehicle in the photo, it’s easy to see the high-gloss varnish, paint, and lettering as well as the unmarked leather and bright, clean canvas on the rear boot and top.  The coach appears to be new and in pristine condition.  Later, pre-quake photos, show different courtyard displays that do not include the coach, leaving us to wonder where the vehicle might be today or if it has survived?  To that point, there are a number of these century-plus-old touring vehicles that do still exist.  From private collections and historical organizations to museums across the country, many of these legendary stages continue to be part of promotions showcasing the wealth of stories and rich, national heritage of the Great American West.  Again and again, these old wheels are proven to be more than just leftover parts of a forgotten world.  They’re connections to and reminders of the blessings of freedom, inspiration of dreams, and rewards of hard work.  

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Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC