Hob Nob Tour – Nob Hill

Valarie Huff is the principal at HobNob Tours. If you Google a Nob Hill tour, her company comes up first. That’s expensive or she’s just plain good. I know the latter is true!!

There were three of us who lunched at Top of the Mark, view above, prior to joining the group at the Fairmont. I must say that the food at Top of the Mark is far better than the last time I was there. It’s still expensive at $18 for a salad and $35 for a $10 bottle of chardonnay, but you pay for the spectacular views and the amazing history of the place. When the US engaged in WWII in the Pacific, the Top of the Mark was where couples said their goodbyes prior to the men shipping out, AND where the women watched the ships come through the Golden Gate Bridge, bringing their men home to them.

The Huntington Hotel, Nob Hill Spa and Big Four 600x800

The Huntington Hotel, Nob Hill Spa and Big Four

Nob Hill has such a rich history, literally and figuratively. In 1847, it was just dusty vegetation, and by 1849, there was a crazy mess with the gold rush in full force with more than 250,000 people coming to the Bay Area to take part. San Francisco’s population went from 500 to 25,000 people. 1859 brought the end of the Gold Rush, but silver was then found in Nevada City, making SF once again a gateway for fortune-seekers, cargo, and workers. There were four Silver Kings who found more than $500M in a single mine in 1859 equivalent.

John Mackay lived at the Palace with his family in Paris. James Fair was a Nevada senator, womanizer and drinker, who owned the Fairmont property that was ultimately named after him. Building started in 1902, and the 1906 earthquake gutted the place. Amazingly, Julia Morgan, a world-renowned architect of the time (think Hearst Castle among more than 700 others) was given 10 months to pull off the reconstruction and actually pulled it off. Check out these pillars – faux paint instead of mazzara marble to accommodate the difficult schedule.

The Fairmont, where we met Valarie for the start of the tour, is the home of such wonderful SF history. The Venetian Ballroom was the home of great musicals, comedy and dance in the 20s to 60s. Tony Bennett first performed ‘I Left My Hearth in San Francisco’ in this venue. There’s even a time capsule placed there by Bennett in 1989. (You’re going to have to connect with Valarie to see all of this firsthand.)

The two other Silver Kings were James Flood and Billy O’Brien. Four partners in ‘crime’ play a significant role in the history of San Francisco.
The Mark Hopkins Hotel and Top of the Mark 600x800
Our tour of the Fairmont continued out into the garden on the east side of the property. The REALLY bad architectural tower affixed to the historic Fairmont was built in 1962. There is an effort under way to tear it town for a condotel. The neighbors, needless to say, are up in arms about the amount of congestion, construction and downright noise this proposal will bring, and they are fighting it with all they have. The same neighbors helped to keep the Tonga Room, a really cool tiki bar in a sub-level of the Fairmont. Go there for cocktails. From the garden, one can see the Bank of America building. I didn’t know that ‘Towering Inferno’ was filmed there. In fact, many films have been made in Nob Hill. Vertigo AND Tales of the City were filmed in a building just north across the street from the Fairmont.

Across the street from the Fairmont is the Pacific Union Club, a private men’s club. The building was constructed by Silver Baron James Flood as his family home. It was sold to the PU Club 103 years ago in 1911. To the west of the PU Club is Huntington Park, where one of the ‘Big 4’, Mr. Huntington had his home. It was burned down in the 1906 earthquake. Just west of that is Grace Cathedral, where Crocker’s home once stood.

The men responsible for building the Central Pacific Railroad were the ‘Big 4’ – Huntington, Crocker, Stanford and Hopkins. This was a HUGE undertaking in the time of Lincoln, an effort to connect the vast United States. They each ended up with homes atop Nob Hill. The Stanford Court is the location of the former Stanford home as is the namesake Mark Hopkins for his family. Crocker’s mansion was a mere 12.5K square feet! A long and rich history exists for these sites. They both contain museums discussing their history, but a tour with Valarie and HobNob Tours will deliver so much more.

Stanford was a US Senator at the time the railroad was built. He managed to use California tax dollars to provide the down payment the federal government required. The group was ultimately paid $16 per mile of flat land, $32 per mile of elevated land, and $48 per mile of mountainous terrain. Do that math in 1858 $$!! Twenty thousand Chinese were brought in by Crocker and offered slave wages to work the railroad. This is the main reason San Francisco has the largest percentage population of Chinese to this day. Another great tour to consider is Wok Wiz. They give a tour of Chinatown and its history.

A Keith Haring Tabernacle at Grace Cathedral Nob HillEast Side of the Fairmont Hotel Nob Hill

The cable car system was built in 1873 to accommodate Nob Hill and the community between it and downtown.

Grace Cathedral, where the Crocker home was once housed, is the 3rd largest Episcopal Cathedral in the US behind New York and Washington DC. There are some beautiful doors, designed in 1452, at the entrance that are copied from a cathedral in Florence, Italy. I marveled at them there and here. The cathedral is beautiful. On the right as you enter, you will see a small AIDS Church with an altar by Keith Haring created only weeks before he died.

Surprisingly, Nob Hill is only the 11th tallest hill in San Francisco. The first is Fern Hill with a 23% grade. Another piece of triva from Valaria – SNOB – slighty north of Broadway is where the name Nob Hill came from.

The Huntington Hotel, recently sold after an 80+-year family membership, is also the home of Nob Hill Spa, one of my favorite treats in the city. The hotel was built in 1922 and is home of Big 4 Restaurant, one of the most nostalgic, dark and luxe bars and restaurants in the city. I’m so happy the new owners recognize its historic value and its irreplaceable nature, and have chosen to remodel instead of change. There are some fabulous and historic pictures throughout the restaurant. Have their Chicken Pot Pie with the sherry if you go there. It’s not always on the menu, but it’s pretty much always available thanks to local demand.

The Venetian Ballroom at The Fairmont Hotel Nob Hill

A great tour from HobNob lasts about 3 hours and is reasonably priced. Always be sure to give tour guides a tip for their great work. This is the way most of them make their money. The group is managed so that everyone can hear and see what’s going on. I highly encourage even my San Francisco locals to take this tour. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn.




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