Saturday, October 31, 2009

It Was A very Good Year

I didn't know this, but SF's Cathedral Hill Hotel is closing to make way for a hospital. Today's its last day. Among the tastemakers, at least, the hotel - which occupies a dramatic hilltop setting and features some, uh, distinctive architectural elements - was an eyesore: From Hotel To Hospital - Farewell To SF Era

For the first 22 years of its life, that was the name of the Cathedral, and it was as the Jack Tar that the building became notorious to a generation of San Franciscans.

The Jack Tar, opened in April 196o, was once an oasis of opulence and swank, the kind of joint where Don Draper from "Mad Men" might have stayed over for a martini or two.

It was also a gawd-awful piece of modernist architecture ridiculed for its boxy shape and checkerboard exterior.

In a city that loves to hate its buildings, perhaps no other structure burned so deeply into the civic consciousness.

Herb Caen, who jabbed at the pink and turquoise color scheme as often as he used an ellipsis, referred to another modern hotel built off Union Square as "the San Francisco Hilton, the box the Jack Tar Hotel came in."

And the guys developing the new hospital say This Time Things Will Be Different:

Geoffrey Nelson, director of enterprise development for the project, said that even though the hotel will be torn down, the new plans will follow the basic massing strategy of the Jack Tar - a long building with two distinct pieces joined at a crease to make a "flowing" effect, making it look smaller from the street.

The Jack Tar's parking plaza, once large enough to U-turn a '58 Impala, twice, will make way for hospital floor space and a pedestrian entrance.

"That was the Jetsons era," Nelson said. "We know a lot better now."

Ah, the arrogance of youth! The people who designed and built the Cathedral Hotel no doubt thought they were the Vanguard of the Future. Now, if they are lucky, they might live long enough to breathe their last in one of the new hospital's rooms', surrounded by brusque nurses, rather than flirting Pan Am stewardesses. Mr. Nelson should be so lucky.

Meanwhile, as the pros sniff, the people who once worked and partied there can take a lingering look back:

Eliseo Orozco, 66, has worked at Tommy's Joynt across the street from the hotel since 1973. One of his first jobs after emigrating from Mexico was in the Jack Tar's kitchen, an experience that taught him about the excesses of his new country.

Orozco cooked beef burgundy for as many as 600 people and baked cakes for entire wedding parties that never took a bite. He watched as bus boys were ordered to empty unused bottles of red wine.

"I remember talking to a manager about it, but he said, 'It's OK, man, that's how they do it here in America. It's already paid for by the guests, so don't worry about it.' "

And the water-cooler architecture outside?

"I heard people talk about the building, but I didn't care," Orozco said. "It was always busy and I was just happy to be here."

The only part of the building's appearance that meant much to Orozco was the rooftop sign - a red wheel emblazoned with neon letters that turned slowly and served as a beacon for Orozco to his new neighborhood.

He remembered the anecdote fondly and recalled the hotel's cocktail waitresses - "the prettiest in the city"- who wore scandalously short skirts, and the male guests who wore suits and ties.

"Man, those were good days," he said.

Yes, but it's pretty easy to go to anyone of dozens of bars and hotels in the City and find mini-skirted girls and men in suits. Some things never change, even if the location does. BTW, if there is a more fitting symbol for the increasing decrepitude of the Boomers than the scene of a swinging Sixties singles scene torn down to make way for a hospital, I can't think of one. RIP

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