The architectural style of The Hamilton is recognized as "Art Deco Moderne", named after the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderne. True to the characteristics of that style, the building has a flattened entablature. Its roofline consists of a series of geometric upward projections. The decorative detail at the 21st floor appears to be visually similar at the 16th and the 20th floor insteps. The exterior pre-cast concrete shell of the building is punctuated occasionally with detail and the front pre-cast portions are rendered in combed plaster. Decorative cartouches surrounded by serpentine curves and enriched stylized foliate forms are symmetrically displayed above the entrance. The entrance itself is flanked by Egyptian inspired shallow pilasters to create a pylon effect. Other discernible details, particularly on the east and west sides of the building are vertical zigzags and similar Art Deco motifs.
Only two materials were used in the construction of the building - concrete and steel. According to a retired engineer who spent over twenty years in residence, "there wasn't an original a piece of wood in the building other than the door jambs and entrance doors"
The Hotel Years (1929 - 1962)
The Alexander Hamilton Hotel and Apartments (named after Alexander Hamilton), as it was known then, was built in 1929; the interior fit-out was completed just in time for its opening as the "West's Tallest Apartment Hotel" in June of 1930.The Alexander Hamilton as an early "apartment hotel", complete with kitchenettes, restaurant, full-service staff, and excellent proximity to the theaters was the perfectly located home away from home for many opera singers working at civic center and for actors who performed in the nearby Theater District. The luminaries included Vivian Vance, Florence Henderson and Lauren Bacall. As the years went on, various floors were set aside for performers with theater companies and for airline flight crews, and several floors were designated for semi-permanent residents who preferred to live in a hotel atmosphere.
The hotel closed in 1961 and in 1962 became the City's first condo conversion (some say the first in California). A number of units were combined and the new condominium reconfiguration resulted in 186 units. The name of the building was shortened to The Hamilton, a name well known to many as the grand dame of O'Farrell Street.
At left is an ad in the 1930s San Francisco Chronicle. The management had a very special goal: "It is the purpose of the owners and management of this twenty-one story magnificent hotel to create the most satisfying of living conditions surrounded by a quiet and refined atmosphere. Services will be complete in every department and constantly maintained." "The construction was planned to give to the residential hotel guest all that a first class hotel can render in service plus home atmosphere and conveniences not found in any other like apartment hotel."
Amenities included: The Main Dining Room (now called the Ballroom); Moderne Coffee Terrace on the front west corner of the ground floor; Beauty Salon on the second floor; Ladies Lounge which was a card room and ladies only private dining room on the second floor (now the Community Room); Barber Shop was located just to the west of the lobby and is now part of the restaurant; The Garage occupied an even larger area of the basement than is does today; the Tom Thumb Miniature Golf Course located on the west "sports patio"; Tennis Court on the east "sports patio". Lower Sun Patio on the south terrace which opened directly off of the dining room (this southern opening from the Ballroom now leads to a room of storage lockers). There was also a 16th floor Sundeck offering panoramic views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay.
The building, designed by Albert H. Larsen of San Francisco was one of the early "apartment hotel" with kitchenettes. Mr. Larsen also designed the Clay-Jones Apartments on Nob Hill and the T & D Theater in Paso Robles, CA. Before opening his own practice he worked with the firm of Weeks & Day, designers of such fabled San Francisco hotels as the Sir Francis Drake and the Mark Hopkins, which gave him experience in the design of hotels. The hotel was commissioned and owned by Joseph Greenbach and cost $1.5 million, financed by R.G. Hamilton & Company which also financed many of the other large hotels and apartment buildings of the period.
Guests who stayed at The Alexander Hamilton Hotel were often so impressed they often held lifelong fond memories and even held on to memorabilia as the attached charming letter (above far right) from a former "Queen for a Day."
The grand lobby was decorated in the Art Deco Moderne style by Frank Bergman, a mural artist as shown in the 1933 brochure (above). Gracing the lobby's west wall as one enters the building (where the large mirror is now located) was a magnificent mural of California during the Spanish occupation; the mural included large clipper ships entering the Golden Gate. The building went thorough a number of hotel operators including the Handlery Hotel chain in 1945.
Near the end of its hotel life in the 1950s came a period when things "old" were not appreciated, not even the Art Deco style. Following WWII there was a hunger for "the new", for suburbia and against urbanism, and especially against images that reminded people of the despair of the Depression Era before the war. In keeping with this "break from the past" the interior was redone a number of times to keep up with the style of the each changing time period in order to reflect the commercial hotel expectations from paying guests. The former dining room was replaced with a bar known as The Cardinal Room. The 1958 brochure (below) highlights these changes.
New life as a Condominium Development (1962)
By the 1960's the area surrounding The Hamilton was considered off the beaten track for tourists and the hotel was sold to The Hamilton Investment group. The building was ideally appointed to become San Francisco's first condominium conversion due to its kitchenettes and full service facilities. A brochure and ad (below left and right) celebrates the 1962 opening.
At the time of its conversion to condominiums, much of the Hamilton's original Art Deco embellishments were sold off, including the original chandeliers, fireplace, most of the furniture and the mural near the front door. The lobby was divided into several smaller room and the main focal points of the lobby were walled off from the rest of the room - hidden were the fireplace wall that included original art deco mirrors and the four large deco shaped windows. The decorative walls, mirror and ceiling were hidden behind a paneled wall and a dropped T-bar ceiling. All that was left for a new lobby was the "foreground" of the former lobby, the rooms focus remained hidden behind walls for nearly 40 years (until 2001).
Furthermore, the building was "updated" for its debut as a condominium facility and redone in an eclectic mix of styles including a French Regency lobby with grand throne chairs and large ornate Grecian urns combined with residential scale tables and low 60's couches. Long gone was the sensuous curved shaped furniture of the 1930's. The 10 original chandeliers were replaced with four large bronze "spider-shaped" chandeliers. Hanging on the wall dividing the lobby were two large ornate Renaissance mirrors. The well worn and dirty terra cotta tiles of the ground floor were covered with wall-to-wall carpet and the residential common hall floors were redone in 60's carpets with the elevator area of each residential floor decorated with Tiki-style wallpaper.
On the exterior, new large pompous draped canopies were added that obscured the original Art Deco shaped windows and the original decorative metal grills (with banana leaf shapes and palm patterns) that cover the mid-section of the windows. These exterior ground level decorative additions combined with the eclectic new non-period expansions to the penthouse resulted in a building that was becoming hard to distinguish as Art Deco.
The Penthouse (1971)
A notable change at the time of the conversion from a hotel to condominiums was the change to the 21st floor penthouse.
A wealthy heiress, Marcia McDonald, created her fantasy apartment and spared no expense creating this lavish penthouse. As an early buyer, she combined four proposed units on the top floor into one large full-floor unit with its own private elevator access. She also expanded the unit outward onto the east and west terraces with a number of non-Art Deco appendages, the grandest being a full-length glass barrel-vaulted solarium held up by imported Greek-style columns. This amazing room when illuminated becomes a beacon in this part of the city. She also added hundreds of thousands of dollars in elaborate finishes.
She was not able to finish the unit in her lifetime and never lived there. When her contractor told her she would have to spend another $500,000, she shut the doors and never returned, instead she spent her time in two apartments on the 15th floor. After her death, four years later, two wills were found one giving her holdings to the de Young Museum, the other to The Life Science Research Institute. The spectacular unit was finished after her death largely according to her original vision and it includes a 360-degree vista of San Francisco and all of its major landmarks. The apartment is unparalleled in its vista and appointments.
Restoration of The Hamilton (1990 - 2007)
In 1990 a new generation of residents decided the building should be returned to its Art Deco roots. In July 1990 "ART DECO NIGHT" was held in the crumbling former Hamilton Dining Room (now called the Ballroom). Enthusiastic support was generated for returning The Hamilton to its Art Deco roots. To raise funds for the remodel, a cell phone company was contacted to offer them the advantage of the Hamilton's height. The antenna deal, with Sprint-Nextel, brings in about $20,000 per year. The Board of Directors was persuaded in the early 1990s to use the money (antenna fund) for aesthetic improvements only - not operating expenses. As the funds became available, a number of improvements at the Hamilton began, including a complete remodel of the elevator lobby.
New decorative sunbursts were painted under the rotating elevator floor indicators dials. Also, a new mailbox niche was created in what was once the front desk and check-in area. Next, the elevator cabs were redone; then consul tables and mirrors were placed on every floor. Next, an entirely new granite floor for the entry and mailbox area was installed which is based on the color of the original floor but in a more durable material; the floor also has a subtle deco harlequin pattern of alternating flamed and honed stones.
In 2001, the wall dividing the lobby was removed and the renovations were undertaken on the lobby. This magnificent space was painstakingly restored with a new lobby fireplace along the lines of the original fireplace and eleven new 5-foot long, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind, bronze and etched glass Art Deco chandeliers. Later design projects included a new door from the Hamilton lobby to the rear patio, new patio fountain, and renovated 16th floor roof sundeck and Zen garden. The Award-Winning Hamilton (2008)
In February 2008, the Hamilton received a Preservation Award from the Art Deco Society of California. This prestigious award was given due to the lobby renovations, new fireplace and new custom chandeliers as well as other common spaces.
In the same year, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) presented a National AIA Award to the architecture committee's chairperson for chandelier design work in the Hamilton lobby. Thus, the building is indeed the "Award Winning" Hamilton.