The King and I
The Edwardian Ball, San Francisco's annual celebration of turn-of-the-century decadence, all things dark and Edward Gorey, is fast approaching. The ball's aesthetic is a burlesque of early 1900s, this year taking a lead from the popular "World's Fair" expositions of technology and art. I have a dress, a date, and have almost mastered the waltz, but I wanted to get a sense of the era that inspires the event, so I went out into the city to find its Gilded Age legacy.
Our city may have a Victorian soul, but she was reborn at the turn of the last century. Coming out of the rough-and-ready Barbary Coast years, by 1900 San Francisco had developed a world class reputation across the spectrum of delights – we had the both the classiest hotels and the most infamous brothels in the West. Then, in April 1906 the city was redefined by tragedy and rebuilt from the ashes in Edwardian style. So much of what we identify as inherently San Franciscan is of the Gilded Age.
Part Two of Annetta Black’s immersion into the Gilded Age, culminating in the excitement of the Edwardian Ball on January 23rd.
In Part One , she gets dressed.
The Edwardian Ball is being held at the Regency Center, a former Masonic building built in 1909. Justin Katz, producer of the Edwardian Ball, welcomed me and gave me a tour of the ballrooms, basements, and the elaborate, one-time top-secret lodge. He also warned me that the building is most definitely haunted. With that, he produced one tiny flashlight, and we headed to the gloom of the basement.
The ball will be taking place on the two main floors in the large ballrooms, but my favorite parts of the building are the weird little hallways, crawlspaces, and the numerous tiny rooms of unknown
purpose, accessed by Alice in Wonderland miniature doorways. Behind one door the flashlight illuminated a damp and dark room and one lonely, impossibly creepy chair. Two floors up via the hand-operated Otis cage elevator, we entered the lodge floor. Past a fireside lounge with rooftop views, the lodge itself is a red velvet chandeliered spectacle. The stage where men would have enjoyed plays from Masonic lore still has the 32 vintage backdrops, one for each level of Mason. We climbed up into the backstage area – the one that I had most specifically been warned was haunted – and selected a three-part backdrop to lower. The effect was magical, and the catwalk, spooky.
Next, we climbed up into the pipe organ loft. With a flip of a switch, the vintage organ groaned to life as the air pressure chamber pressurized. In the half darkness, Justin experimented with a little Toccata and Fugue, and then traded places with me so that I could experimentally depress the deep bass keys on the floor. The sound vibrated and lasted long after the key was released. After we decompressed the organ, he pointed to a little door and asked, "Have you ever been inside a pipe organ?"
And indeed, I had not, and so we did. The inside of the organ is the pressure chamber itself, giving a view of the delicate underbelly
of the beast, all of cables and pegs that coax sound from the army of pipes. The lodge rooms, with the organ, are available for private functions. I am actively plotting.
To get some further perspective on our city a century ago, I stopped by the San Francisco History Room at the public library. Their time- sucking photo and file archive is online, but if you want to see Lillie Hitchcock Coit's personal diary, or read first person accounts of the 1906 earthquake you'll have to show up for the pleasure of having files pulled for you in person.
I start by hitting the photography collection. Publicity shots of the
1894 Mid-Winter Exposition and Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915 left me wishing we had kept more of the beautiful temporary buildings. Spotting recognizable landmarks in photos from 1906 of Market Street ablaze made the other images of families cooking outside earthquake shacks and the tent cities real in a new way.
The random shots of regular folks drinking at saloons, walking down the street, or mugging for the camera were my most unexpected and best finds. I noticed how few women were on the street, and the rough condition of most people's clothes. Portraits of local notables and divas of the stage provided a sense of the fashionable elite, and I fell in love with little Lotta Crabtree's great big hair. She was the “It Girl” of the late Victorian era.
and declared that he would never set foot in our fine city again. The "fireproof" Victorian hotel was gutted by flames that evening.
After 44 months of reconstruction, the reopening of the Palace in 1909 was a grand affair, and the mayor welcomed the 765 guests, saying “...we could scarcely think of San Francisco without thinking of the Palace Hotel.” In 1910 they began the afternoon tea service that they still offer today.
For an idea of how the swells lived in the “Paris of the West” I visited the Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin, which looks almost exactly, inside and out, as it did 100 years ago.
I was greeted in the ground floor
When the house was built, life was focused on social interactions, so the best rooms were at the front of the house overlooking the busy street. In later years, most city houses would be designed with lofty rooms with a view at the top of the house, and private bedrooms at the back. In this house, the servants who resided in the third story attic would have had the killer views.
In the days after the earthquake, the army based in the Presidio set up tent cities in Golden Gate Park for refugees from downtown. At the time, most of the Sunset was dunes, but along the rail line that led out to the Cliff House and Ocean Beach on what is now Lincoln Avenue, a few entrepreneurs set up shop.
The Little Shamrock was already well established by the time it was serving beans and beers to the tent city. Founded in 1893 to slake the thirst of workers building the California Mid-Winter Exposition in Golden Gate Park, it found itself still standing after the 1906 earthquake, with one casualty: an old clock had fallen from the wall, never to tick again.
I stopped by for a pint and settled into one of the lumpy antique loveseats near the back, and looked at the pictures of old San Francisco on the walls. You can play a game of backgammon under the clock whose hands still read 5:12, close to the mayor's proclamation authorizing the police to shoot to kill any person
For pure, unadulterated, Gilded Age luxury, the potted palm infested setting under the Beaux-Arts glass ceiling at the Palace Hotel can't be beat. The Garden Court where tea is served is part of the rebuilding of the posh hotel after extensive damage was incurred during the 1906 fires, and the French-inspired glasswork encloses what was once the carriage turn-around in the center of the building.
It was here where the famous tenor Enrico Caruso of the visiting Metropolitan Opera of New York was staying. He woke to violent shaking that failed to level the building, dressed and watched as the first fires began to burn, drew some sketches, then turned tail
ballroom by docent Carolyne O'Brien, pointed out period details like the modesty shawl draped to obscure the naughty piano legs in the parlor. The layout of the main floor was intentionally versatile to allow for their lifestyle as gracious hosts, with a series of double pocket doors allowing the rooms to be private and out of the sight of unexpected visitors, or thrown open to entertain a crowd.
The chandeliers and wall sconces were are a thoroughly modern electrical-gas combination. After 6pm, when the electrical grid shut down for the evening, they would dine and entertain by gas light. It was possible with only a little imagination to see life in this house with the sound of horses and carriages outside instead of the drone of traffic.
caught looting in the aftermath of the quake. It is easy to imagine that in the dark after the fires, a pint and a nice shot of whiskey or three might have been just the thing.
Our city is of full of turn of the century buildings. I highly recommend starting with the San Francisco History Center, which is full of great period details and first person stories. You can enjoy the delights of tea at the Palace Hotel’s Garden Court on Saturdays or a pint at The Little Shamrock daily. If you can't make the Edwardian Ball on January 23rd, the Regency Center regularly hosts events, or can be rented for private functions. Trust me, the lodge room is the one you want.