Historic San Francisco hotel renovation balances past and present

How does a hotel that’s more than 100 years old give guests something new and exciting? In late 2018, the historic Marker San Francisco Hotel, a Joie de Vivre property, updated its public spaces, celebrating its early days as the Bellevue Hotel while simultaneously stepping into the 21st century. 

The 208-room hotel, which dates back to 1910, got updated guestrooms in 2013, but the lobby and public spaces had not changed much from 1995, when it was the Monaco, a Kimpton hotel. A new look was long overdue by the time GM Benjamin Duverge came onboard two years ago, and he began planning the renovation right away.

10 Weeks, $3 Million

“We have a big public area for the size of the hotel,” said Duverge, estimating that the property’s public space would suit a 400-room hotel. “So we felt it was a little underutilized in terms of meeting and social space. Really, the goal of the renovation was to bring the guests back into the public area by providing them more of a residential feel with soft seating, couches and also some communal tables as well with USB charging [stations].” 

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The renovation only took 10 weeks and $3 million, facilitated by the fact that previous renovations handled all of the structural work. “So it was more like a softgoods renovation,” said Duverge . “We didn't move walls or change the flow of traffic in the lobby because everything was already very well designed.” Instead, the team focused on updating the wallcovering, carpeting and lighting. 

To oversee the renovation, the hotel's owners (LaSalle Hotel Properties at the time) tapped design firm Perkins+Will (founded just 15 years after the original hotel opened). “They went through different design processes and different design briefs until they agreed to one that would tie everything together,” said Duverge.

Project lead Jacqueline McGee, who has since moved on to Ealain Studio, said that the team wanted to pay homage to the property’s history while “playfully mixing elements” for a unique look. “In particular, the famed novel 'The Maltese Falcon' that was set in this neighborhood served as inspiration for some of our most dramatic new elements,” she said. A notable reference to the novel is a huge theatrical bird cage in the lobby. 

Colors, Pieces and Patterns

Some historic elements—like dual fireplaces and the grand staircase, which Duverge called “the focal area of the hotel”—had to remain intact, but the team found ways to make them a bit more modern. Before the renovation, the public area’s color scheme used pastels, yellow and orange that “really didn’t tie up,” Duverge said, with the rest of the space’s decor. Now, the lobby’s updated grand staircase is a “bold blue” to contrast with the black-and-white patterned floor—a reference to the original historic stone flooring. “Most of the walls are white or pale gray,” he said, “with pops of colors in the pods at the front desk.” 

The central fireplace, another historic piece, got new life with a three-dimensional wallcovering that depicts bookcases with a colorful collection of illusionistic books—“a nod to the theatricality of the local neighborhood and the grandeur of the building,” McGee said. 

To further connect the hotel to its destination, McGee partnered with SFMOMA Artists Gallery, which represents and supports artists from Northern California, to curate artwork for the lobby and around the grand staircase, creating a “quirky” take on a traditional English library.  

All in the Timing

A major impetus for the renovation, said Duverge, was to find a balance that would appeal to both leisure and business guests, but also make the public spaces profitable. Careful planning years in advance meant that the project progressed with relative ease, and the hotel remained open during construction. One of the bigger challenges, said Duverge, was making sure that no events were booked for the meeting spaces. The timing for the work was somewhat “counterintuitive,” he acknowledged, because the project took up much of the peak summer season. “But it’s a busier time for transient [business], with fewer groups during that July and August window,” he explained. “Because the public area and the meeting rooms are on two separate floors, we were able to close one floor and [work] in portions.” 

The planning meant that the hotel did not experience any displacement in revenue, he said. “When we were doing this, we were in the high 90s for occupancy.”  

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