“Meet me at the clock.”
In the San Francisco St. Francis Hotel
(This article appeared in the Cupertino News on May 13, 2009.)
In San Francisco, “Meet me at the clock” has always meant the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel (Now the Westin St. Francis) across from Union Square. But in 2004 the clock disappeared.
For more than 100 years, the ornate, 12-foot-tall grandfather clock stood sentinel in the hotel’s reception area, acting as a meeting place for lovers, dignitaries, socialites, travelers and even tour guides. During WWII soldiers met their girlfriends at the clock before going off to war.
As the story goes, the timepiece—built in Vienna in 1856—made the journey by steamer ship all the way around Cape Horn to San Francisco, to arrive in time for the hotel’s reopening November 30, 1907 (after the devastating 1906 earthquake), to take its place in the hotel’s lobby.
This grandfather clock became the heartbeat for the St. Francis. It was a master clock, the first in the west, which means it controlled all the clocks in the hotel rooms. That is until the Russian delegation—staying at the St. Francis for the creation of the U.N. Charter in 1945—discovered the clock wire in their room and thought it was a bugging device. They clipped the wire and destroyed the master-clock system.
But the giant ticker in the lobby never stopped. It has marked time at the St. Francis, watching over history and cultural changes, from the Gilded Age of the early 1900s to the Depression and on through today’s Information Age.
In those genteel times, hotel guests never invited visitors to their rooms. Instead, a visitor brought a calling card or note to the front desk. There the clerk placed it in a pneumatic tube, sending it up to a porter who delivered the note. By return note, the hotel quest might say, “I’ll meet you at the clock.” Hotel guests at that time entertained visitors in the lobby, amid Tiffany lamps, writing desks, overstuffed chairs, and under the gaze of the clock. So genteel a time was that, that the hotel employed a coin washer to clean the hotel’s silver change so that ladies’ white gloves would not be dirtied. (This particular tradition continues today.)In fact, much of the structure of the main building recalls a more genteel age. For instance, its wide hallways hark back to the time when women wore enormous, billowy skirts. And a time when Elite San Francisco families—including the Marks, the Popes, the Nimitzes, even I Magnin—lived in the hotel’s few permanent apartments overlooking Union Square. (The St. Francis is the only hotel facing the square.)
Over the years, prominent guests strolled passed the clock, including Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the Shah of Iran, and Queen Elizabeth II, as well as countless movie stars and U.S. Presidents. President Gerald Ford almost met his death on September 22, 1975 at the St. Francis when Sara Jane Moore shot at him as he left from the hotel’s side entrance.
As most historic hotels do, the St. Francis has redecorated itself several times, adding a tower building, a Tower Lobby, ballrooms, a spa, and restaurants. The Historic Lobby itself has gone through several incarnations.
In the process of redecorating the lobby in 2004, the grandfather clock was hauled away.
Gena Egelston, marketing and communications manager at the hotel, says some people actually shed tears when they came to the lobby and discovered the clock was gone.
“But it never left the hotel,” Egelston says. She explained that in 2004 it was taken to the mezzanine, then later shifted to the more modern Tower Lobby. But when the Historic Lobby was restored in 2008, the clock made a grand return to its rightful place, (which today is next to the hotel’s new Clock Bar).
To honor the clock’s return, the hotel put out a search for couples who’d “met under the clock.” They received more than 50 stories, some from as long ago as 1945.
No doubt there will be more stories because, for now anyway, the enormous clock’s face is once again watching over the lobby at the St. Francis.