On a recent business trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, I opted to stay at a hotel that’s steeped in history and in a little less than two years will celebrate its 100th year in operation. The Claremont Hotel, located on the border of Berkeley and Oakland, is one of the most picturesque hotels in all of the Bay Area, and also has a storied – and at times tumultuous – past.
Frank Havens, who as the legend goes, acquired the property in a high-stakes game of poker, established The Claremont Hotel Company and broke ground on “The Elegant Lady” around 1905. Spanning ten years, construction (below) was disrupted by the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and was finally completed in 1915 at a total cost of $400,000.
In 1918, the property was sold to Erik Lindblom (below left), a wealthy Swedish gold mining magnate, who in 1926 hired a young man named Claude C. Gillum (below right) to be the hotel’s Chief Desk Clerk.
Over the next 11 years, Gillum rose through the hotel’s management ranks until he and his wife ultimately purchased the hotel outright in 1937.
Sometime shortly after Gillum took ownership, a white fire-proof roof was installed and the exterior of the hotel was painted entirely white (below) covering up its handsome and more traditional-looking exposed half-timber façade (above). The timbers are still there, they’ve just been painted over.
While the hotel today does look stunning as it’s perched in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the East Bay (above), I have to admit that I prefer the original half-timbered look. What do you think?
In 1954, Claude Gillum sold the property to Murray Lehr (above left) who then turned around and sold it to Harold J. Schnitzer (above right) three months later, under the condition that Lehr would lease the hotel from Schnitzer and stay on as General Manager, which he did until 1971.
It was under Lehr’s management that in 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright designed a new Wedding Chapel (above) for the hotel. Wright stayed on the property numerous times and was quoted as saying it was “one of the few hotels in the world with warmth, character and charm.” The proposed addition would have jutted out from the north side of the hotel’s iconic tower, but it was never built.
Aside from the white paint job and the addition of more modern amenities over the years, the hotel today remains largely the same as it was when it first opened. The reception lobby (above) is a soaring space with large chandeliers hanging from a highly detailed coffered ceiling.
The hotel has multiple dining options from casual to formal. The lounge (above) was originally called “The Garden Room” and in its hey-day was a routine stop for performers like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.
Dining in the formal restaurant affords spectacular views across the Bay during the day (above), and as the sun sets in the evening to the west, the lights of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco’s skyline come to life (below).
The patio (below) attached to their other, more casual restaurant also looks out across the Bay and is a great spot to enjoy an afternoon cocktail.
The swimming pool at property’s north end looks back toward the Tower.
The room I stayed in (below) was centered in between the two large wings on the hotel’s west facing side (below).
I took the picture below in the morning while the Bay was still shrouded in fog. Had it been clear, the SF skyline would have been in plain view.
The hotel today is very elegant and it is my hope that it will continue to operate for another 100 years, but that may be in jeopardy. Following Harold Schnitzer’s sale of the property in 1998, management has changed hands numerous times.
In January 2011 then-owner, Morgan Stanley, defaulted on the loan it had taken out to buy the Claremont and a handful of other boutique hotels. A partnership between an investment firm based in Singapore and an Amercian private equity group stepped in and acquired the hotel but was unable to payoff debts, prompting them to file for bankruptcy later that year. Unless things get turned around, the property may ultimately be sold at auction, and it is unclear what would happen to it beyond that. As for now, it continues to operate as it always has, and as a guest you’d never know there were any financial issues going on.
All in all, The Claremont is a lovely hotel that has all the amenities of a resort along with all the modern conveniences for the savvy business traveler. You can’t beat its location – just minutes from the East Bay’s best dining and entertainment districts, but far enough away that it feels like a world all its own. Hopefully The Claremont will emerge from these troubled financial times with new ownership and a plan to keep it viable for another century…