SF's iconic Tonga Room at risk of demolition

June 9, 2010 7:09:48 PM PDT
Preservationists and local hotel owners have very different ideas when it comes to the Tonga Room -- that famous watering hole at the Fairmont. Now San Francisco's Planning Commission is joining the debate with a public hearing.

San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel opened in 1907. Over the years, the historic structure has undergone renovations, but nothing as ambitious as the latest plans.

The Fairmont wants to demolish a 28-story tower and podium and replace it with condominiums. The project's redevelopment manager says that provides an opportunity for the hotel to "reclaim its place as San Francisco's premier luxury hotel atop Nob Hill."

But in San Francisco things are rarely that easy. In this case, there is a movement to stop part of the proposed construction because it includes tearing down the Tonga Room.

The Tonga Room was created in 1945 and redesigned as a Tikki bar in 1967. The Polynesian-themed bar features an indoor rain storm, and it's even said that the Mai Tai was invented there.

"Tonga Room is one of the greatest, last remaining examples of the mid-century American fascination with Polynesian culture, style and look," Tonga Room supporter Martin Cate said.

Cate is a lover of all things tiki and one of those fighting to keep the Tonga Room from being demolished.

City preservationists have said there's historic value and at the very least the objects must be protected. But according to Planning Commissioner Mike Antonini that doesn't necessarily mean the room itself has to stay or that the city should require that.

"How far can you go to tell a business what they have to do with their own business within their own confines? So this is a question that a lot of people raise and a very valid one," he said.

The Fairmont owners say revitalizing the hotel to meet the needs of the market is a necessary step to preserve and foster the historic hotel's economic vitality for years to come.

They apparently believe the old Tonga Room doesn't fit a new upscale image.

"They are missing the point. There is an absolute resurgence, a groundswell of new tiki bars. There is a new fascination with these escapist places," Cate said.

The Planning Commission will meet on Thursday and the city must sign off on any construction plans.


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