NOB HILL TREASURE: TOP OF THE MARK
The Top of the Mark has been THE SPOT for engagements and affairs, for champagne or a very dry selection from the 100 Martinis menu since its opening in 1939. Situated on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel at Number One Nob Hill in San Francisco, local lore has it that John Barrymore once made his way to the top just to show the view to his pet monkey. The hotel founded in 1926, thirteen years before the Top of the Mark opened, is a testament to San Francisco history. Its lobby floor boasts the Room of the Dons which features nine seven-foot high murals depicting life in early California by artists Maynard Dixon and Frank Van Sloun. Local organizations including the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society have their annual fundraisers in this space, overflowing into the adjacent Peacock Court where Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Rudy Valle have played on its stage. But amidst this history, the Mark has definitely kept pace with the 21st Century. One example, parking in the underground garage, I spotted an unusual electric device. The attendant explained that the Mark is the first historic hotel in San Francisco to offer a charging station for electric cars.
Nelum Gunewardane, the woman entrusted with caring for this icon, is the perfect fit for her role, yet she almost followed a completely different career path. Born in India to a hotel family, she loved her childhood, because like Eloise of Kay Thompson’s books, she wandered her familys’ hotels in search of adventure, attending weddings, helping the maid change the sheets and determining what the chef should cook for her dinner that day. Like Eloise, Gunewardane always had playmates among the children of visitors and staff and enjoyed mingling with adult guests. But in college she majored in Business, rather than in Hospitality, because she thought work as an Accountant might be preferable to the instability of hotel life. Following her graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Studies from the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, she soon realized she did not want to spend her life with Excel spreadsheets, but instead yearned to be out front, meeting and greeting guests, much as she did as a child. When asked what she likes most about her position, she says, The individuals who visit and share their memories with me.
With 20 years of hospitality experience, Gunewardane began her career in 1992 at the Riyadh InterContinental Hotel in Saudi Arabia and later moved on to the InterContinental Hotels in London, New York and Boston. She transferred to San Francisco from Boston because of her desire to live here and work at an historic hotel; promotion to Hotel Manager was an extra incentive. Gunewardane considered it a wonderful omen that the Mark Hopkins like the New York Barclay and the Mayflower London, where she had worked earlier, first opened in 1926.
She values the Mark’s history but feels it is important to find new ways to showcase it. She would not… change the icon but would like to incorporate some innovative ways of celebrating special occasions. Push our boundaries to have creative individuals paint fabulous views from the “Top.” As a world-class icon ages gracefully, we like to show off her grandeur to a global audience.
While at New York’s Barclay, Gunewardane received a cash scholarship from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, for intensive classes in using technology effectively in hotel management. Her studies reinforced the importance of developing a strong plan for fund allocation to benefit both hotels and guests. The Mark is Green campaign is an example of such an initiative, reducing expenses for the hotel while giving guests sustainable options. Parts of the program are standard: no plastic bags are wrapped around optional newspapers; showerheads are low flow and reuse of towels and amenities is encouraged. There are also alternatives for guests who want to make green choices with no financial benefit to the hotel’s bottom line: free parking for shared Zipcars; public transportation maps in guests’ welcome packages; green friendly cab recommendations and locally sourced vegetables and fruits.
Gundewardane feels that retelling history through the participation of young art students using 2012 techniques is important to overseeing the Mark’ preservation. Working with the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, her staff has created a display near the California Street entrance that alternately celebrates the history, art, music and movies connected to the hotel. This fall’s display is a window containing the suitcase, clothes and diary belonging to the hotel’s first owner George D. Smith.
In summer San Franciscans and visitors flee the outside winds to come to the heated Top of the Mark (Mark Twain never said that the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, but the words live on because the city’s summer temperatures are only ten degrees warmer than winter’s). From May through September, the Top of the Mark features free large screen showings of movies that take place at or near the hotel such as Vertigo and Dirty Harry. Gunewardane feels that tangible displays of history are important, It brings the hotel to life, she says.
And guests keep the hotel lively as well. Since the day it opened, many famous visitors have enjoyed the Top of the Mark’s extraordinary views. Gunewardane seems nostalgic when she talks about past guests, some who stayed at the Mark well before her birth, including: Herbert Hoover; Dwight Eisenhower; Elizabeth Taylor; Elvis Presley; Judy Garland and Michael Jackson.
Gunewardane is pleased that famous guests keep coming and notes that today they are as frequently government leaders as movie stars. Recent visitors include Prince Edward, Prince Charles, Brad Pitt, Robin Williams, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Academy Award winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., Valerie Bertinelli, Barry Bonds, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi and whiskey magnate Tom Bulleit.
Sipping a cup of tea overlooking the city, Gunewardane observes, When you enter the Top of the Mark it gives you the feeling like you’re on “Top of the World”. It is a destination which harbors a lot of history and memories for many individuals throughout the world, and holds a special place in many peoples’ hearts. She is committed to both the Mark’s history and its future as she describes her goal for the hotel …Build on the customer base we already have, and attract more guests who share memories of Top of the Mark. Riding an elevator from the Top of the Mark to the lobby, she reflects, The InterContinental Mark Hopkins is the Jewel on the Hill, she says stooping to pick up a piece of paper off the floor on our way.
NOB HILL TREASURE, RON HENGGELER
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a treasure as something of great worth or value; also a person esteemed as rare or precious. In beginning this newsletter feature we looked no further than the Big 4 for our first treasure…Ron Henggeler, master photographer, lover of all things San Francisco, teacher, historian and the most eclectic waiter on Nob Hill.
Like many who have made significant contributions to the Hill, Ron is not a native San Franciscan. Born in Columbus, Nebraska, he grew up in Kansas City and studied painting and sculpture at Kansas University, before settling in San Francisco in 1974. Working as a waiter, he moved into a household of artists and continued his education studying painting and sculpture with Tom Phillips, photography with Mark Anstendig, and English composition with John Welsh. In the early 1980’s one of Ron’s roommates, a professional photographer, gave him his old Olympus when the photographer purchased a new camera. . Fast forward to 2000 when Ron learns of an opening for a waiter at the Big 4, a venue that Ron felt was “tailor made for me”. Luckily the Huntington’s owners at the time, the Cope family, felt so too. It was not very long before Ron began his impromptu history lessons for customers, including tours of the fine photographs that cover the Big 4’s walls.
So the rest might have been history except for one complication– Ron is an artist who sleeps four hours a night and spends every Sunday and Monday–his days off from the Big 4–with his camera–much of the time on Nob Hill. Some of his work can be seen at http://www.ronhenggeler.com in addition to art galleries and historical venues. He does not know how many total photographs he has taken, let alone how many photographs of Nob Hill he has captured. But be it the rose window of Grace Cathedral or the Fairmont flags on July 4 or a neighborhood dog happy on his walk or the late philanthropist Bella Farrow and pianist Peter Mintun, Ron brilliantly captures the essence of Nob Hill. He reflects…It’s all photo worthy. The views from atop Nob Hill looking down the streets, south down Taylor, east down California, north down Mason, west on California. Huntington Park with its lovely qualities of soft morning light. The thick grey summer fog cutting through the tops of the tall buildings. Huntington Park in the spring with the cherry blossoms. I love heights, the bird’s eye views. I’m always looking for the opportunity to have access to the top of Nob Hill’s buildings. Top of the Mark, top of the Huntington, top of 1170 Sacramento, from the bell towers of Grace. As for people, everyone is a potential subject. Everyone is photo-worthy and the contents photogenic.
And Ron is a collector of anything to do with San Francisco history as well. 1000 jars decorate his Queen Anne mansion where he lives with his partner David, the jars’ glass framing relics of a lost San Francisco–rivets from the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, a tea cup damaged by the fire of 1906, bottles and shards from Meigg’s Wharf.
Ron acknowledges that photography takes up most of his free time now. I carry my camera always with a sense of history, he reflects. Does he want to make photography his fulltime job, perhaps write a book or create a business with his pictures? Ron cannot believe that anyone could think he would want his life to be any different, I live and breathe the Big 4. It’s my stage. Even before I got the job there I was hooked on San Francisco history. I have the best of everything.
Photographer, teacher, collector, waiter–Simon Winchester wrote of Ron in his book, America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906:
And, finally, among those who gave professional help, I must give enormous thanks to Ron Henggeler, whose peerless performance as a waiter at the Big Four Restaurant on Nob Hill is matched only by his talent as an artist and his infectious enthusiasm for collecting San Francisco memorabilia. Not a single aspect of Bay Area life – from the debates over the siting of wartime antiaircraft batteries to the menu choices for lunches served at the Sutro Baths, from the mating habits of sea lions to the casualty tolls from earlier earthquakes – has ever escaped Ron’s jackdawlike appetite, and his collections are immense and impeccably organized. He was kind enough to allow me to borrow from almost all and everything he possessed – film clips, books, magazines, paintings, vinyl records – and never once pressed me to return them until I was good and ready to do so. Ron is an enormously proud waiter, as he should be, and for anyone in need of some arcane fact about old San Francisco, I recommend a visit to his restaurant and a seat in his station. But do please remember the pourboire.
Our thanks go out to Ron for his beautiful photography of Nob Hill and San Francisco and also to Fran Hildebrand, NHA Board member and Director of the Communications Committee, for this wonderful article on Ron.
We are always in search of stories about treasured characters and historic events that reflect the special uniqueness of Nob Hill. If you have a person, place or event that sounds interesting, please email it to us at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>