The disappearing sky room

News of the impending closure of the Carnelian Room, the city’s highest sky room atop the Bank of America building, has saddened many San Franciscans and visitors alike.

GG Bridge view from Carnelian Room
View from the Carnelian Room

From its perch in the middle of the Financial District, the restaurant is known as a place to celebrate special occasions and for schmoozing VIP business colleagues. The 52nd floor restaurant is better known for its spectacular views of the city from the main dining room and various salons with names like Tamalpais and Coit, than for its cuisine.

Bank of America Center
Bank of America Center

It’s not clear yet what the future holds for the Carnelian Room, but sadly, the era of sophisticated cocktails and dining as city lights sparkle beyond increasingly seems like a vestige of the past.

With the building’s current owners, which include real estate magnate Donald Trump, anything is possible. The Carnelian Room’s last hurrah is on January 1, 2010. After that,  its East Coast-based owners will determine its fate.

Trump became the minority stake owner in the BofA building when it was sold in 2007. After San Francisco-based Bank of America merged with NationsBank of Charlotte, N.C., its iconic headquarters building was eventually sold. In 2007, the BofA building, officially known as 555 California, was sold to the Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a 70% stake, and Donald Trump, who owns the remaining 30%.

Carnelian Menu
Drinks at sunset

A spokeswoman in New York for Vornado of Paramus, N.J. said the owners of 555 California are looking at all their options.

But if the fate of the Carnelian Room mirrors that of other sky rooms, the future is not promising. This past summer, the most famous of sky rooms, New York’s Rainbow Room, which opened in 1934, closed, citing the economy and other issues. A new operator has not yet been named. When it was restored and reconstructed in 1987, Paul Goldberger in the New York Times  called the revamped Rainbow Room “one of the finest evocations of the 1930’s yet created.”

Those in the hotel business in San Francisco are anything but surprised by the recent trend. In the last 10 years, the tough economics of running these sky-high rooms has taken its toll. There are now far fewer bars where we can enjoy the city’s stunning views.

Pyramid from Carnelian Room2
Another stunning view from the Carnelian Room

“It’s money driven,” said Howard Mutz, conference services manager at the venerable Palace Hotel, celebrating its 100th birthday this year. “Costs are so high and labor is so high.” Mutz said it is easier to run these ethereal spaces as special banquet rooms, rather than have the fixed cost of being open on a nightly basis, especially during tough economic times.

Sky room closures

Over the last 10 years, San Francisco has lost several sky bars. The St. Francis Hotel, where Mutz used to work and was also the hotel’s historian, was ahead of the trend. It closed Victor’s, a fine dining restaurant atop the St. Francis Tower in 1995. It then closed the bar and disco, called Oz, in 1997.  Now those rooms are used for private functions and corporate parties.

“It’s what a lot of hotels have done,” Mutz said. Other closures in recent years include the Equinox Room at the Hyatt Regency, and its revolving bar. It is now a private key access Regency Club. Some of the best guest rooms are now also on this top floor.

Last year, the Hilton on O’Farrell closed its Cityscape Bar and Restaurant, with its 14-foot high windows, which had been open since 1986. Before that, it was Henri’s at the Top, with bird cages and go-go girl dancers.  The Fairmont Hotel closed its Crown Room as a bar and restaurant about 10 years ago. It can now be reserved for private parties and is open to the public on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.

“Dining with a view is a dying thing,” said Al Mak, who works at the Fairmont.

Three sky bars left in Baghdad by the Bay

When the Carnelian Room closes, there will be three bars with a view left: The Top of the Mark, designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel;  Harry Denton’s Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake;  and The View bar at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, known locally as the Jukebox. The Top of the Mark, at the crest of Nob Hill, seems to have the best unfettered view, but it’s worth a revisit.

Top of the Mark small view
Top of the Mark, circa 1939, Mark Hopkins Hotel

While the Top of the Mark has changed from this early photo, the bar is a San Francisco institution. One hopes it will remain the granddaddy of the city’s sky bars, even though it was not the first.

During World War II, it was a tradition for those in the military passing through the city to stop at the Top of the Mark. In the 1940’s, Life did a photo spread of service men in uniform with their sweethearts, lined up in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins, for a teary farewell at the top. Soldiers bought a bottle at the bar and left it with the bartender for others in their company or squadron. Whoever finished the last sip, bought a new bottle.

San Francisco’s first sky room

The first sky room in the city was at the top of what was then called the Empire Hotel on McAllister Street. The hotel, initially called the William Taylor Hotel, was commissioned by the Temple Methodist Episcopal Church, who first hired Pflueger to design the odd combination of a church on the ground floor of the stepped skyscraper, and a hotel.

William Taylor Hotel, 1930
William Taylor Hotel, 1930

The William Taylor Hotel opened in 1930, and its design was credited to architect Lewis Hobart, after Pflueger was fired in a dispute. The hotel then suffered during the Great Depression. It re-opened as the Empire Hotel, and in 1938, the hotel turned the 24th floor into a swank cocktail lounge, called the Sky Room. Architect & Engineer said in its April, 1938 issue that the Sky Room “has no prototype west of New York.”  The skyscraper, the most prominent building in the Tenderloin, is now owned by U.C. Hastings College of the Law, for student housing.

The Top of the Mark opened just a year later, and soon eclipsed the Sky Room in popularity. More details about the creation of the bar, from its origins as a penthouse apartment at the Mark Hopkins leased by copper baron Daniel Jackling, can be found in my book, Art Deco San Francisco.

All this nostalgia makes me think it’s time for some visits to the city’s remaining sky rooms, to see where the best views (and beverages!) can be found. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote in 1939 after the Top of the Mark opened: “Crazy ambition, to drag all the mildly-stewed characters away from the bar in the middle of the Top o’ the Mark, haul them to the windows and make them look at the most magnificent view in the country.”

Sounds like a good idea to me.


8 thoughts on “The disappearing sky room”

  1. I was positive there used to be a Carnelian Room in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, CA, at one time. Was there a hotel that sounded like it at one time?

    1. Perhaps you are getting the name mixed up with the Venetian Room at the Fairmont. The Fairmont also had its own sky room, the Crown Room, at the top of its tower which opened in the 1960s.

  2. Hi,
    My name is Roel Esquivel . I am a collector of 1st edition antique books, as I was flipping through the pages of a book. I not only had bought it with and inscription, but to my surprise I also found at the back of the book a perfectly-aged “William Taylor Hotel” San Francisco piece of parchment paper. I suppose the paper was used to write notes or to be left on pillow tops with messages. It has the William Taylor Hotel, Coat or arms. I would like to know if there is anyone who collects these things as I do books. ? I am also very interested in the history of the hotel.
    Thank You
    Roel J Esquivel
    Austin, Texas

  3. It’s an L-shaped space, at least what I’ve seen, facing north and west. I’ll have to go back and take a more complete set of notes.

  4. Well, the architecture certainly isn’t anything to crow about, but the view from the restaurant and cocktail lounge on the 36th floor of the Grand Hyatt at Sutter and Stockton isn’t too shabby. Great vista taking in the Gate, Mt. Tam, Nob Hill, Coit Tower, etc.

    1. Wow did not realize they had a bar there. It is just north facing or more panoramic? We should do a bake-off. Hyatt vs the Top o’ the Mark vs the Jukebox vs Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. And throw in the Carnelian Room before it closes! See which room has a) best view b) best drinks c) best interior design.


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