An alarm is going up amongst tiki-lovers and all those who appreciate San Francisco’s eclectic (hic!) history! The Tonga Room, the much loved tacky tiki bar in the Fairmont Hotel’s basement (California @ Mason in Nob Hill), is at great risk due to its owner’s plan to convert a large portion of the hotel into condominiums.
The plan would replace the existing Fairmont Hotel Tower with a new Residential Tower and in the process convert 226 hotel rooms into 160 condos. The Tonga Room is at the base of the existing tower.
The PDF for the Notice of Preparation of an Environmental Impact Report for the project shows both the existing and proposed layouts for the Fairmont. The Tonga Room is clearly missing in the envisioned building, replaced by a new grand ballroom.
But who cares? It’s just a bar, right? Just a bar!!! Are you kidding!?! It’s the Grand Kahuna of San Francisco tiki bars (a dying breed). It has a Boat! With a band on it! And long straws and crazy drink bowls and would you believe it even RAINS indoors?!?
The Tonga Room is a unique San Francisco icon which has evolved over time with the city and the trends of popular culture. Its origins date to the 1920’s when what would become its centerpiece debuted as an indoor swimming pool called “The Plunge”, which by the 40’s was recast into the S.S. Tonga in the midst of a nautical and Asian-themed restaurant.
The next step in its history was actually getting its tiki on, here recounted courtesy of Cherry Capri’s blog:
In the 1950s with the popularity of places like Don the Beachcombers and Trader Vics at the Hilton Hotels, the nautical restaurant became tiki-fied. The S.S. Tonga was converted from boat theme to the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar.
The Cantonese flavor and Hawaiian pupus remained, but thatched huts were added around the perimeter of the room. The pool became a shallow lagoon with seashells at the bottom. The ceiling was painted black and a floating band stand stage and a dance floor made from the deck of the S.S. Forester, one of the last tall ships which sailed between San Francisco and the South Seas was added.
A later remodel was done in 1967 with the help of the famous folks at Oceanic Arts. The stage has since become a thatch roofed hut on which a band plays.
Here’s the Tonga in its mid-centurty heyday:
The last decade has seen nearly $100 million invested in updates to the Fairmont hotel itself which included a $1 Million restoration of the Tonga Room completed in the last few years. So it’s strange that all that history and fairly recent money could soon be bulldozed.
There’s been no explicit statement that the Tonga Room is being destroyed, and no press account that mentions it (except a quizzical commenter on Curbed SF). But clearly the plans for the new condo-ized version of the Fairmont do not include the landmark bar.
Ironically last month’s SF Chronicle story on the project mentions the Tonga Room as if it would be a perk for people living in the condos–but that suggestion is simply erroneous.
The official period for comments on the Enviornmental Impact Review closed on Friday, Feb 20th. With the dearth of press coverage, it seems that the word is only belatedly starting to spread online about the Tonga Room’s potential demise. Blog posts, Twitter tweets and Flickr pages with contact info to voice concern about the plan seem to have only popped up on the day of the deadline.
With that in mind, contact info to voice your concern is below, should you still want to comment to the SF Planning Dept, via defenestr8r who seems to be the one who first raised the alarm on this:
Send an email TODAY (deadline is Feb 20) to: Devyani.Jain@sfgov.org urging the Planning Dept to not approve the project unless the historic Tonga Room is specifically included in the retention of the historic Hotel building. Also at 415-575-9051.
Written comments should be cc’d by mail to Bill Wycko, Environmental Review Officer, or SF Planning Dept, 16560 Mission St Suite 400, SF, CA 94103-2479. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
A bit more information is here.
The Tonga Room is one of the diminishing number of tiki bars in San Francisco–only 8 of the 18 tiki bars listed for this city on Critiki .com are still in business. In December 2007 the second incarnation of Trader Vic’s San Francisco closed its doors (the original Vic’s location is now Le Colonial restaurant).
Tiki Central Forums has a discussion that dates back to late last year on the Fairmont remodel. It includes an email from an historical architect who confirmed from the source that the Tonga room would not return in the condo redesign. For folks, like me, obsessing on this the whole thread is worth reading.
Although there is speculation dating back to the beginning of the thread, once again it seems that no one grasped the certainty of the threat until
late last week.
The thread also features a couple amazing pictures of the early days of the Tonga Room (including a poster from the Fairmont that shows “The Plunge”, the original pool):
This detailed history of the Fairmont (including the origin of the hotel’s name, a prominent citizen named Fair) also includes another incredible historical aspect of the bar:
A gleaming dance floor provides space for guests to dance; little do they realize that it was originally the deck of the S.S. Forrester, one of the last of the tall ships that plied the route between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands.
The whole history is really worth a read!
Here are more current and classic pix of the Tonga Room from various Flickr folks….
Just look at that friggin’ riggin…
decorative flagons and drinks in colors that don’t appear in nature…
– Eater SF
UPDATE: Jesse McKinley wrote a New York Times article about the attempt to save The Tonga Room.