From Slatbeg to ‘Snob Hill’

An Irishman’s Diary: Putting the Fair into Fairmont

‘After James Graham Fair’s  death in 1894, his two daughters decided to build the Fairmont as a grandiose monument to his memory. Construction work began in 1902, but within a few years it had become a burden for them and they sold it in 1906 in exchange for two office buildings. A few days after this the city was devastated by an earthquake followed by fire.’ Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘After James Graham Fair’s death in 1894, his two daughters decided to build the Fairmont as a grandiose monument to his memory. Construction work began in 1902, but within a few years it had become a burden for them and they sold it in 1906 in exchange for two office buildings. A few days after this the city was devastated by an earthquake followed by fire.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 01:00

One hundred years ago, on the eve of the first World War, you could get a room including meals for $2.50 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Nowadays if you want to book the hotel’s penthouse suite it will set you back $8,000 a night.

When American presidents stay in the city, the Fairmont – perched at the top of Nob Hill – is their first choice. Heads of state, royalty and film stars also choose this landmark building in an area nicknamed “Snob” Hill.

The hotel’s history has a fascinating and little-known Irish connection. The Fairmont was founded by the family of James Graham Fair, originally from the Clogher Valley in south Tyrone. Fair was born in 1831 to a poor family at Slatbeg near Fardross and emigrated in 1843.

After striking it rich in a Nevada silver mine, he became one of San Francisco’s wealthiest citizens. Fair’s claim to fame was discovering the Comstock Lode in Nevada, which was much more valuable than the gold found in California. In the 1860s the Comstock Lode produced $400 million and in one year made as much as five per cent of all the wealth created by millions of Americans.

His fortune was further enhanced by owning the Big Bonanza Mine beneath Virginia city and he became known as “Bonanza Jim”. In 1867 he formed a partnership with three other Irishmen: James Flood, William O’Brien and John McKay. They were called the “The Silver Kings”.

Fair married Theresa Rooney, an Irish widow whom he had met while prospecting in the California Sierras. As one of the richest men in the world, he was a good catch, but there was a darker side to him. He was involved in a number of swindles and financial wheeler-dealing.

On one occasion he asked his wife how much money she had in the bank. When she told him, he said that a certain mine was bursting with ore and its stock would go “sky high”. She invested all her savings in it but her husband and his partners, who owned the mine, knew it had played out and was now worthless.

When he started the rumour about the mine’s supposed value, sceptics saw that Fair’s wife was investing money in it and the stock price jumped enormously. Fair then sold his and the other partners’ shares for a considerable profit. When the mine’s worthlessness became known, the new investors – including his wife – suffered serious losses. In the best traditions of an honourable Clogher man, he paid her back but not without remarking that she would make a poor speculator.

After his death in 1894, his two daughters decided to build the Fairmont as a grandiose monument to his memory. Construction work began in 1902, but within a few years it had become a burden for them and they sold it in 1906 in exchange for two office buildings. A few days after this the city was devastated by an earthquake followed by fire.

Remarkably, while buildings all around were toppling, the Fairmont survived, although the fire warped its heavy steel frame and destroyed the interior. Photographs show the hotel standing Parthenon-like on Nob Hill while palatial mansions all around are engulfed in flames amid the rubble. Within a year it was rebuilt from within and officially opened on April 18th, 1907 – the first anniversary of the quake – and quickly become a popular haunt of the moneyed classes.

One of Fair’s daughters, Virginia Graham “Birdie” Fair, a socialite and philanthropist, married William K Vanderbilt Jr. Her benevolence included setting up the Virginia Fair Legacy Fund which rebuilt and endowed the Holy Family Day Home, a children’s Catholic school damaged in the quake. With her father’s inheritance she commissioned buildings in New York. One of these, the Virginia Fair Vanderbilt House, which in 1930 she chose as her new home, stands on East 93rd Street in Manhattan. Designed as a three-storey residence in the neoclassical French style, the 50-room mansion is today the headquarters of the antiques and fine art firm Carlton Hobbs.

As for the Fairmont, apart from surviving the earthquake, it has other historic connections. At the end of the second World War it was “base camp” for meetings of the newly formed United Nations and to this day still flies the flags of all the original signatories. And in the same hotel 53 years ago Antonio Dominick Benedetti (aka Tony Bennett) first sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco which became his signature song, a worldwide hit and the city’s unofficial anthem.

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