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The Classic American Hotels Strike Back

How far do you dare to go?

Remaking a hotel is not a science. Nobody is ever sure where to draw the line between tradition and progress. "Think of a Jaguar," says Deborah Damask, public relations director at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. "People don't really want an old car. They want a new car—with a retro look."

When Ian Schrager gets his hands on a down-at-the-heels hotel, he usually obliterates the past. The Clift, a beloved old San Francisco property he acquired in 1998, certainly deserved no mercy. A few years earlier it had been ejected from the Four Seasons group, and from there it was downhill, until Schrager reopened the hotel last July. He has had all his usual fun: a lobby where it's always two in the morning, an Asia de Cuba restaurant whose maître d' looks like a movie star, and the "Dude, where's my car?" style of service that helps people not feel like their parents. His guest rooms have never been sexier, with waterproof nylon upholstery borrowed from Prada ready-to-wear and billowing silk curtains on the mirrors as well as the windows.

Still, the Clift is different, the most luxurious and mature of Schrager's hotels. Vice president of openings and brand management Tim Miller calls it "the most sacred." What's sacred is the Redwood Room, an Art Deco bar off the lobby dating from 1933. When Schrager bought the Clift, San Franciscans got out their candles and held a vigil for it. Schrager is no fool, though; as long as there was a Redwood Room, the Clift would be the Clift, even if everything else was purple and orange. Schrager's Redwood Room turned out better than ever, and now everybody is coming again, not only to see the zigging and zagging of the old woodwork, but to sit at the new etched-mirror bar under the changing digital artwork.

Up on Nob Hill, the Fairmont has been moving at full speed too, but in reverse. A mammoth renovation last fall brought the guest rooms up to date but turned back the clock everywhere else to 1907, when the hotel was completed.

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