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The Classic American Hotels Strike Back

"The Fairmont was built for a person who came off a ship with steamer trunks and an entourage," says Mark Huntley, the general manager. And once again it is ready for such people. The lobby is voluptuous and golden, with tassels hanging from tassels, and palms and torchères and pinwheels of curving sofas. Three long-forgotten oval rooms have had their dropped ceilings removed and have returned to service as a restaurant, bar, and foyer. James Cameron could have filmed Titanic here.

The one thing that has not changed is the Tonga Room, a Polynesian restaurant built in 1945 around the old basement swimming pool. It has always been a sentimental favorite for its middling Chinese food, its band floating on a thatched barge, and guaranteed thunderstorms every half-hour. Preservationists consider it a prime example of the postwar fascination with the architecture of paradise. Everybody else just thinks it's fun. Nobody dared touch the Tonga Room.

If you hadn't seen the Fairmont before, still wearing rather eccentric clothes from a 1946 renovation by Dorothy Draper, you would think this is the way it has always looked. Stroll through the lobby and you feel all the privilege and status of a Nob Hill perspective on the city. Sit on one of the velvet sofas, and you hear old-fashioned sounds: footsteps echoing on the newly revealed marble floor, the whoosh of a revolving door. Everybody who walks in stops cold, looks up, and gasps. Some sit down and catch their breath on a gilded recamier chaise, kicking up their Nikes. The past is a lot to live up to.

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