Written by Chris VerPlanck
Located deep in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, The Tonga Room has a long and storied history in San Francisco’s dining and nighttime culture. In a city that has become obsessed with flash-in-the-pan restaurants with celebrity chefs, The Tonga Room, in all of its incarnations, has survived for 64 years as a bastion of the city’s pre-dotcom nightlife, hosting political, literary, and cultural figures such as Herb Caen, Willie Brown, and Hunter S. Thompson. On the other hand, The Tonga Room has also remained a fixture for regular San Franciscans enjoying a night on the town, playing host to South Pacific veterans, homesick Samoan immigrants, and who knows how many high school proms.
Designed by MGM set designer Mel Melvin in a South Pacific/nautical theme, the original Tonga Room opened in 1945, reusing the hotel’s existing 1929 plunge as its centerpiece lagoon – the venue for the bar’s famous half-hourly tropical downpours. Remodeled once in 1953 in the “Hawaiian Tropical style,” the existing Tonga Room is largely the product of the 1967 redesign by well-known, Santa Monica-based interior designer, Howard Hirsch.
In his ambitious reworking of the Tonga Room in the “High Tiki” style, Hirsch outfitted the bar using products from Oceanic Arts of Whittier, California, the state’s premier supplier of Polynesian-themed architectural and decorative products. Highlights of the 1967 remodel include the Canoe House, the Island Huts, The Wharf, the fore and poop decks of the S.S. Foerster, as well as a lava rock waterfall behind the Hurricane bar. Built toward the end of the High Tiki phenomenon, the Tonga Room thrived even as most of the nation’s Tiki idols were gradually toppled during the 1970s through the mid-1990s to make way for fern bars and dollar stores. Through it all, the Fairmont Hotel (when it was under local management) defied ephemeral trends in the hospitality industry by resisting the temptation to remodel or even significantly update The Tonga Room.
In 2009, the current owner of the Fairmont Hotel – Maritz Wolff & Co. – announced plans to demolish The Tonga Room, as well as the entire rear half of the hotel, to make way for a new podium and high-rise tower. The project comprises a multi-level parking garage, new ballrooms, and 160 luxury condominiums, ranging in size from 1,700 to 7,500 square feet. The condominiums, which are driving the project, will likely be marketed to international jet-setters seeking a pied-à-terre in “everybody’s favorite city.” In addition to adding to the glut of unsold luxury condominiums currently languishing on the market, this project will destroy The Tonga Room, one of a handful of America’s best-preserved examples of the High Tiki style surviving from the era in which it peaked. Rivaled only by Ft. Lauderdale’s Mai Kai, The Tonga Room is the largest and most architecturally significant Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant remaining in California, the state where the style was invented and that today is the birthplace of a thriving Tiki revival. It is perhaps ironic that the Fairmont Hotel’s very own website says: “Today, The Tonga Room is riding the wave of the tiki revival and recently has been recognized as one of the nation’s hottest bars…”
Formed in early 2009 to foil the Fairmont Hotel’s intention to topple The Tonga Room, S.O.S. Tonga is a small, ad hoc group of preservation professionals, vintage auto enthusiasts, mixologists, and mid-century aficionados who are united by the belief that it is our job to convince the current management of the Fairmont Hotel that to destroy The Tonga Room is a staggeringly bad idea. In the meantime, we have been busy documenting the bar’s history and significance and we recently submitted an application to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission to amend the existing local landmark designation for the Fairmont Hotel to include The Tonga Room as a significant interior space. Beginning in the fall of 2009, S.O.S. Tonga has been staging events at The Tonga Room and other Tiki bars throughout the Bay Area to spread the word and gather support for the nomination. We have been very successful so far and it has been lo`a lo`a, or “fun” in Hawaiian. Mahalo!
- The full Tonga Room case report (PDF)
- Save the Tonga Room on Facebook
- Modernism + the Recent Past on PreservationNation
Chris VerPlanck, of Kelley & VerPlanck Historical Resources Consulting, is a member of S.O.S. Tonga.
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