Of Starfleet and Grand Hotels

As Steve Dundas points out today in his generous review of Capital of the World, even though San Francisco lost its bid to become the permanent headquarters city for the United Nations, it achieved fame in another realm.  As any Star Trek fan will remember, San Francisco of the future served as headquarters of the United Federation of Planets.  Approached by starships, the city still could be identified by the distinctive Golden Gate Bridge.



If anyone knows of documentation for Gene Roddenberry’s inspired choice of San Francisco for Starfleet, I would love to know about it!  I know a bit more about why San Francisco was chosen as the city where diplomats gathered in 1945 to draft the United Nations Charter.  Among other factors, the presence of San Francisco’s famed hotels helped the city gain the first opportunity to prove that it could be a Capital of the World.

San Francisco had an abundance of enormous fashionable hotels, a legacy from the great wealth generated in the late nineteenth century by the barons of mining and banking.  The barons filled their bank accounts, built their mansions, and outfitted their families with the finest fashions and furnishings. And then, they and their descendants built grand hotels intended to rival anything in New York City or in Europe. Many are still in business today.

The Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins Hotels are on fashionable Nob Hill, overlooking the rest of the city. During the UN Charter conference (officially the United Nations Conference on International Organization, or UNCIO), Secretary of State Edward Stettinius occupied an opulent penthouse at the stately Fairmont. It had been added to the roof of the hotel in 1927, and the reclusive heiress who normally occupied the three-bedroom suite had it decorated by an expert in Persian art.

The décor in the Secretary of State’s quarters therefore matched the stature of the prime ministers, ambassadors, and other high-ranking delegates who would come and go during the two months of the conference. A two-story, circular, domed library had been painted with the constellations of the night sky on the ceiling. An artist’s map of the world covered one of the bedroom walls. Arabian-inspired tiles and stained glass decorated a game room; blue lapis inlays adorned the fireplaces. Most impressive of all were the views. I learned from diaries in the Stettinius Papers at the University of Virginia that he appreciated his vista of sunrises, sunsets, and mist settling over the city, and the sounds of cathedral chimes and cable-car bells filtering into his temporary home.

I spent a month in San Francisco working on Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations, and I toured some of the city’s grand hotels. My quarters, more humble, represented another slice of life in San Francisco in the early to mid-twentieth century. The place I came to call the Hotel Funky most likely housed clerical workers seeking their fortunes in the city. The fourth-floor walkup studio on a steeply pitched street seemed to be configured so that a Murphy bed could be folded up into the wall. It was … cozy. But it was close to Union Square and within walking distance of the San Francisco Public Library, where the San Francisco History Center yielded more of the story of the search for the Capital of the World.