The Spark of an Idea
Plans for a fancy hotel began in 1886 when Robert Watt, a manager of the Swiss-American Bank, decided to sell his choice 21-acre property in Magnolia Valley near the current Dominican neighborhood. Fellow businessmen William Coleman, James Wilkins and James M. Donohue learned of the offer, which sparked their ideas for a luxury resort hotel.
James M. Donohue was son of millionaire Peter Donohue, founder of the Union Iron Works and owner of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad. Peter Donohue had just completed his rail line from Santa Rosa to Tiburon via San Rafael. As the train linked to the Tiburon-San Francisco ferry, easy transport to the hotel promised huge profits.
The men presented their plans at a meeting of San Rafael businessmen and offered subscriptions to the hotel project. Other investors joined, including A. W. Foster, former head of Northwestern Pacific Railroad, and Baron von Schroeder, a German aristocrat and husband of Peter Donohue’s daughter, Mamie. San Rafael residents, particularly the business crowd, thrilled at the prospect of a fine hotel in their town.
Nothing But the Best
The founders aimed to make the Hotel Rafael the very best in the nation and spared no expense to add the most luxurious and modern features. The site stood at Irwin Street west of Grand Avenue and was bounded by today’s Belle and Watt Avenues. The San Francisco architectural firm Curlett & Cuthbertson designed a massive structure laced with gingerbread fringe.
The enormous 100-room five-story hotel sat regally framed by expansive grounds and gardens replete with a labyrinth and an abundance of rare plants. Facilities included a stable, tennis courts, bowling alleys, card and billiard rooms, a photography darkroom, a playground and donkey carts for the children. A 135-foot tall observatory provided 360-degree views of Marin’s countryside, Mt. Tamalpais, and the Bay.
The hotel opened to the public in June 1888 with great fanfare. Composer Robert Uhlig had composed a musical piece,"The Hotel Rafael March," especially for the hotel’s grand opening. Advertised as 50 minutes by ferry and train from San Francisco in “the Switzerland of America,” the hotel gained immediate success.
Fine hotels in those days served as summer resorts, not just convenient short-term lodging. Many guests stayed for three months and returned each summer. Others were permanent residents. Guests enjoyed fine dining, dancing and the use of two-horse traps for jaunts throughout Marin. Room rates ranged from $1.50 per day to $15 for suites with weekly and monthly rates available.
World-Renowned Tennis Players
The hotel’s tennis courts gained an international reputation, and many of the world’s top players played there. Wilhelmina Gilbert, born in 1887, speaks of watching the tennis matches at the Hotel Rafael as a girl: “I used to walk out and sit there and watch May Sutton and Violet Sutton and the Sutton girls play tennis. And they were the first tennis players, women, who played like men.”
Martha Foster Abbot, daughter of Arthur W. Foster, recalls that “the Hotel Rafael [was] a beautiful building with wide verandas, graced with high-backed rocking chairs. I remember a gathering of riders on their beautiful mounts, mingling with a large group that had come to see them all. The hotel had a thick cypress maze and two paved tennis courts with shaded grandstands; tournaments were held there. And inside the impressive gates, the road led to the hotel proper, half-way up a grotto, always a mysterious and spooky place to us.”
The Baron Von Schroeder Takes Over
After two years, the hotel’s profits were increasing along with a reputation as one of the best hotels in the West. When James Merwyn Donohue died unexpectedly in 1890, Baron von Schroeder purchased all the stock in the Hotel Rafael. He expanded the hotel to 200 rooms and made other improvements.
On his San Francisco arrival in 1871, Baron von Schroeder had charmed members of the city’s wealthy social circles. A society column in the SF Call commented “During his residence in San Francisco, the Baron von Schroeder, of Hamburg, Germany, who married a daughter of Peter J. Donahue, of this city, has won many friends in the social world by his dignified bearing and unostentatious manners.”
The Baron Misbehaves
Either the Baron was an excellent actor or he underwent a radical change of character because, in the ensuing years, the Baron began acting out with women and drink in ways that were shocking for his era. His nightly escapades with his brother Alex and wild parties at the Hotel Rafael caused the SF Call to call him "a sensuous satyr, a bawdy brute and a danger to society" in an article that called attention to the Baron’s wayward ways.
The Lawsuit for Libel
Von Schroeder then sued John D. Spreckels, owner of the SF Call, for libel and for $250,000 in damages. The case attracted enormous media attention, including the West Australian Sunday Times in Perth, and resulted in front page headlines in the SF Call: “Baron Von Schroeder Made the Hotel a Dominion of Immorality.” Witnesses recalled in detail the night that the Baron lured a just-married woman to Pastori’s in Fairfax for drinking, dancing and debauchery.
The trial was held in December 1900 in the San Rafael courthouse on Fourth Street with Judge F. M. Michael Angellotti presiding. The acclaimed defense attorney Delphin Michael Delmas defended Spreckels. The suit ended with a verdict in favor of Spreckels, and Von Schroeder lost his appeal to the California Supreme Court.
The Hotel Declines
Von Schroeder’s dalliances undoubtedly tarnished the Hotel Rafael’s reputation. At the turn of the century, the Hotel Rafael’s popularity began a decline. The automobile also took away guests as families began to tour the countryside rather than stay put all summer in one resort. Still in November 1907 Sunset Magazine featured the Hotel Rafael as “an attractive home resort in the suburbs of San Francisco.” It has a “clubhouse and café, golf links, tennis court, croquet, children’s playgrounds, shaded walks, wide verandas, the winding driveways, the boats and baths of the bay…all out of doors.”
The Baron tried to sell the hotel but found no takers. Despite its cost to him of over $700,000, he offered the hotel to the city of San Rafael for $190,000.The city formed a committee to consider this offer but eventually turned down it down.
World War I and the Spanish Flu
In 1909, after inheriting his father’s estate and title in Germany, the Baron closed the hotel. He was called back to Germany in August 1914 to fight in WWI. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the hotel became alien property. After the Armistice, it served as a hospital for those afflicted with the deadly Spanish flu that spread worldwide in 1918 and killed more people than had died in the war.
Foreclosure and Reopening
The University of California Regents had lent funds to the Von Schroeder Investment Company, and when the mortgage loan was not paid, the Regents bought the Hotel Rafael at a foreclosure sale in 1919 for about $75,000. Both San Rafael and the U.C. Regents were eager to find a buyer to re-open the site. W.C. Jurgens, a hotelier from Oakland, was interested and able to take over the hotel and get it running again. The Marin Board of Supervisors gave Jurgens $2,000 to help advertise that the hotel was back in business.
The Marin Journal of July 1, 1920 predicted success for the new Hotel Rafael, “It is a foregone conclusion that with its reopening the days of its former glory will be repeated. San Rafael will again become the mecca for society’s favorites who are looking for a pleasant ground which offers the best climate in the world, scenery that cannot be surpassed and automobile highways which radiate in all directions to beach and mountain and valley.”
Under Jurgens’ management, the Hotel Rafael flourished into the mid-20s. Many local organizations once again held functions there, and teens celebrated their proms on the spacious grounds. The hotel likely saw its share of illegal liquor during the Roaring Twenties, but no John Spreckels called attention to it.
Disgruntled Employee Burns Hotel
On July 29, 1928, the hotel caught fire and burned down in three hours, despite the best efforts of firefighters. The staff rushed to evacuate the 150 guests, and no one died or was injured. Among the losses listed in the Marin Journal were Mrs. Barbara Blumenthal’s jewelry, Mrs. H. Rosenwasser‘s $2,000 fur coat and many jewels and furs belonging to the Bank of Italy Club members whose California convention was in session at the hotel. At first the fire was thought to have started from faulty wiring, but later an angry employee confessed to arson.
The vast property stood fallow for over 10 years until 1939 when developers bought it for $40,000 and subdivided it into residential lots. Today two entrance pillars to the stately grounds remain at the corner of Rafael Drive and Belle Avenue.
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