Huntington Hotel, Big 4 in SF have new owner of grand legacy

The palatial Huntington Hotel — along with its restaurant The Big 4 — is in the middle of yet another dramatic transition — one that could determine the San Francisco property’s livelihood.

A new buyer is in the final stages of purchasing the Nob Hill property and its $56.2 million delinquent mortgage from Deutsche Bank, as first reported by the San Francisco Business Times. It’s the third change in ownership for the San Francisco icon in just over a decade. The buyer is expected to be announced any day this month. 

Shuttered since 2020, the 135-room hotel and its adjoined restaurant and spa have undergone a tumultuous financial period marred by a loan default and a tax lien against the property. Owner Woodridge Capital Partners, a real estate hedge fund based in Los Angeles, acquired the property in 2018, and Deutsche Bank is the lender on the debt. 

Earlier this year, it came to light that Woodridge was defaulting on its loan, spurring speculation across the local real estate market.

The Huntington Hotel in San Francisco is pictured on Dec. 14. The hotel, which opened in 1924, has been shuttered since early 2020. 

The Huntington Hotel in San Francisco is pictured on Dec. 14. The hotel, which opened in 1924, has been shuttered since early 2020. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Future plans for the property are currently unknown. Some have suggested it could return to its apartment roots — it was first constructed as an apartment complex — since it is zoned for high-density residential use. The hotel is not registered as a historical landmark, but city officials are indicating they consider it as such, which could influence what happens next. 

“We’re fairly confident that if we were to get a proposal to tear it down to, hyperbolically speaking, create a used car lot, there would be a significant concern from a historical perspective,” Planning Department chief of staff Daniel Sider told SFGATE.

There’s also the outstanding question of the hotel and restaurant’s out-of-work employees. Unite Here Local 2, the San Francisco hospitality union that represents the hotel and restaurant’s 115 laid-off workers, is meeting with the new buyer this week. Union spokesperson Ted Waechter told SFGATE that Local 2’s collective bargaining agreement, along with California’s “Right to Recall” law, protects hotel and restaurant workers even while they’re laid off. They reserve the right to be rehired through the end of 2024.

The new owner of the Huntington and The Big 4 isn’t just acquiring a brick building in a Georgian architecture style — they’re accepting a piece of bygone San Francisco that captured hearts and appetites across its 100-year legacy. 

Exterior of The Big 4

Exterior of The Big 4


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Interior of Huntington Hotel

Interior of Huntington Hotel


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Interior of Big 4 inside Huntington Hotel

Interior of Big 4 inside Huntington Hotel


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Interior detail at Huntington Hotel inside Big 4. 

Interior detail at Huntington Hotel inside Big 4. 


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler


Views of The Big 4 Restaurant at the Huntington Hotel. (Courtesy Of Ron Henggeler)

“The Big 4 was our favorite restaurant for a moment in time,” said Fritz Maytag, former owner of Anchor Brewing Company. He and his wife stayed at the Huntington as part of their honeymoon in 1987.

“In those days, I was running Anchor and traveling a lot. It’s hard to get a decent dinner at a restaurant when you land late from the East Coast. … It was our late-night dining joint, and the piano player had a whole list of our favorite songs to play when we arrived.”

Recent conversations with other patrons and past employees revealed a deep, rich history at the hotel and restaurant, one that former frequenters are desperate to recapture in some form.



Old World hotel

Glamour and a dedication to details were baked into the Huntington upon its construction in 1922. Originally the Huntington Apartments, it was heralded as the first steel and brick high-rise on the West Coast. 

A vintage photo shows the Huntington Hotel at the center, rising above the neighboring buildings. 

A vintage photo shows the Huntington Hotel at the center, rising above the neighboring buildings. 

Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Real estate developer Eugene Fritz bought the property in 1924 and converted the apartments into a hotel. The Fritz family maintained ownership for the next 87 years. 

The Huntington took a lavish turn in 1950 when Fritz’s daughter Dolly and her husband, Newton Cope, renovated the hotel and adorned its walls and rooms with antiques. Designer Anthony Hail decorated rooms with unique furniture from the lost eras of San Francisco. 

“It was that Old World feeling, that pre-war feeling where things were elegant and you dressed nicely when you went downtown,” said Dolly’s daughter Isabelle Fritz-Cope Higson, who worked at the hotel in room service before managing the restaurant. 

The Big 4 restaurant and dimly lit piano bar opened in 1976 and continued a tradition of yesteryear elegance. Its name alluded to the railroad industry’s tycoons: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins Jr., Charles Crocker and the hotel’s namesake, Collis Potter Huntington. The restaurant celebrated a golden era of opulence. The booths and chairs featured enchanting emerald green upholstery. A portrait of actor Walter Pidgeon was a centerpiece among salon walls featuring antiquated advertisements for liquor and snapshots of old San Francisco. A bust of Huntington was by the bar.

The Huntington Hotel's restaurant, The Big 4, opened in 1976 and celebrated a golden era of opulence.

The Huntington Hotel’s restaurant, The Big 4, opened in 1976 and celebrated a golden era of opulence.

Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

No one honored the rich culture of the property better than its head waiter and in-house historian Ron Henggeler. His personal website is a treasure trove of historical and local intrigue. Henggeler worked the breakfast and lunch shifts for a couple of years after starting in 1984 and then returned in 1999 until its final days. “If you were a Bogart and Hepburn, the only place you stayed was the Huntington,” Henggeler said. “It felt like staying at someone’s home.”

Movie stars and even European royalty were no strangers in the hotel lobby during its midcentury era. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon stayed at the Huntington during their visit to San Francisco in 1964, and the hotel was where the Rolling Stones decamped after their doomed Altamont rock festival in Livermore in 1969.

Once, Katharine Hepburn, smitten by Henggeler’s service, invited him for a ride down Highway 101 to Los Angeles … but the waiter said he couldn’t get his shift covered. 

Princess Margaret arrives at the Huntington Hotel, November 4, 1965

Princess Margaret arrives at the Huntington Hotel, November 4, 1965


San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag

Photo of Gavin Newsom and Jennifer Lynn Siebel Newsom

Photo of Gavin Newsom and Jennifer Lynn Siebel Newsom


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Princess Margaret visits the Huntington Hotel in 1964, left, and Ron Henggeler poses with the Newsoms at The Big 4. (The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty/Courtesy of Ron Henggeler)

Mixed with the celebrities at The Big 4 were regular San Franciscans who had a venue to rub elbows with Nob Hill socialites. “You got the feeling that you were in a private club. It felt like you were a part of high society and that robber baron culture,” said Mark Ritchie, a longtime regular and a commercial real estate broker who lived nearby. “The Big 4 had the perfect balance: You could walk in from the street into a piano bar. It was pitch-black in there; I used to say it was always midnight at The Big 4.”

During the holidays, the Huntington stood shoulder to shoulder with Nob Hill’s other mainstay hotels, like the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins, and played a vital role in enhancing the neighborhood’s flair.

United hospitality

The timelessness of the hotel and restaurant was mirrored by consistency in the staff. 

Management would come and go (Henggeler reckons he went through 16 restaurant managers, five executive chefs and four general managers), but the staff remained recognizable, in part because they were members of the local hospitality union. Henggeler said the union and management were often at odds over pay and health care benefits, adding that he received upward of $2,000 a month just for health care. 

A vintage photo shows the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco.

A vintage photo shows the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco.

Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

But Local 2’s Waechter discredited any accusations that unions are to blame for business troubles and noted that the terms of employment at the Huntington are equal to the terms at other major Nob Hill hotels actively in business, such as the Mark Hopkins, Stanford Court and the Fairmont.

Ritchie said it’s an uphill battle for any hotel to stay financially solvent and nearly impossible to have a successful business model. “Hotels are like a tuning fork — they have to be absolutely perfect to make money,” he said. “The Huntington was a romance hotel. There was no meeting space, and the only way for a hotel to make money is through conferences.”

He noted that The Big 4 was one of the first restaurants he saw serving a $30 burger in San Francisco. But the cost came with clear benefits. 

“That’s why you had service like Ron [Henggeler],” Ritchie said. “He was very protected and well taken care of.”

Some of the union workers have retired since the restaurant’s closure in 2020, but others are waiting to see what develops with the new buyer. Georgette Steudlein worked as a server at The Big 4 for seven years and is now at Original Joe’s in North Beach.

The Huntington Hotel is located atop Nob Hill at the intersection of California and Taylor streets.

The Huntington Hotel is located atop Nob Hill at the intersection of California and Taylor streets.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

“In our mind, we’re all still employed by them,” she said. “We have not resigned or haven’t been paid out on our vacation money. We’re hoping we’ll get our jobs back. Now that somebody has taken the mortgage over, we’re all wondering what’s going to happen.”

End of era

The property’s first transition of ownership in the modern era was triggered by Cope’s death in 2005. His stepdaughter Higson saw firsthand the effort to swiftly sell.

Higson said she and her siblings did not have a controlling stake in the property, but Cope’s biological children did. When they inherited the Huntington, it was promptly put on the market. 

The Huntington and The Big 4 were sold in 2011 to Singapore-based luxury hotelier Grace International for a reported $42 million. The hotel closed in January 2014 for a $15 million renovation and reopened later that spring as the Scarlet Huntington. 

The redesign left many employees and regulars cringing. 

“It was a tragedy when the Singapore group took it over,” Higson said. “They got rid of everything. They turned it into Pee-wee Herman’s playhouse meets bordello.”

Interior of Huntington Hotel

Interior of Huntington Hotel


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Interior of Huntington Hotel

Interior of Huntington Hotel


Courtesy of Ron Henggeler


The Huntington Hotel lobby before and after Grace International purchased the property. (Courtesy of Ron Henggeler)

Henggeler joked that he referred to the new owners as “dis-Graceful International’’ and noticed an immediate shift in quality at The Big 4. “They started dumbing it down,” he said. “They spent less money on ingredients, and the grade of the meat went down. There was no stock in silverware and plateware. It was a nightmare.”

Inside the hotel, the antiques were discarded and replaced with bright colors and lacquered furniture. The change in ownership also seemed to align with a shift in the industry as a whole. Henggeler began noticing a change in attire among the clientele and a disregard for the restaurant. “We started seeing people wearing flip-flops or ordering pizza from outside the hotel,” he said. “It changed the nature of staying at the Huntington.”

Eventually, in 2018, Grace International sold the property for $51.9 million. The new buyer, Woodridge Capital, was already well positioned in Nob Hill accommodation. The LA investors previously owned and sold the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins and currently own Stanford Court.

Woodridge Capital CEO Michael Rosenfeld was enthusiastic about acquiring the Huntington. “I’ve had a love affair with Nob Hill since I was a very young man,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. “It’s just such a privilege to be involved with these landmark properties that represent a significant chapter of San Francisco’s history.” (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another.)

The Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill opened in 1924, but it has been shuttered since early 2020. 

The Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill opened in 1924, but it has been shuttered since early 2020. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Rosenfeld dined at The Big 4 soon after the purchase, and Henggeler recalls meeting the new boss and walking away feeling hopeful for the future. “I sat at Michael’s table and gave the history. They were totally entranced and interested. When they finally came up with a plan to remodel and renovate, it was all going to be about history. The theme was ‘Huntington bella,’” he said. “Woodridge had full intention of spending millions to turn back the golden years. And then the pandemic hit, and everything fell apart.”

“Perfect the way it was”

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Huntington and The Big 4 have essentially slowed to a dramatic stop. The vivacious green ivy that once garnished the building’s brick facade has become brown detritus. Glass from a car break-in is strewn on the sidewalk near where the valet once thrived. Curiously, on a recent weekday morning, numerous lights were lit up in the windows, but the lobby and restaurant were deserted. 

The hotel’s management has also been in disarray. In September, the Mercury News reported that the hotel owners were defaulting on their mortgage. Documents filed in August with the San Francisco County recorder’s office indicated that the default totaled $56.2 million. Deutsche Bank was seeking to foreclose.

The Huntington Hotel in San Francisco is seeking restoration with news of a new owner.

The Huntington Hotel in San Francisco is seeking restoration with news of a new owner.

Courtesy of Ron Henggeler

Moreover, the city’s tax collector slapped a lien on the property in September and demanded an $806 registration and lien release fee. 

The new owners are assuming all of these costs and more. Ritchie hopes a buyer like Waldorf Astoria could come in and restore the hotel to its glamour. “There needs to be a bottomless pocket who sees the romance of San Francisco,” he said.

Higson is hopeful that the Huntington can return to its Old World charm, where characters played by Cary Grant or Grace Kelly could stroll in at any moment. She still has excess rolls of the parliament green Naugahyde fabric that defined The Big 4’s decor and is saving it because it’s impossible to replace.  

“I stored it with our upholstery guy. I told him, just hold onto it, they’ll never be able to find it. I called the Singapore people and the new people multiple times, but nope, nobody cared,” she said. “You can’t recreate that. It was perfect the way it was.”

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