Things Classic. Heritage. And What’s New Anyway?

I guess I’ve been out of it. Well, at least out of this country. For three years. Wandering the byways of distant locales in search of some truth I already believed but needed to prove to myself, dodging erudite donkeys while avoiding potholes and pitfalls of solo adventure travel, lots has changed around here – in California – in the USA. And no. I’m not referring to those evolutionary technological metamorphoses like how social network usage has surpassed e-mail or mobile web usage will likely outstrip home usage by next year. No. Evolutionary change happens. It’s not forced, planned nor predictable.

I’ve never been one to go overboard in waxing nostalgic. Though its no secret that I’m fascinated by history and believe that perhaps the best thing to come out of the United Nations is its UNESCO World Heritage Foundation. And that I abhor those developmental homogenizations that gave us planned communities and corner strip malls in the 80’s and 90’s and the big box retail pimples on our landscape in the late 90’s and 00’s. I applaud advancements in transportation, healthcare, technology and education. And while globalization is a double-edged sword, I believe that as humanity we are working toward making the world a better place for those of us here now and those to come in the future. The “green” movement, also evolutionary, continues to gain momentum and has resulted in changes — good for everyone.

But there are some things I believe to be, if not sacred, very important. Some things should stand tall and serve as a reminder of another time – whether good or bad. And such things need not be hundreds or thousands of years old nor warranting a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. You know what I’m talking about. Things like the Redwood Room at the venerable Clift Hotel in San Francisco. The Clift Hotel, was built in 1915 and was the biggest hotel in California. After the end of prohibition, a lounge with massive redwood paneling and bar rumored to have been carved out of one redwood tree was added in 1934. The room designed in classic Art Deco, was the epitome of swanky lounge and along with the hotel ushered and represented what must be considered California’s renaissance. Movies were talking. California impressionist artists were wandering the Sierras and the foothills painting ‘en plein aire’, John Steinbeck was immortalizing California growth, prosperity and challenge, the automobile was changing America and California freeways set the standard for the roads of ‘tomorrow’.

The Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, was a favorite stomping ground of mine in the 90’s and early 2000’s. In that room I felt different, filled with emotions I can’t explain but only could feel. Those dark panels stretching 20-30 feet above me. The classic Art Deco appointments pushed my imagination and the bartenders, the bartenders. They were as old as the hotel. One bartender who’s delivery of one-liners could challenge Henny Youngman, told me that he’d been working there for 39 years. As the other bartender polished a high-ball glass, he revealed, “Yeah. I’m the new guy.” How long I asked, “I’ve only been here nineteen years.”

For me, sliding into the Clift Hotel and off the streets of San Francisco’s tenderloin, just off Union Square took me back to another time where my mind could drift, wander and wonder about who walked here and who these bartenders consoled and poured for over the years.

I admit, it’d been awhile since I ducked into the Redwood Room, but on that brisk January evening earlier this year, I was startled, taken back and disappointed. Purchased in 1999 for $80 million, Ian Schrager and his modernist designer Phillippe Starck supervised a massive renovation that has sucked out its spirit and ruined the Redwood Room. Sure, the tall redwood panels are there, but trendy red lighting obscures its beauty and all but hides the grain. Starck-designed furniture is uncomfortable and out of place. And the dark red lighting hides the beautiful bar. Digital portraits on LCD panels hanging from the redwood feature young 20-somethings in color tinted and continually changing expressions. It’s not modern. It’s trendy and it’s distracting. There is no history. No feeling. Other than cold. The music, instead of lounge – infused jazz is hip-hop, trance and house served at volumes that make conversations difficult and ordering confusing and often misunderstood. Schrager and Starck changed the place from a classic art deco lounge to a “see me, dig me” nightclub. And in the process tossed out one of California’s true historical treasures. And those bartenders? Where did they go? Servers and bartenders look like the portraits on the walls and I found it difficult to find someone over thirty.


Some of the Redwood Room spirit was retained, not the sconces and not seen art deco chandeliers, but the rest is an abomination.


Flat panel screens hung on those classic redwood panels show silly pictures of beautiful people whose expression changes subtly as the images dissolve.


Lounge tables and chairs are low, you must hunch over to talk or interact.

As I would expect in San Francisco, the changes to the Clift didn’t go without some community protesting, fist banging and foot-stomping. But ultimately Schrager won. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy some of his properties. The Mondrian has always been one of my favorite. But when you butcher a classic under the guise of modernization, I think you’ve gone too far. The renovation was completed in 2002, I’ve learned — about the time I started planning my around the world motorcycle journey. It took me six years to get back to San Francisco and see the progress. And it’s enough to make me sick.

Oh. And the other change that perhaps doesn’t poke and prod me as bad as the Redwood Room fiasco? The Wall Street Journal. When did THAT happen. Today I saw a headline on the front page that read “Cash For Clunkers Program, Runs Out of Gas.” Color photographs and a kicker in red ink above the Banner/Masthead pointing to the weekend journal entertainment section — Hollywood? And get this: display advertising on the front page. Gotta pay to play, I guess. But, boy! Things have changed. While I know that newspapers are limping and gasping for air, and soon they’ll all go the way of the Redwood Room — or worse. Just fold. But the WSJ another venerable more than 100 year old institution has also been ruined. Not that I care so much about this, but like Schrager, the new owner felt that the only way to make a profit and continue the enterprise was radical change. The smaller format, inclusion of political stories, color photography and poorly designed graphics makes me feel like I’m reading USA Today. And I don’t mind USA Today. Except I know what I’m getting with USA Today – my expectations are met. But the Wall Street Journal? Something’s rotten here.

So I’ll just flick my fingers over my iPhone, load the AP news, search Yelp for a better bar and play with my koi pond – happy that I’m not using old or unfriendly technology. For modernization, the iPhone is happening.


Photo on front page has nothing to do with the news features on front page. Note the red ink above masthead: Hollywood unleashes….?


I’ve never seen puns in WSJ headlines in past — at least on the front page. And full color display advertising?

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