25 Years Since Loma Prieta: San Francisco Marriott Marquis Shares Unfortunate Date with Disaster

San Francisco’s sleek Marriott Marquis held its grand opening Oct. 17, 1989.

Bad timing.

Before it opened, the glassy tower of luxury had already garnered quite a bit of unusual hype. Columnist Herb Caen disdainfully dubbed it the “juke box” because of its… well... because it looked like a big jukebox rising over Mission and 4th. Caen claimed the glare from its glassy windows blinded him at his desk a block away in the Chronicle building.

The hotel also got plenty of pre-opening press when a wild fox took up a year-long residency at the construction site, dodging his pursuers until a week before the hotel’s ballyhooed opening.

And, about that opening, the infamous date arrived like a 6.9 temblor.

“Opened up first thing in the morning,” engineer Steve Baxter said. “Had a ceremony and then a very quick closing.”

After a morning ribbon-cutting, and a day of the first guests, the hotel shook violently along with the rest of the Bay Area as the Loma Prieta earthquake inflicted its rolling wrath.

Up on the hotel’s brand new 39th floor View Lounge cocktail bar, the shaking was so intense waitresses were busting out of their tight new uniforms.

“It was really crazy,” longtime housekeeper Julia Lopez said. “Everybody was running and trying to hold themselves, and their bustiers popped.”

Baxter said the tower swayed four feet in each direction, giving its new customers an unwelcome thrill.

“So the people in the View Lounge basically got an E-ticket ride on that one,” Baxter said.
Thirty-nine floors down, the kitchen began rippling with the waves of the quake.

“And all of a sudden you feel this rumbling,” executive chef David Hollands said. “I’ll never forget that noise.”

Even after the shaking subsided, Hollands continued to cook because “we’re trained as chefs to just keep cooking through it.” But the evacuation order soon came, and Hollands and the rest of the kitchen crew wound their way into an outside alley, where they were met with a toppling boulder from a nearby building.

“It hit the ground in front of us and exploded,” Hollands said.

The hotel's guests were ushered to an underground tunnel that housed one of the hotel’s grand ballrooms, with staff assuming the role of disaster aid workers.

“There were mattresses from our rollaway beds,” Lopez said. “It was blankets and pillows. Everybody was sleeping there.”

Customers from nearby hotels damaged in the quake also took up shelter in the seismically sound Marriott, which had lost a single window and all its bar glassware, save a lone martini glass.

“We knew there were other people in hotels, buildings around the area that were not safe and they had to come to our building to be safe,” hotel event planner John Babcock said.

Inside the safety of the hotel, word of the damage around the rest of the Bay Area began to filter in, stories of the Marina in flames, a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed.

“And you’re thinking, because you grew up here: 1906,” Hollands said. “The whole city’s going to burn down.”

On Friday, the hotel will mark its 25th anniversary, which is now so entwined with the anniversary of the disaster; it’s hard to separate one from the other.

“Probably a little bit of both,” said Hollands, on which event the anniversary party is most likely to recall. “The two are very symbolic and stay together.”

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