SAN FRANCISCO — Movie magnate Jack Valenti described it as the most unusual small hotel he'd ever seen.
For the privileged few who have succumbed to its charms, awakening in Manouchehr Mobedshahi's Sherman House in San Francisco's Pacific Heights is like finding oneself a guest in the Louvre, or some palatial French chateau.
Some insist that Sherman House is the finest small hotel in the world.
Certainly it ranks among the most expensive, what with its 15 guest rooms and suites priced from $175 to $600 a night--a figure that doesn't include even a slug of sherry or the crumb from a croissant.
What one gets for such a hefty tab is the privilege of sharing the residence with the ghosts of such departed celebrities as Enrico Caruso, Lillian Russell, Victor Herbert and Jan Paderewski, to name a few of the notables who have enjoyed its opulence.
Still, never in its storied past has this magnificent old Victorian pile provided the personalized service that guests enjoy today--what with butlers to pack and unpack and chauffeurs who deliver arrivals from the airport in immaculate vintage limousines. (In the case of one's own car, it is washed and polished while the owner snoozes.)
Sherman House provides a host of services that include tailoring and shoe repair, personalized shopping, tours of the wine country and the chartering of airplanes and yachts for a day of sightseeing within the Golden Gate or some chosen destination on the distant horizon.
Still, it is the vintage residence itself that lures wayfarers back time and again. For half a century, beginning in 1876, the mansard-roofed mansion played host to the guests of art patron Leander Sherman. Divas, conductors and noted musicians performed in the three-storied Music Room. Galas drew the elite of San Francisco society.
Later the rambling relic of Green Street became a ballet school, a restaurant and the residence of sculptor Barbara Herbert. After her death in 1977, Sherman House was abandoned. It remained deserted until Iranian-born economist Mobedshahi, 41, discovered it while house hunting in 1980 with his 26-year-old bride, Vesta.
Only instead of choosing it for their residence, the couple resolved that Sherman House would become San Francisco's finest small hotel. Mobedshahi paid $870,000 for the tottering structure and poured $4 million into its renovation.
For nearly a year, more than 60 artisans labored to restore the palace-like mansion and adjoining carriage house. By now it had been declared an historic landmark. While new foundations were poured, the mansion was shored up with steel supports and paint was peeled by hand.
Meanwhile, designer William Gaylord haunted Europe's antique emporiums as well as Sotheby's and Christie's in New York, searching out armoires, chandeliers, mirrors, beds, desks and other objets d'art. Carpets were imported from France, tapestries from Belgium, slate from China and marble was collected from Italy.
By the time the hotel opened in 1984, it was crowded with priceless furnishings. Bedrooms feature four-posters with down comforters and marble fireplaces. Even the bath and the former billiards room contain their own fireplaces.
These are rooms with sweeping views of San Francisco's Golden Gate, Alcatraz and the Bay itself. One suite, chosen by television personality Johnny Carson, opens onto its own private terrace while another faces a garden complete with gazebo and fountain.
Such opulence stirs romantic notions. And so when a young man from Missouri decided to pop the question to his sweetie, he chose Sherman House. Surprising the girl, he had her delivered from the airport to his arms in the mansion's Rolls-Royce. Later during a seven-course meal he proposed. How could the lady refuse when a huge diamond arrived on the dessert tray? Without further ado they were married on the spot with Mobedshahi and his wife acting as witnesses.
"All part of the service," says the smiling hotelier.
Another bridal couple requested that their suite be filled with flowers. Even the bath overflowed with blooms. For three consecutive days the newlyweds ordered $150 meals--and never left the room.
Weddings are conducted regularly in the music room as well as the hotel's handsome gardens. One group took the entire house for three days, with entertainment provided by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. The tab for this little rite totaled something in excess of $30,000.
A while back a noted Broadway producer celebrated his 50th birthday by tossing a two-day bash attended by Caroline Kennedy and a couple dozen other guests. The bill for the rooms alone came to $5,500 a night. Meals and entertainment were extra.
On call 24 hours a day is Swiss chef Paul Grutter, formerly of Michel's in Honolulu. At a dinner prepared recently for 60 guests, the hors d'oeuvres alone cost $100 per person.