I’ve never been particularly interested in construction sites but I’ve been fascinated by the de-construction occurring on Van Ness between Post and Geary. It’s not the first time I’ve had the chance to witness building construction during my daily commute. The former Galaxy Theater a block up the street (and the site of me getting busted for sneaking into Purple Rain) was turned into condos over the course of a couple of years. But that was just one building. The demolition of the Cathedral Hill Hotel, a building that took up an entire city block, is a much more massive undertaking.
The structure came into being as the Jack Tar Hotel in 1960. At the time, the luxury hotel was the height of modernity but many San Franciscans criticized the architecture style as an ugly wart on the historic skin of San Francisco. In 1982, it was re-named the Cathedral Hill Hotel and later that year suffered a devastating and deadly fire. I remember his fire and probably heard the engines racing to the scene from my grandparent’s home less than a mile away. In a city where structures are built only inches apart, its prudent to develop a heightened awareness of local fire activity. The hotel was rebuilt after the fire and it existed for many more years, though far in its original swanky standards. It finally closed in 2009 and stood vacant except for when Occupy SF protestors moved in briefly in 2012.
My only experience with the hotel is memorable for its oddity. After I graduated from college, I’d moved back to San Francisco and lived at grandparent’s house, figuring out what to do with my life. That involved getting a part-time retail job that allowed me to work at volunteer/internship situations as I flailed around looking for career direction. My friend K. learned about an occasional gig offered through the city—proctoring for Fire Department exams. There were hardly any requirements and it paid well. My first proctor experience involved 8 hours of walking the aisles of a freezing auditorium while a few hundred people took the entry level exam. Our presence was supposed to deter any blatant cheating—and I can’t recall hearing of anyone getting busted.
My second proctoring experience had more of a well, personal touch. This time the exam was for people wanting to advance to lieutenant or another advanced rank so there were not as many participants. The proctors and those taking the test congregated in a meeting room at the Cathedral Hill Hotel. Proctors were then matched up with one of the candidates and given a room assignment. We’d take the elevator up to the room together and then wsit there for the two or three hours they were allotted to finish the exam. There was definitely some awkward joking during the elevator rides with firemen twice my age. (There may have been some women taking the test but I know I was only paired up with men.) I also don’t think that we were allowed to have any reading material while they took the test. While it was less physically grueling than walking around on cold concrete for 8 hours, the morning and afternoon sessions made for a very long day. But at least it paid well.
Once I got a 40 hour a week job, I took myself off the exam proctor call list so I’ll never know if the Fire Department used the Cathedral Hill Hotel regularly for these tests or if this was a one-off experience. Maybe it’s a clause in the city charter that they are allowed to hold promotional exams in any building where there’s been a catastrophic fire. But I doubt that the new California Pacific Medical hospital being built on the site will be open to such arrangements.