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San Francisco's Glass Elevators: a Free Soaring Tour of the City

San Francisco is the city of tours. It has helicopter tours, boat tours, bus tours, walking tours and, of course, a fair share of contours. But probably the most exhilarating and least expensive are the city's glass "elevatours."

OK, maybe they're not officially tours, but the city's glass elevators definitely belong on an urban adventurer's itinerary. Much like a self-guided sightseeing tour, glass elevators offer spectacular views of San Francisco scenery and operate 24-hours a day free of charge. Plus your kids will love them!

Unlike most common elevators, where riders only look at the ground, the floor numbers or the ceiling, glass elevators are much more elegant and offer passengers spectacular scenery from a lifted standpoint. Many outdoor carriages provide a panoramic view of the city's landscape and structures, while those indoor offer a bird's-eye view of interior design and architecture.

The 1200-room Westin St. Francis, at Union Square, features five outside Otis glass elevators located vertically along its 32-story Tower Building. From the lobby, passengers enter a small dark room. Push "32" and watch the city emerge and then unfold before you. Catapulting at a speed of 1000 feet per minute, the fastest glass elevator in the city offers a gravity-defying ascent accompanied by a stereoscopic view of downtown, Coit Tower and the bay. The glass-enclosed, exterior elevators move passengers from the lobby to the 32nd floor non-stop in less than 30 ear-popping seconds. The downward plunge, which pulls the stomach as the bottom of the trolley seems to fall beneath your feet, is the closest one can come to being swallowed up by the city.

Located in the tower, designed by William L. Pereira Associates and completed in 1972, the elevator cars are bronzed-tinted with laminated solar glass siding and give an aerial view of Union Square with the bay and eastern horizon as a backdrop. The night lights that line each car can be pin-pointed in the after-dark skyline. Around the corner and a block away from the St. Francis, the Pan Pacific Hotel elevators are a must-ride for interior design enthusiasts.

Designed by John C. Portman, former owner of the hotel and architect behind the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, the Pan Pacific, with its 17-story atrium adorned in polished bass and glistening lights, is a glamorous sight. Portman's signature glass enclosed elevators and the lobby's bronze sculpture of four nudes nimbly dancing around a lighted marble fountain are quite remarkable.

The four brass-and glass-walled elevators, two facing east and two facing west, move fluidly at a speed of 750 feet per minute and offer views of the hotel's elegant interior. During the construction of the hotel's atrium sculpture, titled "Joie de Danse," glass panes from one of the elevators had to be removed to fit the statue and lift it to the third-floor lobby.

The Fairmont Hotel, five blocks up Mason Street from the Pan Pacific, atop prestigious Nob Hill, officially opened in April 1907, but its glass-enclosed elevator designed by architect Mario L. Gaidano was not built until 1961.

A notably cinematic hotel, the Fairmont has appeared in many movies: Hitchcock's "Vertigo," "Kiss Them For Me," starring Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield, "Towering Inferno," starring Charleton Heston, "The Rock," starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, and "Sudden Impact," starring Clint Eastwood, are just a few. On the small screen it was featured on "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous." The most abundant exposure of the hotel and its glass elevator came from the weekly ABC television show, "Hotel." Even though the hotel's insignias were replaced with the show's fictitious "St. Gregory," footage of views clearly distinguish the Fairmont.

The glass elevator is located at the east end of the hotel. For the best view embark on the skylift to the Fairmont Crown, 24-stories above street level. The elevator's view faces Chinatown, which is crammed between Nob Hill and the Financial District. As the elevator ascends, a look to the left shows historic Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Looking right, the South Bay Peninsula provides a sparkling backdrop to the South of Market and downtown areas.

The elevators can be programmed to operate at 500 and 600 feet per minute. Currently running at a smooth 500 feet per minute, the lift offers photographers a perfect venue for capturing aerial shots of the city. The glass trolley also provides a skyscape setting to tie the knot. Capable of carrying a bride and groom along with a six-person wedding party, the elevator reaches its peak just as the ceremony culminates, leaving newlyweds literally on top of the city.

From the Fairmont, take a cable car down California Street to the Embarcadero Center. The center is the home of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, one of five waterfront skyscrapers. The pyramid appeal of the Hyatt, with its inside-out terraced slope facing the north bay, is an awesome display of modern design. The hotel houses five sparkling glass elevators each offering a "moving" display of the Embarcadero Center's atrium lobby with its greenery, running water system, sculpture, shops and open air restaurants. Their destination: 20 stories up to the city's only revolving rooftop restaurant, the Equinox.

Also designed by architect John C. Portman, the Hyatt's atrium contains nearly 15,000 pieces of interior landscape and a 1,400-piece, 40-foot tall anodized aluminum sculpture called "Eclipse" as its center piece. The best view-point, by far, is from the glass-encased elevators.

Much like the Pan Pacific, the glass elevators at the Hyatt are chic moving capsules with polished brass and lighted trim. A direct elevator shoots from the lobby to the Equinox at a speed of 500 feet per minute. The ride is very smooth and gives a windowed glimpse of the bay and an aerial view of the expansive lobby, revealing the true enormity of the hotel.

The Hyatt elevators have hosted some noteworthy events since the hotel's opening in May 1973. In the early '80s a monopoly competition between rival students from California and Stanford universities was held in one of the glass elevators. In the Mel Brooks movie, "High Anxiety," the acrophobic actor-director rides a Hyatt elevator to the top while the lift conductor playfully tries to cultivate a state of vertigo from the panicking passenger. And in 1987, K101 Radio did a live broadcast from one of the elevators.

The Giftcenter Pavilion, The Kabuki Theater, The Cannery and the Francisco Bay Hotel each have glass elevators which offer a less dramatic perspective on city sights, but are enjoyable nonetheless. Although the views are not as extensive as the more prominent glass lifts in the city, they are a worthwhile experience.

South of Market, at Eighth and Brannan streets, The Giftcenter Pavilion's five-story atrium has a glass lift that offers an aerial view of the Art Deco design and retractable glass dome.

The Kabuki Theater, located at the corner of Post and Fillmore streets, houses a three-story glass lift in Japantown. The elevator faces east and offers a glimpse of the downtown area through the building's glass ceiling.

Short but enjoyable, the glass elevator at The Cannery gives an uplifting two-story view of the west end of Fisherman's Wharf.

Near the Marina, at Lombard and Franklin streets, the Francisco Bay Inn has a three-story glass lift which peers over busy Lombard Street and out towards the north bay.

For an enlightening and scenic tour of San Francisco, encounter a city glass "elevatour." Reservations are unnecessary, there are no hassles with crowds, and tickets will not be collected at the door.

MORE on San Francisco here.





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