Meet Tessie and Birdie: The Women Who Created the Fairmont

The Fairmont Hotel, c. 1907

Senator James Graham Fair was one of California’s richest men in the 19th century, and upon his death in 1894 left his fortune to his two daughters and one son.

The son was a troubled alcoholic who married a San Francisco prostitute, then died a few years later while racing his Mercedes through France. He made headlines, but left no lasting impression. His sisters are another story. They built the Fairmont!

As well-married heiresses, Theresa and Virginia were two of the most prominent women in American upper-class society when construction began on the Fairmont Hotel in 1902, which the sisters named in honor of their late father (who happened to have owned the land on which it was built).

Theresa Alice Fair Oelrichs built Rosecliff from 1899 to 1902,
followed by the Fairmont from 1902 to 1906.

Theresa, then 47 and known as “Tessie”, was no stranger to magnificent architecture — she and her husband had just built Rosecliff, a Stanford White mansion on Newport, Rhode Island, that was modeled after the Grand Trianon of Versailles (its ballroom was used in the 1974 film of “The Great Gatsby.”)

Younger sister Virginia, only 27 when construction on the Fairmont began, was a striking and apparently “spunky” young woman who married a Vanderbilt, and lived in a New York mansion also built by Stanford White. She was nicknamed “Birdie,” presumably for her narrow waist.

 

Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, by Giovanni Boldini

It is Virginia Fair Vanderbilt who is depicted in the beautiful 1905 portrait by Giovanni Boldini that is now kept by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, given to the museum in 1967 by her daughter, Muriel Vanderbilt.

Tessie and Birdie commissioned architects James and Merritt Reid to build the hotel, but as the years passed the project became a burden for the sisters, and in 1906 they sold the building before it was completed — two weeks before the great earthquake and fire of ’06 would destroy much of it!

The Fairmont in 1906

It was finally finished a year later, following repairs overseen by the great Julia Morgan, and soon after, Theresa bought it back and retained ownership until 1924.

And so it is that one of San Francisco’s greatest landmarks, the jewel of Nob Hill, and for many the symbol of San Francisco at its swankiest, was brought to us by two formidable women. Thank you Tessie and Birdie!