At the turn of the twentieth century, the Peninsula Hotel -- located in what is now the Glazenwood residential neighborhood -- stood as the grandest hotel in San Mateo. But on June 25, 1920, the fabulous 22-room Victorian-style inn, the former mansion of wealthy mine owner Alvinza Hayward, burst into flames.
For the first time since 1908, San Mateo had no first class hotel. However, four years later, plans commenced to change that situation.
On June 28, 1927, the city saw the opening of its most famous hotel and most prominent landmark, the Benjamin Franklin. Since then, its legacy and success have left the Peninsula Hotel as just a distant memory.
The hotel does not bear the name of the famous stateman from Philadelphia, but rather a amalgamation of its original owners, A.C. Franklin and Benjamin Getz. Erected on property purchased from the estate of early San Mateo pioneers Mary Katherine Parrot and Christian de Guine, the Benjamin Franklin's design is the creation of prolific local architect William H. Weeks.
Opening his practice in 1890, Weeks designed public school and office buildings throughout the rural central California area, including Burlingame High School, the Burlingame Bank Building, Santa Cruz High School, and Vallejo High School. Weeks' practice blossomed during the early twentieth century, compelling him to open offices in both San Jose and Oakland. Weeks died in 1936.
The Benjamin Franklin was built at the 1926 cost of $250,000 -- the current low-end price of a modest two-bedroom house in San Mateo. Its owners intended the hotel as a Peninsula country resort, billing it as a sunny retreat from the cold San Francisco fog bank along the finest motor road (County Road, now known as El Camino Real) on the Peninsula.
Enjoying a window in any one of ninety-nine rooms, guests could gaze out at the manicured lawns and lush gardens, which surrounded the hotel in the days before downtown subdivisions and development.
The hotel also provided a swimming pool (still located against the southwest end of the building), a spacious lobby, and elegant dining facilities. Benjamin Franklin lodgers also savored the amenities of the regionally famous Noah's Cafe, located down the street at the corner of Third and A Streets, where Collin's Pharmacy now stands on San Mateo Drive.
With the exception of the lobby -- which has undergone several alterations over the years -- the building's exterior remains virtually intact from its 1927 opening. The hotel stands more than ninety feet tall at the flag pole, nine stories high.
Builder Anton Johnson infused into the design window ornamentation reminiscent of the Churrigueresque style, from the late seventeenth century Spanish Baroque period. This exuberant decoration -- featuring elaborate, ornamental lintels -- is particularly noticeable around the second, eighth, and ninth floor windows. These intricate, stucco sculptures contrast starkly against an otherwise rather plain, flat facade.
Two central bays are featured above the top story, which is set back from the main block formation of the lower eight floors. The ninth block is dominated by three heavily ornamented bay windows which resemble loggia, crowned by small triangular pediments which project on top of the building.
A molded string belt course runs across the top of the block's second-story windows, defining the base of the building.
As the premier hotel in San Mateo, the Benjamin Franklin has hosted its share of celebrities, including Ginger Rogers; the classic comedic duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; 1920's California Governor friend W. Richardson; as well as virtually any celebrity or politician with any reason to visit San Mateo during the thirties and forties.
However, one of the stranger visits to the hotel came from one of the city's most prominent citizens -- Horace Amphlett, the editor/publisher of San Mateo Times from 1918 to 1933. Throughout his career, Amphlett had been a community instigator, leading the campaign for the construction of the Hayward/San Mateo Bridge.
But as one of the original directors of Bayshore Kennel Club, a Belmont dog racing track, Amphlett's affiliations apparently dipped into the murky the world of gambling. He became a confidante of underworld kingpin Emilio Georgetti, and a political supporter of James McGrath, reputed to be one of the most corrupt politicians in San Mateo County history.
By 1933, an embattled Amphlett became alarmed that underworld figures were preparing to kill him. According to San Mateo County Chronicles, he left his San Mateo apartment, bought a gun, and moved into the top floor of the Benjamin Franklin.
Amphlett nestled up in the Benjamin Franklin for most of the remainder of the year, until his body was found under mysterious circumstances on November 29, 1933 at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.
Over the years the Benjamin Franklin has fallen under the direction of several owners. The Max Best family took over in 1955, until it was sold to the Westin Hotel franchise in 1985. The Empire Group bought the hotel in 1989, continuing its operation until the present.
Today, the Benjmain Franklin caters primarily to employees of United Airlines, a policy which began in 1946.<