Restored Pied Piper returns to namesake bar

By Carl Nolte

Updated 8:51 am PDT, Friday, August 23, 2013pied-piper at the Pied Piper Bar, Palace Hotel 1909- San Franciso

Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle


A team of installers hang “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” behind the bar at the Palace Hotel after the owners decided against selling it.

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With a Champagne toast and a deep bow to more than a century of tradition, the famous Maxfield Parrish painting “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” returned to San Francisco’s Palace Hotel on Thursday.

The painting, which is 16 feet long, 6 feet tall and weighs more than 250 pounds, was reinstalled over the bar at the hotel’s Pied Piper Bar and Grill, where it had hung for years.

It was a magnificent comeback for the Pied Piper. Only five months ago, the Palace Hotel’s ownership had removed the painting and planned to sell it at auction. They said the Pied Piper was too valuable and too important a cultural image to be displayed in public – particularly in a bar, no matter how fancy.

But the announcement produced a huge public outcry and Honolulu’s Kyo-Ya Hotels and Resorts changed its mind. Instead, the Pied Piper, valued at between $3 million and $5 million, or perhaps more, was cleaned and refurbished and returned to its place of honor.

“People identify that painting with San Francisco,” said Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Heritage, which played a leading role in calling for the Pied Piper’s return. “They have restored a small part of the city’s soul.”

Buhler was looking forward to being in a crowd of invited guests on hand to see the painting unveiled at 5 p.m., the city’s traditional cocktail hour. The painting was brought into the hotel early Thursday morning and carefully remounted over the bar in its namesake room.

The auction plan

The original plan was to offer it for sale at an auction of fine art in New York in May. It was expected to bring a handsome price. Some years ago, a private collector reportedly had offered the Palace $7 million for the Pied Piper, only to be told it was not for sale at any price.

But then the Palace ownership announced it would be auctioned off, and the Kyo-Ya company, the hotel, and the media were deluged with e-mails, letters, phone calls and protests. The protesters included everyone from bar patrons, to historians, to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, and thousands of others.

“The ownership was surprised,” said Palace general manager Christophe Thomas. The company’s original plan, he said, was to change the look and feel of the bar and grill, “but people liked it (the painting) very much, so it was decided to leave it exactly as it was.”

That, in fact, was the preservationists’ point.

“The Pied Piper Bar and Grill without the painting is simply not the same place,” Buhler said. “Now it has been made whole. It really represents the essence of San Francisco.”

The painting, which includes three adult figures and 24 children following a colorfully garbed man playing a flute, is based on a medieval German legend about a mysterious man who first drove the rats out of the town of Hamelin, was treated badly by the city fathers and in revenge lured the town’s children away. The model for the Pied Piper is said to be Parrish himself.

1909 commissioning

The painting was commissioned by the Palace in 1909 for the Men’s Bar at the hotel. It cost $6,000 and was unveiled for the first time with great ceremony in December of that year.

Parrish, one of the most notable painters and illustrators of his time, did two other large paintings for hotels. “Old King Cole,” originally painted by Parrish for the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, now hangs in the St. Regis Hotel there. A third large Parrish painting was commissioned for the Sherman Hotel in Chicago.

The Pied Piper was moved from the Palace bar three times: during the Prohibition years, when it was displayed in the hotel’s Rose Room; from 1989 to 1991, when the Pied Piper was on display at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum while the Palace Hotel was being refurbished; and from March 22, when it was taken down for possible sale, until Thursday.

The painting received a thorough cleaning, removing years of grime from the long years of exposure to the aura of a bar, including a film of airborne tobacco smoke from the days when smoking in bars was fashionable.