Rafael was Marin’s first luxury hotel, yet it had a rough life. After costing a then-whopping $200,000 to build, it opened in 1888 with 101 rooms, several banquet halls and a tennis court bordered by grandstands. But according to Barry Spitz, author of Marin, A History, the good times lasted only until 1909. That’s when the hotel’s owner, one Baron von Schroeder, closed the hotel and moved back to Germany.
Following the outbreak of World War I, the hotel was declared “alien property.” In 1915 the Rafael was refurbished and reopened — yet lasted only three years before being foreclosed on. Then, further diminishing its status, the county used the once-magnificent lodgings as an emergency hospital during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Next, in 1921, in a final flicker of life, an entrepreneur electrified Hotel Rafael’s lighting and added an Otis elevator along with 40 private bathrooms. But within seven years the ultimate disaster struck.
According to Spitz, a fire started when Willie Fisher, an arsonist, poured kerosene on Hotel Rafael’s top floor, then lit a match. At the time, 134 guests were registered at the hotel, but none were seriously hurt. Still, the massive structure burned to the ground within two hours. In 1939 the property’s 43 acres were sold to a developer for $40,000 and the land became a 79-lot subdivision known as Rafael Gardens. Currently, two concrete towers stand at the corner of Belle Avenue and Rafael Drive in San Rafael — formerly the grand entrance to the Hotel Rafael.