San Francisco Celebrates Renovations of Two Historic SRO Hotels in Tenderloin for Low-Income Residents

San Francisco Mayor London Breed recently inaugurated the completion of renovations to two Tenderloin SRO Hotels, the Ritz and Ambassador, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The event seemed to be under the approving gaze of Hank Wilson, whose spirit was felt strongly in the lobby.

The Ritz and Ambassador Hotels, historic buildings in the gritty Tenderloin district, provide shelter to around 220 low-income residents. The Ambassador, originally an opera house, was converted into a residential hotel in 1917. However, it was in the 1970s that it truly opened its doors wide when Hank Wilson, a former kindergarten teacher, took over the lease and started providing housing for gay men moving to the city.

Bob Ostertag, a friend of Wilson’s and the maker of a documentary about the Ambassador, said, “Their rule was if you found your way into the lobby of the Ambassador, they were going to figure out a way to get you a room.”

During the AIDS crisis, Wilson and the Ambassador became the only hotel in the city that would accommodate people suffering from HIV and AIDS. Despite ambulances refusing to visit the hotel and fleeting care, a nurse would come by after his shift to provide care to those dying. “Hundreds of people died here, five people died in one day,” recalled Ostertag. “And they would have memorials for them in the lobby, that was a big thing.”

The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, a non-profit organization, purchased the Ambassador in 1999 and has been managing it since then. The recent $16 million renovation included adding a large steel seismic structure and ADA renovations. Adel Hennway, who moved into his small unit last September, was thrilled to have a private home with below-market rent and no roommates.

For over a hundred years, the Ritz and Ambassador have served as sanctuaries for marginalized individuals, a tradition that continues today.

Edmund Campos of TNDC said, “A lot of folks come to the Tenderloin who are on the way up — there are a lot of folks in the Tenderloin who are on the way down. You need spaces like this for folks who have nowhere else to go.”

Ostertag believes that the late Hank Wilson would have been delighted with the renovations and what they mean for the hotel’s residents. However, he also thinks that Wilson, being a shy person, would not have liked the attention his deeds attracted. A new mural depicting Wilson’s face has been painted in the lobby as part of the renovations. For Ostertag, the image is appropriate. “Hank’s smile is still welcoming people to the Ambassador,” he said. “And that’s really a wonderful thing.”


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