Rob Holsen likes to tell people he launders money. But take a look at his business card, which is a bit more descriptive: Rob Holsen, Coin Washer. Holsen literally washes coins. It’s part of his job at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel. The hotel has provided the service since the late 1930s, when the hotel’s Mural Room restaurant (now the lobby) attracted the rich and famous.
San Francisco’s wealthiest ladies would come to lunch at the Mural Room every Monday. Mondays are when the laundresses would come to their homes, Holsen says, and the ladies “didn’t want any part of that.”
The lunches were big social affairs, attracting the richest and best-dressed ladies in town. The Mural Room would serve food and host a fashion show, while the ladies gossiped and socialized.
But there was a little problem.
“The general manager noticed that the coins - which in those days would buy your lunch - were dirtying the ladies’ white gloves,” Holsen says, “So he said, ‘We can’t have that. Let’s wash the money.’”
Rob Holsen feeds the hose into the coin washing machine to rinse off the clean coins.
Today, though the Mural Room is gone, ladies no longer wear white gloves and a handful of change won’t buy your lunch anymore, the tradition continues. The hotel still washes every single coin that passes through the hotel.
‘The creature from the black lagoon’
The coin washing machine itself is an old silver burnishing machine sitting in a small room behind the registration desk, down a hallway and up a flight of stairs. It uses soap, water and buckshot - yes, shotgun ammunition - which helps scour the coins.
Holsen puts a batch in first thing in the morning, and the machine churns for seven hours.
When Holsen comes back at the end of his day to finish the process, the coins are buried deep in murky gray water: “The creature from the black lagoon,” he calls it.
First he runs a hose into the machine to flush out the dirty water and rinse the coins. Then he uses an old ice scoop to transfer the coins and buckshot to a tray with holes. He shakes the tray and the buckshot falls through, leaving the shiny coins on top.
“Just feel that,” he says, beaming at the warm, smooth quarters. “It feels different than any other coin you’ve ever felt.”
Next the coins go on clean white towels laid out on a desk. Several desk lamps bend down, shining their light on the coins to dry them. Holsen puts the coins into the counting machine, which feeds them into paper wrappers like you get at the bank. Then those tubes of coins get distributed back to the hotel’s businesses and eventually find their way into guests’ hands.
A St. Francis trademark
But do the guests really notice?
“Oh yeah, I hear it all the time,” he says. “It was a good way to take people’s minds off whatever by saying, ‘Here’s some of our clean, washed money.’”
Merchants around town also notice. One story Holsen likes to tell is about taxi drivers. It begins with guests on their way from dinner to the theater.
When they pay the driver, the story goes, the driver says, “How are you enjoying your stay at the St. Francis?”
And the person thinks to himself, “He didn’t pick us up at the St. Francis…we’re not going to the St. Francis…how does he know we’re staying there?”
So he asks the driver.
And the driver says, “It’s because of your clean money, of course!”
A repurposed silver burnishing machine washes the coins.
Now that a handful of change won’t even come close to paying a taxi fare in this city, why does the Westin St. Francis still bother?
“It lets us project our tradition of the past,” Holsen says. “We provide the service to let everybody know that in these hustle-bustle times we can look back and remember a less frenetic time in our lives.”
Besides, Holsen says, the clean coins are the hotel’s trademark. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, when Holsen used to work as a cashier at the front desk, supervisors would monitor the change that got handed out.
“If you gave the guest a coin that wasn’t clean, you were reprimanded,” he says. “You had to separate it, turn it into the general cashier, and get it reissued as clean money.”
Carrying on tradition
Coin washing isn’t Holsen’s only job, though. He’s also the hotel’s business center supervisor and notary public. Coin washing takes about 40 minutes of his day, once or twice a week, he says.
He has been the coin washer for 27 years, after the hotel’s beloved Arnold Batliner retired in the late 1980s. Once Batliner retired (the mayor declared a day ‘Arnold Batliner Day’ in his honor), the tradition stopped for several months.
People began to notice.
“So they posted the job, just like a normal, regular, everyday job,” Holsen says. “I went to Human Resources and said, ‘I want to be Arnold.’”
And so the tradition continues.
“Nobody else ever did it,” Holsen says. “No one else had the white gloves - the ladies in the white gloves having lunch in the Mural Room.”