By Norma Jane Pearson
Present-day San Diegans walking along F Street between Sixth and Seventh are quite unaware that this was the site of San Diego’s first sky-scraper … the St. James Hotel. Here fortunes were made and lost, large business deals were planned and executed, and small swindles plotted and consummated.
The historic St. James Hotel was built in 1885 by Dr. P. C. Remondino, a native of Italy and one of San Diego’s first and most prominent surgeons. He had served brilliantly with the Union Army during the Civil War, and his first visit to San Diego impressed him so favorably that he made his home here. Dr. Remondino wrote innumerable pamphlets dealing with medicine and surgery, and spent 45 years working on an impressive “History of Medicine.” He was active in both the civic and the cultural life of San Diego, and like most men of his era, promptly engaged in the sale and buying of real estate.
The Horton House was San Diego’s best hotel, but 15 years’ wear and tear were beginning to show. The doctor reasoned that San Diego needed a truly impressive hotel. And the completed St. James was certainly impressive. Brick veneer faced the two lower stories. The three pine-sheathed upper stories were covered with round tin plates that glittered like thousands of mirrors. Topped off with a mansard roof and plenty of gingerbread, the lofty St. James towered over everything in the city.
When distinguished visitors arrived in San Diego it was customary to take them on a tour of inspection … a tour that always ended with the breath-taking view of the magnificent St. James. The story is told that when United States Senator George Hearst was given the v.i.p. tour he remained silent. Finally the entourage stopped to enable the Senator to gaze at the glittering hotel. The Senator looked carefully, then asked: “Magnificent! And where is your tin mine located?”
The barroom had a generous frontage on F Street. It was here that a murmuring throng stirred endlessly while the talk of land — and the exchange therof — continued. The 150 rooms were filled constantly. It was an honor to be seated at the “first” dining table; to have a room at all was a mark of distinction.
Newcomers to San Diego were immediately, impressed by the opulent structure. Any city that could maintain such luxury was surely a good place in which to invest money. And the land boom continued. In 1887 the hotel facilities were so overtaxed that Dr. Remondino added an annex at Seventh and F Streets.
An early city directory carried this description of the St. James: “This elegant structure is one of the largest, best arranged, and most substantial buildings in the city, and, among those who are posted, the most popular in its accommodation and management. In point of location the house has an immeasurable advantage over any and every other hotel in the city. In the very business heart of the city where the streets in the darkest night are made as noonday by the brilliant flashing of the electric lights, and in the dryest time kept free from dust by frequent and copious sprinklings, anyone who would find fault with the food and accommodations and furnishings would distinguish himself as not being used to good things at home. He who would criticize the bill of fare would be either a dyspeptic or fanatical epicure.”
Apparently not many found fault. Joaquin Miller, Governor Waterman, and Governor Ryerson of Lower California made the hotel their headquarters when in San Diego. The glamorous and popular Lily Langtry favored the St. James.
Much of the local color of the hotel centered around the manager, Captain J. A. Gordon, a small Englishman with a bristling moustache. Dapper in dress and fiery in temper, the Captain rode a spirited stallion each afternoon for his “constitutional.” It was a familiar sight to see the impeccably dressed Captain flying along the dirt streets of the downtown area — his moustache waving in the wind.
Prosperity was everywhere. It was at the St. James that business tycoons met and formed the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern Railroad Company. It was from the St. James that prominent citizens went forth to break ground at Sixteenth and N Streets for the new railroad — with the proverbial ceremonies and speech-making.
And then suddenly it was over. With everyone selling land, the inevitable happened. Everyone was a salesman — there were no customers left. Within a few weeks the operators who had quaffed champagne before breakfast at at the St. James were having a quiet cup of coffee — and at a cheaper establishment.
Captain Gordon was replaced by a new manager … then another manager … and still another. But changing managers wasn’t the answer. Eventually, Dr. Remondino himself took over the management, but the glorious days of the glittering hotel had ended.
The dining room that had seemed small in the boom days was now too large and too lonely. Smaller quarters on the second floor were made into a dining room. Eventually this was discontinued — and the St. James became a rooming house. The annex was rented out as a post-office. Only a few stalwarts remained. Across the bay the newly completed Hotel del Coronado was attracting the favorable attention formerly reserved for the St. James.
Dr. Remondino and his family continued to live at the hotel, and it was here that the Doctor proved himself to be equal to all emergencies. On a Sunday morning he discovered no meat had been provided for breakfast. A quick trip around to Hardy’s Market was to no avail — the place was closed tight. But suddenly the doctor noted a lone quarter of beef hanging high up on a hook in front of the establishment. Equal to the emergency (an old Army man!) the doctor scaled the fence, snatched the beef and carried it home triumphantly – to save the day for the St. James.
By 1912 the hotel had seen its best days, and the growing city needed the space for new development. The hotel was demolished. Other St. James Hotels have been built, none matching in glamour and shiny brilliance the history of the first.