By Don Driese
“When you return to San Diego after having been away for a while, you hardly recognize the place!” Sounds familiar? Of course it does – you’ve probably said the same thing a hundred times. And don’t worry a bit about using this handy cliche as a conversation starter, for it’s effective, reasonably accurate, and most definitely time-tested.
Chances are, San Diegans first heard this phrase during the land boom of the 1880s, when someone thus neatly summed-up the amazing growth of the boom-struck city.
Nor was this offhand boast too far wrong — the spectacular growth of San Diego during the land boom did make familiar scenes all but oil recognizable. Subdivisions came to life by the score, new roads slashed through sage-covered hills, and skilled craftsmen rushed to complete the hundreds of ornate buildings that were to become hallmarks of the land boom.
Classic examples of the era’s Victorian opulence were the hotels which mushroomed throughout Southern California during the height of the boom. These gaudy, glittering giants were to be found in any city, town, hamlet, or open field that caught the attention of the period’s energetic land developers.
San Diego, a major center of land boom activity in Southern California, had its share of boom-era hotels. Quite typical of these rococo hostelries was the Hotel Brewster, a four-story wood frame and brick structure that stood on the southeast corner of Fourth and C Streets in downtown San Diego.
Built by Horace I. Brewster, the hotel opened in December, 1888, and San Diegans, not in the least surfeited by the sight of scores of spectacular land boom palaces, swarmed through the imposing structure to marvel at its decorations and modern conveniences.
Writing in the September, 1889, issue of The Golden Era, Editor Harr Wagner easily outdistanced other San Diegans in heaping praise on the new hotel and its builder. “Magnificent in all its appointments,” Wagner wrote, “the Hotel Brewster is an honor to the city and to its proprietor.” (The proprietor came in for additional praise when Wagner called Brewster, “… one of San Diego’s leading citizens, and a favorite in every circle of Society.”)
While this eulogy to the hotel builder has an election-year sound to modern ears, it doubtless was justified, for Brewster helped launch a new era in hotel-keeping in San Diego.
The Hotel Brewster, unlike the Hotel del Coronado and other of the more glamorous resort-type hotels of the period, was designed primarily as a commercial hotel. Obviously, the Hotel Brewster was rushed to completion to serve the thousands of land-hungry buyers swarming through San Diego, but, unlike many boom days hotels it was not built as an impressive attention-getter in a new subdivision. The Brewster’s role as a commercial hotel was emphasized by an 1889 advertisement which proudly proclaimed that the hotel had, “Fine, large sample rooms for commercial travelers.”
Competition among the downtown San Diego hotels was intense and success went to the hotel owner who offered the finest accommodations, the best service.
Horace Brewster didn’t leave accommodations or service to chance. He spent nearly $150,000 — a most sizable sum for the time — to build and furnish the impressive new hotel, the first building in San Diego to boast a passenger elevator.
In describing the Hotel Brewster, The Golden Era reported. “The style of furnishing of this elegant house is pronounced by connoisseurs as to be home-like, elegant, and luxurious to a degree not surpassed in the State.
“The office (i.e., “lobby”) … is very conveniently arranged and is in fine keeping with every other part of the house.
“The Dining Hall, on the first floor, will accommodate 150 guests. It is exquisitely frescoed and the furniture is the latest style….
“To the right of the dining room entrance is seen the orchestra in an alcove elevated about five feet above the floor. Music is supplied during the lunch and dinner hours from one of the best string quartettes.
“The parlor and principal suites of rooms on the first floor command an excellent view of the city from two sides of the building, while from the top floor a magnificent panoramic view of the city, bay, and Coronado.
“The kitchen, which is entirely separated from the main building, is under the management of one of the most popular chefs on the Pacific Coast. The whole force of the dining room is made of the best class of French cooks that can be had, and the guests are not slow to note the consequence when they are brought face to face with the cuisine.
“The house throughout is furnished with electric bells, hot and cold water, gas and every convenience for guests, as well as every precaution against accident found in first class hotels.”
The Go1den Era report continued with a glowing description of “the elegant drug store” located in the Hotel Brewster. The pharmacy, the Era reported, “… is probably the most exquisitely furnished among the many elegant Drug Stores in the city.” The publication added a reassuring note about the store when it explained that the prescription clerk “is known to be careful and competent, so that the least possible risk of mistakes is taken in purchasing at the Brewster Pharmacy.”
The Hotel Brewster, boasting all the conveniences so glowingly described in The Golden Era continued to flourish for nearly three decades. Then, with the construction of larger, more modern hotels in San Diego, the Hotel Brewster began a decline that was climaxed in 1934, when the 46-year-old structure was razed.
No sign of the Brewster remains in San Diego. Modern shops and restaurants stand on the site at Fourth and C Streets. But, when longtime San Diegans recall the days when San Diego was in the midst of the great land boom, they recall with fondness the Hotel Brewster — a small town’s first sample of the luxury and comfort its people were to enjoy when the town became a city.