By Burke Ormsby
NOT LONG AGO, NBC newsman Sander Vanocur visited San Diego. This writer invited Vanocur and his wife to have dinner at Hotel Del Coronado. Just as the meal was served, he was paged for a long distance call. He came back in a few minutes, chuckling. The call, he said, bad been relayed from his hotel and was from a friend in Washington, D.C. The friend, an architect, had called long distance to say that by all means he, Vanocur, should make a point of visiting Del Coronado. “If you don’t,” the friend said, “you’ll miss one of the great experiences of a lifetime.”
The number of persons who, over the last 77 years, have visited and admired this great resort hotel is uncountable. Princes and politicians have stayed here, magnates and movie stars, presidents, honeymooners, retired ladies and fun-loving conventioneers have all had their own memories of the Lady by the Sea.
For there is something distinctly feminine about Hotel del Coronado. Says present owner Larry Lawrence, “It’s like having a love affair with a beautiful woman. Sometimes late at night, after a hard day, I’ll just roam through the halls. I feel like I’m having a date with my best girl.”
But this grand dame, this almost exquisite example of pure Norman architecture, wasn’t built because San Diego needed a hotel. It wasn’t built because in 1888 tourists were clamoring for a place to stay. Not at all. It was the biggest, fanciest, gaudiest real estate sign ever conceived. Not only that, as a hotel it was and is a work of art. As a real estate promotion it was only partially successful.
In the mid-1880’s as Richard F. Pourade has so ably documented in “The Glory Years,” Southern California was having its first big real estate boom. Land developments were springing up in the middle of sand and sagebrush, stirred by the new transcontinental railroad and rumors of other railoads.
Now in those days, if you wanted to sell land — especially barren, dusty California land — you built a hotel. Why? Well, you could draw up a prospectus that spoke glowingly of balmy temperatures and oranges in the front yard — and you could skirt carefully around the availability of water. But when you got right down to the old hard sell, you had to give that Eastern or Midwestern prospect something he could sink his teeth into. What better than a hotel?
Hotels, in the Innocent Years, spelled respectability. Often a town’s stature was measured by the size and opulence of its leading hotel. So the California real estate promoters built — or promised to build — hotels in the middle of the empty prairies. Hotels were built in Lakeside, Del Mar, National City, San Diego. Others were promised for such romantic developments as “Oneonta by the Sea (later to become San Ysidro). And the real estate brochures would say…”200 well appointed rooms. Running water on every floor. 35 baths and four telephones.”
In 1885, San Diego was yeasty and bubbling, convinced of future greatness. Population had zoomed from 2,400 to some 10,000 in one year. Into this winey atmosphere came two of the most unlikely hotel builders one could imagine. They were Elisha S. Babcock, retired railroad executive from Evansville, Indiana, and H. L. Story, of the Story and Clark Piano Company of Chicago.
How the two had met and, indeed, how well they knew each other, we don’t know. We do know they went to the barren Coronado peninsula (then un-named) to hunt jack rabbits. While there, Babcock grew excited over the possibilities of turning the area into a massive land promotion. As a railroad man, he knew something about Western land sales. After all, transcontinental lines were offering to transport you from Chicago to Los Angeles for as little as 990! They not only had their own land to sell — they wanted to help populate the West as quickly as possible.
On December 19th, 1885, Babcock, Story and Jacob Gruendike, president of the First National Bank of San Diego, bought all of Coronado and North Island for $110,000.
In early 1886, Rand McNally published a 24-page prospectus or real estate ad, if you will, titled “Coronado Beach. San Diego, California.” The first page reads: “The Coronado Beach Company has been organized with a capital of One Million Dollars, and with the following subsidiary companies.”
Coronado Beach and Water Company $500,000.00
San Diego and Coronado Ferry Company $100,000.00
Coronado Railroad Company $ 24,000.00
Listed as directors were Babcock, president, Story, vice-president and Jacob Gruendike. Also involved with the company by now were three men from Indiana, Josephus Collett, Heber Ingle and John Inglehart. Inglehart, a miller, later became famous through the development of Swansdown flour.
The prospectus, which was undoubtedly either written or supervised by Babcock, is a classic among early-day real estate promotions. The preface says, in part…”we have, however, done much — in fact we have left nothing undone — preparatory to offering of Coronado beach to the esthetic (sic) as an Elysium, the more practical and less critical as a home, to the invalid as a sanitarium, or to the fashionable as a seaside resort of unrivalled beauty.”
Something for everybody.
But it was when he described his great hotel that Babcock pulled out all the stops. Again, quoting the pamphlet in part:
“To a vast number of people, the word HOTEL has a double meaning. It signifies their home, as well as a place of temporary meals and lodging….Inside the Hotel Del Coronado, the guest is at once gratified and delighted with the perfection of all the appointments. You wonder if you are in a fairy palace or a hotel of the 19th Century. The soft Persian rugs, the Oriental tapestries, the antique design of the furniture, the luxurious baths, the odor of orange and pomegranate blossoms, all appeal to you and you join the throng of devotees to Coronado the Lovely….Close by the hotel is the lawn tennis court, and when the guests, costumed like the knights errant of olden time appear, you might imagine yourself transported to the court of Louis the 14th.”
There is more, a description of a typical dinner menu that would include “mackerel, smelts, barracuda — followed by quail, venison, canvas back duck and fresh vegetables grown every month of the year.”
All this when the only activity to be seen on the peninsula was a team of men burning brush, Babcock had made his brag. Now he had to live up to it.
Late in 1886, Babcock brought architect James Reid and his brother Merritt to San Diego. He gave them instructions to build a resort hotel that would be, to quote Reid, “the talk of the Western world.” Simultaneously, Babcock started selling land.
The first land auction was on November 13, 1886. More than six thousand people crossed the bay, some by skiff, others by launches, and the rest by Babcock’s ferry Coronado. The first parcel of land went to a San Diego attorney, Major Levi Chase. Reports are that he paid $1,600 and was offered $2,000 the same day. The auctions went forward, with balloon ascensions, offers of free water for a year, free tickets on the ferry and street railway system. Sales ran from $100,000 to $400,000 per month. Babcock was certain he had plenty of income to finish his grand hotel. He was almost right.
In 1938, to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the hotel, Reid wrote a monograph recounting the start of the building. He wrote:
“At the time our story begins, the enterprise (Coronado land sales) was sufficiently developed to take part, in full swing, with the boom that was surging through the whole of Southern California. Mr. Babcock, who had kept in contact with the writer, was urging a visit to Coronado, and in December telegraphed most earnestly to come on, no matter how brief the stay. ‘Right here,’ Mr. Babcock said, ‘we must build a house that people will like to come to long after we are gone — I have no time, it’s all up to you.'”
Reid added that a stenographer was called and given this rough description:
“It would be built around a court…a garden of tropical trees, shrubs and flowers, with pleasant paths…balconies should look down on this court from every story. From the south end, the foyer should open to Glorietta Bay with verandas for rest and promenade. On the ocean comer there should be a pavilion tower, and northward along the ocean, a colonnade, terraced in grass to the beach. The dining wing should project at an angle from the southeast corner of the court and be almost detached, to give full value to the view of the ocean, bay and city.”
To construct a hotel that would meet Babcock’s dream posed some major problems to the Midwest architect. First, San Diego had no source of building material to even partly meet the demand. Here, Heber Ingle of Indiana, a retired lumber man, came into the picture. Ingle, Reid and Herman Shussler, a minority stockholder and a San Franciscan, met in San Francisco and contracted for exclusive rights to all lumber cut by the Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company, one of the West’s largest.
For it was to be a building built of wood, Douglas fir, sugar pine, and redwood. There was brick and concrete, too. Reid built his own brick kiln, a planing mill, a metal shop and an iron works. There was good reason for the planing mill, as the timber from Northern California was rough cut and green. It had to be finished and cured in San Diego.
In March of 1887, Mrs. Babcock turned the first shovel of earth.
There was another shortage in San Diego, even in the boom days of 1887. This was a shortage of skilled carpenters. So Reid turned to unskilled labor. He said that it was not difficult to obtain good, unskilled labor, of the only kind there was, by applying to the Chinese Seven Companies in San Francisco. As many as could work were employed at once. A further paragraph underscored the boom feelings of the times:
“Realizing the difficulty of obtaining skilled workmen, where everyone was rich — or would be tomorrow — the foundations were started along the north front, as simpler in construction, progressing southward.”
Reid hoped he could train his coolie labor as he went along, but complained that he lacked competent foremen.
Despite the problems there is no doubt that Reid built a masterpiece. The Crown Room was his special pride. The ceiling is of sugar pine, fitted together with pegs and glue, without a nail in it. The shape was intended to be that of a king’s crown, except that — due to the length of the room — any king who wore it would have to have a very narrow head. When the Crown Room opened, February 19th, 1888, a reporter for The San Diego Union wrote: “This vast and elegant room, with its wealth of appointment, is a rare sight, especially under the brilliant incandescent lights that illuminate it. The polished floors, over which an army of trained servants noiselessly glide, the high inlaid ceilings, the snowy linen and the flitter of the silverware and glassware combine to make it a most charming picture. The room may have its equal…but it certainly is not surpassed anywhere.”
During the construction, Reid was also much concerned with water and with fire hazards. Babcock had formed the Coronado Beach Water Company, bringing water from Old Town wells by way of pipelines under San Diego Bay. Reid, though, was a cautious man. He installed two giant cisterns in the hotel basement, with concrete walls more than a foot thick. They were to store rain water, a plan that never came off. There are rumors that they were used to store a variety of alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. And there are further rumors that in the dead of night a truck pulled up to the hotel and a crew loaded such beverages aboard with instructions to proceed to the Spreckels mansion. But then, Hotel del Coronado has been the subject of quite a few rumors over the years.
Reid also installed gravity flow sprinklers, with tanks on the upper story. There were two-wheel fire carts, many now still in usable condition. In 1916, the gravity flow sprinklers were replaced by 12,000 Grinnell pressure sprinklers, giving the hotel even today one of the lowest fire insurance rates in the country. They do add another mild annoyance. Resident manager Carleton Lichty says that at almost every convention some merry conventioneer will decide to find out if the sprinklers really work. So, he lights a newspaper, holds it near a sprinkler and gets a free shower bath.
Reid added some other innovations. He installed an oil furnace, one of the first in the world. The infant oil companies of the Los Angeles area built special tankers to carry fuel to Coronado.
Del Coronado was the first hotel in the world to have electric lighting throughout. But Reid, the Midwesterner, was a man to copper his bets. The electric wiring ran inside gas lines, so if the new-fangled electricity didn’t work, they could always pipe gas to the rooms. It did work, so well that some of the original cables were only pulled out in the spring of 1965. The steam electric plant supplied the entire city of Coronado with power until the mid-20’s. Thomas Edison inspected the final installation, as a guest of the new hotel.
In February of 1888, the hotel opened for business and 1,440 persons traveled from San Diego just to see the great hotel — even though it would be two years before the entire structure would be finished.
Already, reservations had been made by the wealthy travelers of the day. The San Diego Union reported that even before the opening:
“A suite of nine rooms was prepared for occupancy by Nelson Morris, the great cattle king, and Don A. Sweet, assistant to the vice president of the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe.”
In the December 22nd issue of Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a correspondent identified only as D.J.K. told of a visit to the hotel earlier that year. He wrote glowingly of Babcock and added:
“The story of Aladdin and his wonderful palace, built in a single night, comes closer to being realized into actual fact upon this Coronado beach than possibly any other place on earth known to man.”
Some several hundred equally fullsome words later, he compared the hotel’s inner court to the gardens of Versailles.
But Babcock, who courted the press, and Story, who did not, were in trouble. They were getting a good press but they owned a white elephant. In fact, Babcock didn’t have enough money to finish the hotel. The boom of the 80’s had busted. You couldn’t give real estate away. People were leaving San Diego in exact ratio to how they could find the money and the means to get out of town.
A few more months and the glittering castle could have become the most expensive billboard ever built, a ghostly landmark to a real estate promotion that failed — to burn to the ground on a empty prairie — as with the stately Lakeside Hotel, or to live half empty until the wrecking crew came — as did many another early promoter’s venture.
The difference was a man whose name rings through much of San Diego’s history, John D. Spreckels. Spreckels was already involved in San Diego business and he obviously must have liked Babcock’s style. The two became involved in a costly San Diego street car system. Babcock got Spreckels interested in a salt refinery in the South Bay. Spreckels loaned Babcock $100,000 to finish the hotel, money that was never repaid.
The historians of the time were charitable of what was happening. They chronicle Babcock’s efforts to keep Coronado from being a part of San Diego City. They tell of the many times Mrs. Babcock appeared as a leader at charity functions and of Babcock himself leading the pack at the Sunday morning rabbit hunts. But the cold facts are that in July of 1889, Spreckels bought out Story’s interest in the hotel for $511,050.
In 1890, Babcock sold his interest in the Coronado Water Company to an English firm — and then spent many months defending himself against outraged San Diegans who resented this foreign intrusion. In 1893, Spreckels took over the San Diego Street Car Company and within a year later, the sugar millionaire owned Del Coronado outright. What money changed hands, if any, is not readily known.
Hotel literature of the period listed Spreckels as owner, Elisha Babcock as manager.
Even this was to change. By the early 1900’s, the manager is shown as John J. Herman, the owner as Spreckels.
Another of the rumors about the Lady by the Sea is that Spreckels and Babcock had a falling out — that the sugar millionaire grew to distrust the sharp promoter he had admired. Again, this is merely rumor. It seems safe to assume that the dynamic Babcock, seeing the one great dream of his life slip away, did not take easily to the role of second place in his dream hotel. We only know that he left the hotel, later to practice law. For one glittering moment he had been a millionaire. But he kept his word and put it all into the grand hotel.
Hotel del Coronado remained with the Spreckels family until April 1, 1948.
The great and the near-great and the common every day tourist began to flock to the grand hotel. Private railroad cars slid smoothly up the Silver Strand to deposit financiers and their families, while visitors from all over Southern California enjoyed the simpler accommodations of Tent City. Five Presidents have stayed at the Del, starting with Benjamin Harrison in 1891 and including McKinley, Taft, Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At the turn of the century, the hotel was literally San Diego’s biggest single industry.
Tourism, at the turn of the century, was something more than just visiting new places. Travelers, especially the wealthy, did so for their health, believing that salt air and balmy breezes would cure asthma and gout and other minor medical disturbances. And the hotel was quick to seize on these beliefs. Along with advertising San Diego’s salubrious climate…the management offered a variety of mild and vigorous forms of exercise…and especially bottled mineral water. It didn’t matter that the health-giving water was really from the wells in Old Town, a chemist certified that it did really contain a variety of chemicals supposedly beneficial to man. The water was hard even then.
To help guests become physically fit, tennis courts were built…the first ones being across the street. Later, when tide action built up the seaward side, the present courts were added. There was a salt water plunge and in the early part of the century…the present Olympic size pool was built, one of the last salt water pools on the West Coast.
There were other forms of exercise and diversion. The Yacht Club was completed shortly after the main structure…and there was sailing, boating and deep sea fishing. By the early 1900’s, a group of dashing Navy officers had organized a polo team. The more sedentary could visit the ostrich farm and buy a souvenir plume or stroll through the “Japanese Tea Garden.” The hotel also boasted a billiards room and men and women’s bowling alleys in what is now the downstairs shopping area.
But perhaps the most charming bit of Victorian style physical activities were the regular rabbit hunts. Guests would dress in a variety of English hunting attire or cowboy outfits to go galloping over the sand dunes…chasing jack rabbits.
In the twenties, two things happened to help spread the fame of the already popular hotel. The Prince of Wales attended a ball at the hotel, causing a major social flap in unsophisticated San Diego. An interesting sidelight is that Mrs. Wally Simpson, for whom he was to relinquish his throne years later, also attended the ball.
At the same time, a young, carefree Hollywood discovered Del Coronado. For the stars of the silent screen, the Hotel Del was the “in” place to go. Tom Mix, Charley Chaplin, Ramon Navarro and scores more made the pilgrimage…many to go on to the Caliente Casino, where a teen-aged Rita Hayworth danced with her father. This affection of and for theatrical personalities hasn’t ended. On any given weekend, it’s not unusual to see a movie or television star at poolside or strolling through the lobby.
At least two full length movies have used the hotel as a backdrop. In 1935, Coronado’s own Johnny Downs starred in the musical, “Coronado” and in 1958 Billy Wilder chose the hotel as a setting for “Some Like It Hot.” Old-timers in Hollywood remember that the hotel was often used for silent comedies and location shooting.
In the period from 1948 to 1960, the grand lady began to grow shabby. The basic architecture remained superb, but the interior showed lack of care. The furniture was a combination of sagging wicker, 1920 overstaffed, 1930 chrome and 1950 Grand Rapids. A slightly musty air of neglect hung about the upper rooms.
Then, in 1960, Hotel del Coronado had its second great rejuvenation, from another millionaire, John Alessio. In all, Alessio spent some two million dollars in redecorating and refurbishing. Most of this went into the interior, with special wallpaper, carpets woven to order, a spruced up lobby, new private dining rooms and a plush new bar. A leading Hollywood scenic designer, Al Goodman, supervised the work…attacking the problem as he would a stage set. The result is a return to the basic Norman style Reid had conceived, without sacrifice of comfort.
The present owner, Larry Lawrence, who acquired the hotel in October, 1963, has continued to clean and remodel, with two full-time painters busy 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week.
We’d venture to guess that could Elisha Babcock come back to Hotel del Coronado today, he’d think his “fairy palace” was a true reality.
Hotel del Coronado ad text follows:
Hotel Del Coronado
Coronado, San Diego County, California
A Building as Notable for Internal Comfort as for Size and Elegance.
This gorgeous structure of Oriental magnificence stands on the Southeastern portion of a beautiful mesa, overlooking the ocean. The design is a combination of old classical architecture, so modernized and modified as to partake of the excellencies of the different schools it represents. The whole has been so successfully harmonized as to produce a structure remarkable for its size, symmetry and grandeur. It is three, four and five stories high and is the admiration of all who are so fortunate as to visit it.
The Hotel del Coronado, too, is as famous for the physical comfort and enjoyment it furnishes as for its immense size, its fine situation and its lovely surroundings. Everything is provided that the heart can wish, both as to diet, recreation and exercise.
The building is grouped around a quadrangular court of 150 by 250 feet, which is exquisitiely beautiful and already noted for the variety of its tropical and subtropical shrubs and plants. It is said to be unequaled either in Europe or America. Each of its four fronts is a really handsome facade, and the one facing the ocean is encased in glass. The grounds in front of it are terraced down to the very beach, where the waves of the gentle Pacific sometimes overleap their limits to steal a kiss from the bright green grass that there fringes on the skirts of Mother Earth.
All who have visited Coronado are loud in its praises, and seem at a loss to find language sufficiently strong to express their great admiration of the many charms of this locality, the magnificence of its gorgeous Hotel and the amount of varied comfort and enjoyment provided for the guests. As a real sanitarium, and a pleasant all-the-year-round resort, Coronado is believed to be unrivalled. The atmosphere is mild, dry and as pure as that of the primeval paradise. The temprerature iseldom reaches 80o and owing to the dryness of the climate, that is quite as pleasant here as 60o where it is humid. The difference of the summer and winter temperature is comparatively small — so small indeed, that woolen clothing is comforable all the year round, and blankets are always used at night. From April to October there is seldom andy rain here, and during the othermonths there are some months there are some 20 rainy days, or rather nights, for the rain falls mostly at night. Here the whole year may be said to be almost one continuous summmer, for flowers and fruits continue to grow simultaneously nearly all the year and the vegetation, both of temperate and semi-tropical climes, grows here luxuriantly. The regular daily alternating movement of the winds is here a grand preventive of disease; and hay fever that much dreaded and insidious affection, cannot exist here. This climate is a specific both for hay fever, asthma and other ailments of the respiratory organs. The discovery, about a year ago, of inexhaustible springs of pure and wholesome mineral water on the property of the company, was a most fortunate one; it is in general use among the guests, and has proved of great value, as the water has remarkable curative properties, especially in kidney and bladder ailments. Hundreds have been cured of troubles, which had long resisted medical treatment, by using Coronado Natural Water simply as a beverage. This provision of Nature in so bountifully supplying these springs with an endless volume of pure, wholesome water, stamps Coronado as a sanitarium that has no equal, as well as a delightul retreat, where life is a continual pleasure.
Number and area of some of the principal rooms.
Number of rooms, 750.
Dining Room seat 1000 persons.
30 Billiard Tables – four for ladies.
Floor area, 7 1/2 acres.
Ball-Room area, 11,000 sq. feet.
Breakfast Room area, 4,860 ft.
2,500 Incandescent Lights;
Four 85-Foot Bowling Alleys.
Yet with all the magnificent splendor, elegant surroundings, and the other excellencies afforded at this charming place, the rates here are as moderate as those of any ordinary hotel, ranging from $2.00 per day and upwards by the month; transients from $3.00 per day and upwards, according to room.
E.S. Babcock, Jr., Manager.
[This electronic issue of the Journal was scanned and proofread by Society volunteer Cassius Zedaker.]