David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
The Crown City’s Brightest Gem: A History of the Hotel del Coronado. By Marcie Buckley. Coronado: Hotel del Coronado, Third Edition 1975. Illustrations. Photographs. Bibliography. 44 pages. Softbound. $3.00.
Reviewed by Nicholas Fintzelberg, Ph.D. Instructor of Anthropology, San Diego Mesa College; former Chief Curator, San Diego Museum of Man. Author of several articles which appeared in Museum of Man and San Diego History Center publications. Member and officer of several San Diego area boards and committees involving historical reconstruction and interpretation.
In its third edition, this attractive booklet is liberally sprinkled with clearly reproduced photographs of people, static panoramas, and historic documents. It is obviously intended for bedside or poolside reading and as such it introduces the Coronado visitor or the Hotel del Coronado guest to a summary history of the Hotel and “island.” It is not written as a scholarly text, and to review it as such would be inappropriate. Yet it does have two very short chapters containing information not immediately available elsewhere: personal recollections of James Reid, one of the Hotel’s original architects (written in 1938); and facsimiles of letters written and received by Elisha Babcock, Hotel builder, during the project’s formative and incipient stages.
Chapter Eight of this booklet summarizes the lives of the six previous “owners” of the “Hotel del;” Babcock, Spreckels, Goodman, Alessio, Lawrence, and Lichty. To her credit, Buckley admits to a seventh, Robert A. Nordblom, but describes him as a mysterious man, about whom “Nothing is recorded in the hotel’s historical records….” He may be a mystery to Marcie Buckley, but in 1948 he was no mystery to San Diego. The sale of the Spreckels properties in Coronado was one of the major real estate transactions in an otherwise slumping post-World War II land market. The sale of the Hotel and associated properties, for a reported $2,000,000, prompted the Union Title Company to publish a pamphlet about the transaction, How to Close a Multi-Million Dollar Deal: Story of the Sale of the Hotel del Coronado (no author listed, 1948).
In this source, apparently not consulted by Buckley although she lists “Records of Title Insurance Company” in her bibliography, the prior-sale agreement bridging ownership from Spreckels Company to Goodman also cites an additional owner, Josephine C. Moore, an associate of Nordblom’s. Two southern California developers, Herman Miller and M. Bert Fisher — best known locally for creation of Collwood Village, near San Diego State University, and renovation of the Maryland Hotel — were the real buyers of the Hotel. They brought Nordblom, a nationally known hotel owner and East Coast land developer, into the deal during their negotiations to resell the Hotel (but not the other properties) to Barney Goodman and his associates. The necessity of a “dummy” buyer (or buyers if we include Josephine Moore) can never be resolved until one investigates the terms of John D. Spreckels’ will. Folklore among local real estate men in the late 1940s was that Spreckels placed requirements upon the disposition of the Hotel del, and that Robert Nordblom met these requirements.
In a book of just forty-four pages, there is far too much valuable space devoted to the oft-cited legend of Wallis Simpson’s meeting of Prince Edward (Duke of Windsor) at the Hotel, and a now-passe fantasy that the present Prince of Wales might have met his future queen at the same spot, in the person of a local Coronado girl.
If this book has a serious weakness, it is the blatant omission of the word ferry. Even the eighty-five photographs (seventeen “historic”), many of which are repetitious, avoid recalling that to many people the charm of Coronado began and ended with a twenty minute ferry boat trip across San Diego Bay. Kindly, Buckley spared us rapturous descriptions of the controversial bridge that now attaches Coronado to San Diego and threatens to transform the “Crown City” into just another bedroom suburb.