The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1983, Volume 29, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

La Siesta Press La Frontera Award
San Diego History Center 1982 Institute of History

Images from the article

The life and times of California and Lower California have always been closely intertwined. In most cases, serious events on either side of the border have had repercussions on the other. Such was the case of the Volstead Act through which the XVIII Amendment was enforced in 1920.1 What in the United States became known as Prohibition, in Mexico was named The Dry Law.

Mexico in the 1920s was barely coming out of a painful revolution (1910-1917) and Baja California was in the first phases of a significant colonization. The roots of Mexico’s future demographic explosion were born in this decade. In 1920 Tijuana had 1,028 inhabitants, and in 1930 it had 8,384.2 As a consequence of The Dry Law, the border cities boomed, specially Tijuana, which catered to a thirsty flow of customers from the United States. The economy of the city was favored as never before.

Since 1903 gambling had been lawfully instituted in the Northern Territory of Baja California. Tijuana had dog races, an incipient race track, many bars equipped with slot machines, and permits had been requested for a hotel and a casino. These humble beginnings would give way in the roaring twenties to such sophisticated projects as the hotel-resort of Agua Caliente, that boasted hot springs, casino and race track. It would be the start of the Hotel Playa of Ensenada—later to be named the Hotel Riviera del Pacífico.

It was, in fact, due to the smashing success of the Agua Caliente Hotel, inaugurated on June 28, 1928,3 that other entrepreneurs fixed their eyes on developing the shoreline of Baja California from Tijuana to Ensenada.

According to a study, dated in 1929, done by the Compañía Mexicana del Rosarito (made up exclusively of American capital) the operation of the Agua Caliente complex was quite successful. Its shares, originally valued at $1.14 per share, had quadrupled in value in a year, and $750,000 had been paid in dividends.4 Such success warranted other investments of that nature.

The study also pointed out how the prohibitionists of San Diego continuously agitated against the “hell” of Tijuana. Reformists and politicians who wanted their vote did not cease in their attacks. They included, at times, in a list of shoddy places, the “Agua Caliente.” “In fact,” others defended, “it is neither a dive nor a gambling hell, but a resort that is orderly, as quiet and as comfortable as any first class hotel in Los Angeles or San Francisco. But its proximity to the border will make it a ready target for the attacks of real and pretended reformers.”5 Something which is not mentioned in the text is that the Agua Caliente was strikingly beautiful.

With this model in mind, Cía. Mexicana del Rosarito first acquired the concessions for the beaches of Rosarito, San Miguel and Ensenada. Other companies had begun a hotel in the Rosarito site and in Ensenada but, because they ran out of funds, neither had been able to finish the construction.Cía. Mexicana del Rosarito bought both and formed a subsidiary company called Compañía de Mejoras de Ensenada, S. A., which would manage all business pertaining to the Ensenada project. Their study reveals extraordinary foresight. The excellent climate of Ensenada, the beauty of its bay and the quiet atmosphere of the city, were natural attractions to which they proposed to add golf, tennis, hunting, and all water sports. Yes, there would be gambling, but only from 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., as was determined by Mexican law. The resort would be as attractive to the man accompanied by his wife and daughters as to the man travelling with a group of male companions, or alone. There he would be able to have a drink without the fear of being arrested or of falling into a bootlegger’s hands. The company boasted that “in service, appointments and refinements, it would conform to the best standards established by the foremost resorts of Florida and the Mediterranean coast,”6 and they kept their word.

What had been promoted as the Club Internationale of Ensenada and later the Ensenada Beach Club by the first entrepreneurs, had been standing half finished and forlorn on the Ensenada beach for some time. Some $375,000 had been invested already, of which $225,000 had gone into the building which the new corporation acquired. The new owners were delighted: “Fortunately,” they noted, “these interests employed a splendid architect and a sound contractor. The building was wisely planned and so far as it progressed, was honestly and soundly built.”7

There is no documentation to support the date of its initiation; however, in 1928, after its purchase, the new company immediately proceeded to finish it.

In exchange for their opportunity to complete the resort, the Mexican Government demanded that the company should build a Post Office, a wharf, and that it should pay a twenty-five percent tax on net income, after deducting from it the usual state and federal taxes. Gambling was prohibited to all military men, police and those under twenty-one.

The company was made up of the following men: Mr. Penn Phillips, President; Manuel Reachi, Vice President; Jack Dempsey, Second Vice President; W. Byron Neil, Treasurer.8 According to some sources, in exchange for a number of shares, the promoters had shrewdly aligned Jack Dempsey to the enterprise.9 Mr. Dempsey was the heavyweight boxing champion of the day, married to a Hollywood star, Miss Estelle Taylor. Their names alone guaranteed a sure-fire promotion.

Gordon F. Mayer was the architect who designed the hotel—one of the most beautiful Spanish style buildings that exists today on either side of the border. The contractor was James L. Miller, although this title is also claimed by some as belonging to Bill Blexton.

The job was a challenge. All the materials had to be brought from the United States or abroad. Ensenada had been named capital of Baja California in 1882, a date which many historians now place as its official foundation.10A city so young hardly had the materials required for the enterprise.

The hotel was inaugurated on Halloween night, October 31, 1930. Those who came would remember the occasion as long as they lived. It was a formal affair—Xavier Cugat’s band played, the Hollywood crowd, the beautiful people, were all there. But, the real star of the night was the building itself. The Spanish interiors, so much in vogue at the time, were plush and elegant. All the ornaments had been brought from around the world. Beautiful wrought iron grilles that had belonged to wonderful old colonial buildings in Havana, now adorned windows and arches at the hotel; the roofs were constructed with Florida wormwood cypress; the vitraux were Italian; the chandeliers and lamps came from Spain, as well as all the mosaics. The interior decoration boasted Persian rugs, Chinese commodes and a select assembly of Spanish furniture. Rich tapestries hung on the walls, and a grand piano dominated the huge lobby that had the Pacific Ocean for a front yard.

The ceilings and many walls were painted with murals by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, a fine Mexican artist whose work caused great admiration. The motifs were varied and eloquent: beautiful women, mythological themes, social themes, and a great variety of eclectic decorations which ranged from Pompeiian to Renaissance and Mudéjar. The total cost, according to the San Diego Union of November 1, 1930, was $2,000,000.

Yet, few things went right. Jack Dempsey resigned shortly after the inauguration. It seems he did not agree with how the hotel was being managed. He never occupied the grand house the company had built for him, adjacent to the hotel, and which time and vandalism destroyed. His unfortunate divorce from Estelle Taylor aggravated the situation.

From 1930 to 1938, the hotel functioned off and on. People came by car, air or sea. The road was paved but a bit tiring, so many preferred to fly. A small plane, The Maddox, made the trip once a week from Los Angeles; and the Pacific Steamship Company as well as the Alexander Ship Line, touched port regularly with cruises from San Diego and Los Angeles. The bay always nestled a score of private yachts.

Among the many names of notables in the hotel register you could find Marion Davies, William Hearst, Merle Norman, Dolores del Río, Johnny Weismuller, Lupe Velez, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan and many others.

The weekend clientele, however, was not sufficient to sustain the hotel. From the beginning it was burdened by huge debts. In 1931, new capital came in, principally through the person of Jerome D. Utley, a Detroit contractor and builder of General Motors.11 Manuel Barbachano became the hotel’s new manager, but times had changed. The Depression and the repeal of Prohibition in the U. S. in 1935, the abolition of gambling in Mexico, decreed by President Lázaro Cárdenas, all combined to make things worse. The hotel finally closed under the management of Bruno Pagliai in 1938. The number of suits filed against it totaled sixteen, with a combined sum of $150,000.12

Because of this, the wharf that the company should have built was never completed. The post office as well was never built. The Internal Revenue Office—Hacienda—took over the hotel once; the Banco del Pacífico, another time. Yet, despite its economic troubles, the Hotel Playa always benefited the city of Ensenada. It supplied many jobs whenever it was operating; it was a place of contact with the outside world, and above all, it beautified the bay and served as a grand stage for important events of the city. Through the years, people would come to love the building for its beauty.

The hotel was closed down and placed under the guardianship of Isaac Chapluck. Mr. Chapluck had been the caretaker of the hotel’s furnaces and had won the trust of Mr. Jerome Utley, who, because of the capital he had invested, was now the main shareholder. 

With the world at war (1939), the frivolous times of gambling days were over. The Hotel Playa was forgotten and it began to gather dust and mildew until it was reopened, this time, as a Military Headquarters for the Second Military Zone of the Sixth Regiment of the Pacific. The former president of Mexico, Gral. Lázaro Cárdenas, was the Commander in Chief. Soon after, American officers also lived at the hotel. The reason for this concentration of armed forces was that the United States and its allies—Mexico among them— feared Japan would invade the Pacific coasts through Baja California.

In 1942, the Army moved to the new headquarters it had built south of Ensenada, at El Ciprés, and the hotel once more closed down, only to be reopened again in 1945 with another military venture, this time a make believe one. Using the splendid setting which was supposed to be a castle in Europe, Hollywood shot the film “Women of the Night,” with a plot of war intrigue. Virginia Christine, the today famous “Mrs. Olsen” of coffee commercials, was the female star.13

Such was the state of things when a decision by its owner caused its reinauguration. Mr. Utley was a seventy-year-old bachelor and, to all accounts, very much in love. In 1948 he decided to donate the hotel to his beloved, Marjorie King Plant, an attractive blond woman in her early forties.14

Marjorie accepted the gift and was ready to go to work on the hotel, but wanted everything to be done legally. She consulted a lawyer in Mexico City who informed her that she could not take legal title to the property because she was not a Mexican citizen. The only way to go about it was for her to marry a Mexican and then take title with her husband. “But I don’t know any Mexican,” she protested, to which he promptly answered “You know me.”15

Yes, indeed. They were married and together would manage the hotel that got off to a calmer, and, it seemed, better directed start. But affairs of the heart would not have it so.

Mr. Utley became aware that the marriage which Marjorie had said was a mere legal maneuver, was real enough. For spite, he wanted to retrieve the property. He filed suit for a debt of $42,000, which he had lent Marjorie. The life of the hotel appeared to be more at court than anywhere else. Mr. Utley’s case was not presented strongly and he lost.

By 1950 Marjorie had tired of the whole venture. She divorced Alfonso Rocha, sold her interest to him, and returned to California while Mr. Rocha continued with the hotel.16

The fifties were the second golden era of the Playa Hotel which, under the Plant-Rocha management had been renamed Hotel Riviera del Pacífico. Ensenada was beginning to grow extraordinarily—from a population of 5,000 in 1930, it now had 20,000 in 1950, and the hotel served as a grand setting for the main events of the city and of the state of Baja California.National and international conventions were often held at the Riviera’s monumental ballroom; the Presidents of Mexico were always received at the hotel; and a tradition of gentility which belonged to Ensenada alone, among the cities of Baja California, led the way to beautiful concerts, literary gatherings, and the famous “Black and White Ball,” organized every year in the month of August by the wives of the Rotarians. The Andalucian patio, adorned with red bougainvillea, was a favorite meeting place for visitors and townspeople.

One night, in 1956, precisely the night on which the “Black and White Ball” was held at the hotel, the curtain came down. Jerome Utley had filed suit against Alfonso Rocha in Mexico City. When the lawyers from Mexico City notified Mr. Rocha he decided to leave that very night and abandoned Ensenada and the hotel. Unfortunately, Mr. Utley lost the hotel too.

Alfonso Rocha had borrowed 4,000,000 Pesos17 ($320,000) from Crédito Hotelero, a government financing company directed towards the development of tourism. The loan had been invested in an adjacent building of 100 rooms. It was a sound investment since the original hotel had only sixty-six rooms, too few to support the huge building without the casino. This new wing was ready to be inaugurated when Rocha left. The government then took over the property and managed the hotel off and on until January 1964 when it was closed forever.

In that same year Crédito Hotelero transferred title to another government department called Programa Nacional Fronterizo (Border National Program) which was in charge of beautifying the border cities. This federal department immediately planned to add to the hotel a ten-story building and a golf course. Of all they did, only the idea of a golf course made sense.

They started by tearing down the well built wing finished by Rocha because it was to be the site for the new building, which never went up. They then proceeded to “reform” the original hotel. When people of Ensenada began to express their concern, they were told the changes were to be minor and that if the city did not want to progress, they would take the money elsewhere. The people decided to vote for progress. A year later, the hotel was completely destroyed.

The main entrance, which had beautiful mosaics and murals, as well as all sixty-six original rooms and kitchen, were totally demolished. All the furniture was spirited away, and some, put up for auction. Iron grilles were torn from their places as well as parquet floors, majestic doors and windows; lamps and chandeliers were taken down—only one remained, the one in the casino, because it would not fit through any door.

When the project ceased because of a change in government, there were only ruined walls and beautiful ceilings left.18 What remained of the hotel was barred with boards and only a caretaker watched over the place, seldom allowing people to amble through its desolation. Under the casino a horse stable was built. Thus would the building remain for fourteen years.

In 1964, a group of citizens denounced the case to the President of Mexico demanding its restoration but nothing came from it until 1978, when architect Jorge Swain, at that time in charge of the Junta Federal de Mejoras Materiales of Ensenada, decided to begin its restoration with whatever he could muster. The building started to come to life again.

When the people of Ensenada saw this, their enthusiasm mounted and they sought to interest the government in rehabilitating the hotel completely. True to its conflictive star, every one wanted it for different purposes. Some said it would be a fine convention center, others, a recreational center, a sports arena, a House of Culture.

Finally, by a Presidential Decree of September 22, 1978, President José López Portillo turned the property over to the State Government. It was rebuilt to become what it is today, the “Centro Social, Cívico y Cultural de Ensenada. ” A happy simbiosis had been reached converting it into a social, civic and cultural center for the city.19

Thanks to generous funds of the government of Roberto Lamadrid Romandía, the hotel was rebuilt by the summer of 1981. It now serves the people of Ensenada every single day and its doors are always open to civic, social and cultural events.

To celebrate its restoration and fiftieth anniversary, once more the golden days were relived on a night in the month of July, 1981. The huge chandelier of the former casino glittered as the people of Ensenada and Baja California attended a grand ball, as grand as those of bygone days. Yes, many of those present still remembered. You could see them glancing up at the majestic ceilings and moorish arches with tearful eyes. After all, they were contemplating the most beautiful historical building in Baja California.


1. Fenton Bartlet and Mandelbaum Fowler, A New History of the United States (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 613.

2. Celso Aguirre, Tijuana-Su historia-sus hombres, p. 184.

3. Study by the Cía. Mexicana de Rosarito, October 15, 1929, p. 16.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 18.

6. Ibid., p. 19.

7. Ibid., p. 12.

8. Ibid., p. 2.

9. Others have said that Dempsey, in fact, did put in some capital. Since documents have been found to support either version, the first opinion was chosen because more sources have been of that belief. The San Diego Union of November 1, 1930 gives the following list: Jack Dempsey, President; Eugene Norvile, Director; Martin J. Healy, Chairman of the Board of Directors; and Penn Phillips and James L. Miller, Directors. It is possible that by 1930 the positions may have changed.

10. Pablo Martinez, Historia de la Baja California (Mexico, 1956), p. 161.

11. Roberta Ridgely and Sharon Fleming, The Hotel Riviera del Pacífico: Her Last Fifty Years.

12. Public Deed of August 21, 1948, Personal Archives of Evaristo Bonifaz, Attorney at Law. List of embargos attached to Deed.

13. Ridgely and Fleming, Hotel Riviera.

14. Public Deed of August 21, 1948. Personal Archives of Evaristo Bonifaz.

15. Evaristo Bonifaz, personal interview, as referred by Marjorie K. Plant to Mr. Bonifaz.

16. Public Deed of September 7, 1951. It declares all debts cleared on the sale of the Hotel Riviera del Pacífico, done in 1949. Personal Archives of Evaristo Bonifaz.

17. Public Deed of October 27, 1955. “Crédito Hotelero” grants a mortgage loan to Hoteles Riviera del Pacífico. Personal Archives of Evaristo Bonifaz.

18. Deed No. 8, Tijuana, Baja California. Before Notary Public No. G. Programa Nacional Fronterizo transfers domain of Hotel Riviera del Pacífico to La Junta Federal de Mejoras Materiales.

19. Presidential Decree published in the Official Diary of the Nation, September 25, 1978.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS on page 82 are by Sergio Novelo. All others are courtesy of the author.