Our museums and archives are temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Winter 2000, Volume 46, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

By Kyle E. Ciani and Cynthia Malinick

Photographs from this article

Sitting atop the rise on Seventh Avenue and Ash Street, the El Cortez Hotel no longer dominates the neighborhood known as Cortez Hill with a “commanding beauty” that distinguished it as San Diego’s “finest” furnished apartment-hotel when it opened Thanksgiving 1927.1 Red neon awakens the hill at night, announcing “El Cortez” to passing planes, cars and pedestrians, but the year 2000 finds it surrounded by symbols of late-twentieth century financial strength: high-rise luxury apartments, international banking institutions, corporate resort hotels, world-renowned publishing houses, and energy conglomerates.2 Standing on Eighth and Ash looking northeast, one can see Balboa Park’s majestic California Tower peaking through the skyline, a sole reminder of the era in which the El Cortez opened its doors to the rich, famous, and personable. Two types of small, aging structures dot the streets ringing the hotel: single-family homes designed in the late 1870s when San Diego experienced its first major commercial development; and one- to- two-story apartment buildings built to house newcomers enticed to San Diego by the promise of work and pleasure at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.3

Bounded by Interstate 5 to the north, Cortez Hill sits just east of Little Italy, running from Union Street to Interstate 163 and south to A Street. Close to the nucleus’ of both leisure (Balboa Park) and commerce (Gaslamp Quarter District), Cortez Hill represents one of the first neighborhoods in San Diego to have combined commercial and residential living, emerging in the 1920s as the center of fashionable entertainment. While the Depression halted the city’s growth, the 1940s, especially the war years, gave rise to new neighborhoods dedicated to tract housing for young adults more interested in schools and playgrounds for their children than cosmopolitan apartment living. The development of the freeway system in San Diego divided public space into distinctive areas reserved for work (downtown) and home (suburbs), solidifying the ideology that success equated to one’s ability to retreat from the workplace and enjoy a private life far removed from the world of labor.

The deterioration of the El Cortez Hotel illustrates how this separation intensified into the 1960s, eventually creating the urban decay that swept across Cortez Hill. A forty-year reputation of fine service and hospitality allowed the hotel to survive the initial jolt of downtown abandonment, but years of neglect stemming from ill-fated business ventures in the 1970s and 1980s led to disrepair and near demolition. The efforts of historic preservation enthusiasts saved the hotel from the wrecking ball when the City of San Diego’s Historic Site Board designated it on July 25, 1990 as “historic.” That assignment allowed for review of a proposed restoration of the building to its original 1927 appearance and paved the way for “substantial modification” to the interior to create modern, urban living spaces.4

The multi-use design of the El Cortez Hotel tapped into the energy generated by new businesses flowing into the area, especially dollars spent by tourists and partygoers during the twenties. A new story for the El Cortez emerged during and immediately following World War II, as its owners connected with the explosive growth of San Diego but could not continue to compete with the equally explosive development in the suburbs. Our ending story, that of preservation if not renewal, suggests a different era for the El Cortez and the hill on which it presides. Public debates over the form and function of historic preservation (and the place of developers in that arena) played out on Cortez Hill with the hotel again taking center stage. The original exterior, built when San Diegans could celebrate their economic prosperity, became privileged territory deemed worthy of preservation. Not so for the changes and additions made in the 1950s; officials relegated those elements instead to individual memory. The lifecycle of the El Cortez Hotel reflects the struggle over saving the vernacular landscape. Thus, we begin with the story of exuberance in the mid-1920s when all things seemed possible, at least to those who owned capital and wished to increase their success.

Commercial Vision

By the time construction began on the El Cortez Apartment Hotel in 1926, San Diegans had already experienced over a decade of intense urban development, much of which centered around the growing presence of the United States Navy.5 The installation of major naval bases in San Diego County helped create “a new federal city” in the West as construction, technological, and industrial concerns scurried to serve the military.6 During the 1920s, the city continued to profit from its amiable relationship with the military as well as a measurable increase in tourist dollars. Urban historian Howard P. Chudacoff notes the national phenomenon of urban expansion in warm-climate cities such as those in southern California and Florida, citing in particular the mushroom growth of resort cities like San Diego, whose population doubled during the twenties.7 In fact, city leaders emphasized leisure over defense when marketing San Diego to the rest of the nation. Known as “the playground of America” and “the capital of the Southland’s empire of amusement,” the city enjoyed both the benefits of temperate weather and notoriety from the likes of international celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh.8

Within months of the El Cortez groundbreaking, several major building projects in and around Cortez Hill took form to announce the confidence of the age. Much of the new architecture symbolized the strength of banking and manufacturing in the city. The completion of the stunning San Diego Trust and Savings on Sixth and Broadway in 1928 highlighted both the talents of its architect (William Templeton Johnson) and the revival of Spanish Renaissance style.9 Structures also highlighted the emphasis on recreation and entertainment. For instance, the Pickwick Hotel at First and Broadway opened its doors in May 1927 as did the San Diego Athletic Club in 1930.10 Projects by the Gildred brothers, Philip L., Sr. and Theodore, demonstrated perhaps the greatest commitment to the leisure economy; they developed a full block that encompassed A, B, Seventh and Eighth streets, building a ten-floor garage, a four-story department store, and the Fox Theatre (the third largest theatre on the Pacific Coast at the time). In registering for the first room at the El Cortez, Philip became a historic client, living at the hotel to be close to the building of his own enterprises on Cortez Hill; he also sampled the first meal served in the dining room with hotel owner Richard T. Robinson, Jr.11

Not all members of the growing metropolis benefited, however, from the national attention as social welfare professionals found themselves working overtime to keep pace with the growing needs of some residents.12 Moreover, city leaders were in the midst of a struggle over how best to secure a much-needed water supply, consequently creating rancor among civic leaders and ultimate political ineffectiveness.13 Urban planning proved more successful when noted city planner, John Nolen, returned to San Diego to lead the Civic Improvement Committee in revising his 1908 regional improvement plan. Suggesting a civic center on the waterfront that would connect with Balboa Park, Nolen recommended that Ash Street act as an esplanade and lead from the Portal Entrance at the bay, through downtown, and up to the mesa containing the park. He regarded Cortez Hill as a “section of the city…capable of intensive residential expansion, creating an apartment house district [and also encouraging] hotels facing the waterfront” in the area.14 Civic leaders agreed with his vision, and soon apartment houses appeared in the vicinity including the Elliott Arms Apartments, still in operation on 1562 Seventh Avenue.

In this setting then, on the site once occupied by the Victorian-era home of Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., the El Cortez Apartment Hotel rose to an impressive 310 feet atop a 175 foot hill.15 Towering above every other building in the city, the hotel offered penthouse guests a fabulous view thirty miles out to sea on a clear day; the San Diego Magazine boasted that visitors to the second-floor Sports Deck could enjoy sights of the “skyline, bay, shipping, Army and Navy air activities, Coronado, Coronado Islands, Point Loma, and the broad Pacific.”16

Local capitalist and landowner Richard T. Robinson, Jr., financed the two million dollar venture with a national bonding company, and hired noted Los Angeles architects Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen to design the fourteen-story, reinforced concrete structure.17 Walker and Eisen, both native Californians who formed a partnership in 1919, gained status for their large structure designs, including the Fine Arts and Texaco Oil buildings in Los Angeles, and particularly for their hotel and apartment house building in Southern California. Before designing the El Cortez, the architects had already created the Ardmore Apartments in Los Angeles, the William Penn Hotel in Whittier, the Hollywood Plaza Hotel and Havenhurst apartments in Hollywood, and the Breakers Hotel in Long Beach. They would design the jewel of apartment hotels, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, the same year as the El Cortez.18 Their careers extended from creating the San Gabriel City and Municipal Hall in 1923 to the Sunkist Building in Los Angeles completed in 1936.19 The William Simpson Construction Company, which for ten years from 1921-31 “directed its attention to construction in the San Diego-Los Angeles area,” oversaw construction.20

From its debut at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture had remained popular in the southwest. Walker and Eisen utilized its most predominant characteristics for the El Cortez, especially at its stately entrance. The dramatic recessed and arched doorway of cast stone at the center tower featured flanking columns roped in cable molding and a cartouche overhead etched with “Sea Bienvenida,” or Be Welcomed. The rich and ornate entrance with a variety of motifs including shells, foliage, figures, urns, crests, and ribbons lent a baroque air to the Churrigueresque-styled building.21 In sharp contrast to the vivid entrance, smooth plaster covered the exterior walls, punctuated only with double-hung windows, two quarter-foil windows, and two false balconies. The architects turned to elaboration again at the top floors of the building using pilasters topped with Corinthian columns, finials and roofline cresting, a dentil course, and intricate cross work to contribute to the building’s eclectic style. Once inside, tile fountains, palm courts, rich tapestries, and skylights added to the romantic Spanish ambiance.

The flat-roofed structure, with its “cut-back” tangent six-story wings set at 45o from the central tower, contained 117 rooms, thirty-two of which served as hotel rooms, while eighty-five rented as apartments. Occupants of the spacious residences boasted living and dining rooms, kitchens with individual electric refrigeration systems, and Murphy beds. Other modern conveniences included a soundproofing system of “installed deadening areas between all the walls, floors and ceilings,…floor plugs, [and] radio outlets.”22 Windows were constructed such that when opened, the screens would disappear, so as to allow for optimal fresh air and unobstructed views.23 If needed, the apartments could be converted to hotel rooms by simply opening and closing certain doors.

Guests of the El Cortez enjoyed lavish interiors of Renaissance styles in their personal rooms, that included “beautiful walnut furniture,” the finest quality of Irish linens, damask and tapestry hangings, and fine rugs laid over plush lining, and dramatic lamps.24 The specially-designed furniture in the public rooms exuded wealth as well as romance, such as the hand-carved benches upholstered in red mohair which lined the long arcade into the building. Tapestries hung at the windows in the lounge while “very beautiful hand-blocked linen in blue, old gold and raspberry shades” covered the main dining room’s windows. A “heavy Saxony carpet in Spanish colors and motifs [in] soft, old reds, green, orange and blue” covered the dining room floor.25 El Cortez manager Frank Cummings, Jr. emphasized in several articles appearing within the apartment hotel’s first year of operation that no detail was “overlooked in order to produce an effect of comfort, simplicity, refinement and artistic arrangement.”26 Indeed, each visitor to the El Cortez was greeted at the entrance by a “dashing young caballero, attired in black, with a sash of brilliant red and yellow and a broad-brimmed velvet hat,” who threw open the great door with a flair equal to his costume.27 No matter if one passed by the doorman only occasionally or daily on their way to their furnished apartment, the effect of his costume and demeanor certainly contributed to the enchanting ambiance of the establishment.

Yet, “enchanting” would not be the description used by most city-dwellers to describe their neighborhood. Rather, cities in the United States became noisy with the shrieks of steel on steel as Americans witnessed one of the biggest building booms in history, especially with the birth of the skyscraper. The invention of the elevator in the 1850s and use of iron, rather than masonry, for structural supports allowed architects to build up rather than out.

Skyscrapers first appeared in American cities in the 1880s, but the 1920s became the decade of the high-rise building, with reportedly 377 buildings reaching at least twenty stories tall.28 Nationwide, cities grew larger, property values increased, and communal living became a way of life for many. According to Howard P. Chudacoff, “between 1920 and 1926 the value of land in cities with populations above thirty thousand increased twenty fold.”29 San Diego, with a population of nearly 148,000 by 1930, represented one of those cities that began transforming its business district, vertically as well as horizontally.

At the same time, investment in the automobile liberated some families from residence in the city, thus establishing the migration to American suburbs. Automobiles also created a culture of vacationing, unprecedented in the United States prior to World War I. Just as the escape of downtown congestion gave birth to the suburbs, the culture of escaping away on a vacation led to the expansion of hotels. Nowhere was this notion of escapism better reflected than in architecture. Everywhere the preference for romantic evocations of the past took form — Moorish villas in Florida, Spanish revival in California; neo-Colonial on the east coast.30 El Cortez followed that fashion.

El Cortez, as a dual-purpose building, followed the national trend of developers investing their capital in hotel apartment houses to meet the growing demands of professionals tied to life in the city, either as temporary residents or permanent dwellers.31 The addition of hotel services to apartment houses emerged in the early twentieth century as the automobile, train, and steamer made business travel practical and affordable. Moreover, widespread advertising by car manufacturers, railroads, chambers of commerce and boards of trade enticed Americans to travel in greater numbers for business as well as pleasure. Surging metropolitan populations and increased tourist travel created a need for more urban housing, however, it was professionals who placed demands on hotel apartment houses to provide a more luxurious residential experience. The buildings designed by Walker & Eisen met this desire in the Southwest.

Symbols of capitalistic success, a typical American hotel apartment house became much more than a place of temporary or even permanent residence, developing instead along more public lines and becoming almost a civic monument, a center of communal life.32 At these hotels, society staged great dinners and balls, political organizations rallied, and leaders called mass meetings. In a very real sense, the hotel became a town hall, a place in which the guests felt an instinctive, if somewhat irrational ownership. It is this public character that made necessary great monumental lobbies, magnificent ballrooms, and capacious restaurants.

The octagonal-shaped Don Room on the ground floor of the El Cortez was just such a space. Designed to evoke images of Spanish galleons, its ornately carved sandalwood ceiling supported by eight massive pillars and a $3,000 inlaid maple floor provided San Diegans with a grand ballroom unlike any ever seen in the area. Extraordinary special effects of electric lights shining through tiny openings in transparent blue glass overhead center panels produced the feeling of dancing under the stars. It soon became the site of wedding receptions for San Diego’s most prominent families as well as dinners for visiting dignitaries.33

San Diegans did not require a special invitation, however, to experience the luxury of the El Cortez for one only needed to turn left upon entry of the lobby to enjoy the pleasures offered at the Aztec Dining Room. Site of special occasion dinners like Christmas and Thanksgiving Day, the lavish opulence of the 200-seat room generated from its “scheme of Moorish Spanish elaboration on a fundamental Aztec design.”34 Style critics soon recognized the room “as the outstanding eating rendezvous of the community …because of its vast windows, brilliant ceiling and handsome equipment.”35 Native San Diegan Edwina B. Sample fondly remembers the Thanksgiving her uncle arrived at the family home in Mission Hills and announced he had a special treat for them that day. The impressionable teen soon found herself walking into the Aztec Dining Room and feeling overwhelmed by the elegance. When asked about her memory of the room, Sample responded:

Glorious! The most elegant thing I’d even seen at fifteen, sixteen years of age. Of course, the El Cortez itself was a spectacular structure, but that main dining room captivated me by its beauty. The whole atmosphere surrounding the place was festive. Nothing else in San Diego could compare to that dining room.36

The public character of grand hotel apartments like the El Cortez created aesthetic and mechanical design problems, for there was always a double aim to achieve intimacy and size, formality and charm. The hotel apartment house was a public building that must not seem too public, and a personal home that must never be forbidding or eccentric. Set in San Diego — A community that insisted on retaining a small-town personality — helped the El Cortez management achieve an intimate feeling. Those dining and dancing at the hotel represented the elite minority of city residents, consisting of white, upper-class financiers, physicians, lawyers, and politicians. The El Cortez appealed to this group for the obvious reasons of style as well as exclusivity.

El Cortez as Public Servant

Economic and political power remained in the hands of a few throughout the next decade, especially in the midst of the Depression, and they continued to turn to the El Cortez to host their special engagements. Unfortunately, the owner of the hotel, Richard Robinson, did not weather the financial storm as well as his hotel; in 1936 he sold the building to the San Diego-based El Cortez Company reportedly to escape “a stroke of bad luck,” soon disappearing from the city.37 Almost immediately, in 1937 the Company installed the large “El Cortez” sign which could be seen for miles at both day and night.38 It also launched an expansion program that added in June 1940 the Sky Room on the fifteenth floor, creating perhaps the most memorable change to the building.39

Known for the spectacular 360o view, Sky Room patrons could enjoy ocean sunsets along with their martinis on a clear night through 70 percent glass exterior walls. Stylish decor included an art deco, Lucite “extravaganza” above its elliptical-shaped bar.40 To eliminate a smoky atmosphere, a modern air conditioning system completely changed the air every four minutes. Soon after its opening, the Sky Room became the social gathering place for fashionable San Diegans.

As the tallest building in San Diego, the El Cortez could offer its visitors breath-taking retreats, but that height served a completely different purpose after December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That night, “Marines surrounded the hotel with fixed bayonets to protect high officials,” securing the hotel as a point of military operation.41 An anti-aircraft battery and radar station was installed on the El Cortez roof the next day. Battery Commander Herman Silversher, stationed with the Army’s anti-aircraft 244th Regiment in San Diego from 1942 to 1945, remembers well his trips to the El Cortez roof via the Sky Room during air raid practices:

Since I was the search light battery commander, I would observe the action of the search lights at night. So some times I had to go on the roof of the El Cortez and there was no way of getting up there except through this bar that was on top. It was a beautiful bar. [To] the people sitting at the table, I had to “excuse me” and there I am in my uniform stepping on their table and getting out the window, walking up the fire escape to the top of the El Cortez to look at the mission.42

World War II dramatically altered life in San Diego, including the operation of the El Cortez. In 1941, the hotel lost its Manager and Executive Assistant Manager within one week’s time to the draft, so a twenty-two-year-old bell hop and night auditor received quick promotion to management status. That young man, George L. Stillings, also left for Navy service after several months as hotel manager, but returned to work for the El Cortez after his tour of duty, eventually serving as General Manager from 1947 to 1952.43 The hotel also attracted unwanted attention from the military. Stillings remembers the night in 1943 when staff tried to paint the Sky Room using spray guns in the middle of the night. “The Navy told us to quit,” Stillings recounted, because “they thought we were signaling enemy ships at sea.”44

Paranoia along with housing shortages prevailed in the city during the first years of the war. As a center of defense, in both the training and management of troops as well as manufacturing of munitions, World War II created irreversible change for San Diego. Numbers tell much of the story: a population of 147,995 residents in 1930 swelled to 203,341 in 1940. An estimated 100,000 people arrived in 1941 alone, making the 1942 population stand at 380,000. Many of these newcomers represented military personnel and their families, thus “khaki and navy blues quickly replaced two-piece suits” among male citizens.45 Shipyard, aircraft, and munitions plant workers also relocated to San Diego, leaving city officials initially hard-pressed to suitably accommodate residents. Some recent arrivals remember that the rush to erect housing led to an infestation of rats and roaches as well as homes with no indoor plumbing.46 But the completion of twenty thousand new homes by the end of 1942 solved the worst of the housing crunch, although food and gas rationing remained intense until the war’s end in 1945.47 By 1945, nearly 500,000 people lived in San Diego.

World War II also brought an unprecedented prosperity to San Diego. Indeed, connections to defense production and general support of major military installations provided a healthy economy for the city into the 1980s. Business development beyond downtown’s central district expanded the power base north to Mission Valley and Kearny Mesa, spurring the need for suburban planning and improvements. The development of Mission Valley for shopping and Mission Bay for recreation created new attractions for San Diegans to enjoy. The allure of these new leisure centers created competition for the El Cortez. Some thought the now thirty-year-old sensation needed a face lift to boost it into an era more flashy, even plastic, than exhibited in its Spanish design. The new owner, Harry Handlery, offered the hotel just such a change.

The Age of Neon

In October 1951, San Francisco businessman Harry Handlery purchased the hotel from the El Cortez Company, making it the thirteenth in a string of hotels for the entrepreneur. Reputed to have fallen in love with the hotel, Handlery made it his permanent residence and embarked on a multi-million dollar mission to expand, add, and alter both the exterior and interior design. As one observer noted about Handlery’s quest to make the El Cortez “the finest hotel on the Pacific Coast,” preserving the original beauty of the structure did not figure into his plans. Proclamations that “the hammers will never be still as long as I own the Cortez,” were enough to “strike fear into a preservationist’s heart.”48

No matter what preservationists would say in the following decades, Handlery understood the American consumer of the 1950s. The Stardust Hotel in Mission Valley — owned by Handlery — exemplified the style of architecture he found appealing and hoped to add to the El Cortez. American lust for consumer goods after World War II did not include the luxury of a hotel room in a slowly declining downtown. Indeed, vacationing travelers rested their weary heads on the pillows of a new kind of architecture, the motel. In the mid-nineteenth century, the presence of a hotel in the business district represented city success, but a century later, travelers turned instead to motels for lodging. Historian of suburban life, Kenneth T. Jackson, notes that the presence of motels (from 26,000 establishments in 1948 to 60,000 motels in 1960 and double that figure by 1972) signaled the demise of the hotel; by the early 1970s an “old hotel was closing somewhere in downtown America every thirty hours.”49 The popularity of motel use shifted travel stay, and thus dollars, from urban centers to the suburbs.

To fight the lure of sparkling suburban shopping centers, Handlery installed technological novelties as marketing ploys to attract tourists and residents alike to the El Cortez, especially the white, middle-class visitor. As an alternative to the grandeur of the Hotel del Coronado or U. S. Grant Hotel on downtown’s Broadway, the El Cortez catered to suburban families looking for a more affordable ballroom to hold their wedding, prom or bar mitzvah banquet. The Sky Room offered the white, middle class an opportunity to step into luxury for an evening. The enthusiastic reception by San Diegans to Handlery’s sense of architecture speaks volumes about their need for all things new. In fact, the residents themselves were new; between 1940 and 1970, San Diego’s population increased more than fourfold, migrating in large measure from points east of the Mississippi River.50

To attract resort visitors back to San Diego’s downtown and especially to the El Cortez, Handlery added a swimming pool in 1952, the Caribbean wing in 1954, the Starlight Room on the twelfth floor in 1956, and the Travolator Motor Hotel across Seventh Avenue in 1959, all of which catered to a new kind of client, the business traveler in for convention or sales meetings.51 The Caribbean wing was Handlery’s answer to the absence of a convention center in the city. Opened on December 30, 1954, the eight-story, two million dollar addition included 100 rooms and suites, a grand ballroom, swimming pool, patio, and patio-side dining room called simply Cafe Cortez. To entice visitors to spend more than just hotel dollars in San Diego, Handlery replaced the palm court and garden of the original hotel design with retail space at the street floor.52 The newly aligned twelfth-floor Starlight Room and Sky Room atop the original structure created widespread excitement for the fabulous views and chic experience they offered to patrons, especially to young adults enjoying their first tastes of nightlife.53 San Diegans received the architectural changes as favorable, noting that the “orientally upturned eaves” of the Starlight Room lent an “exotic note” to the “shoe-box shaped hotel.”54

But Handlery’s most prominent addition was the “Starlight Express,” an exterior glass elevator installed in 1956 which delivered its passengers from the hotel lobby to the fifteenth-floor Sky Room. It also made stops at a new dining room built over the lobby deck and the Starlight Room on the twelfth floor.55 Site of many promotional stunts and squeals of wonder from patrons, the elevator served its purpose of attracting visitors to the hotel and became one of the most memorable forms of entertainment for San Diegans. “Absolutely exciting,” recalled Edwina Sample about the first time she rode the elevator. “One enjoyed the most spectacular view of the city from the elevator, especially at night.”56 Daisy Burns Munchtando’s description of her experience riding the elevator won her first place in a writing contest:

Sixteen of us stepped into sheer outer space. This was the maximum load and we were counted. We hung suspended in mid-air in a clear glass cage as we slowly climbed up the front of the building. Subdued lighting and soft “piped-in” music produced a feeling of luxurious unreality. There was complete silence lest someone break the spell. The verbose had lost voice, overwhelmed by the magic fairyland of the soundless city far below.57

Hotel staff also had memorable stories regarding the “Starlight Express.” Max Mesa, who started working at the hotel as a busboy in the 1950s and eventually retired as the maitre d’ of the Sky Room, recalled that his “strangest assignment was bringing bucket after bucket of water” to the elevator so an Ice Follies employee could freeze it on the floor to fashion a pond for a publicity skater.58 Guests entered the elevator from the hotel lobby, creating lines of people that stretched out to the street, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

Designed by C. J. “Pat” Paderewski, the elevator was only the second operational glass exterior elevator in the world. Its unique design that used a hydraulic ram principle created quite a stir among architects and builders. An exterior elevator in Europe operated on the traditional cable principle, but Paderewski’s design called for a 12-inch thick steel ram to push the cab up the front of the hotel. The solid steel ram, powered by five motors aggregating 150 horse-power, dropped 175 feet into the ground when the elevator was at lobby level. Two rails held the cab in place, and neon stars decorated the enameled metal in between the elevator rails.59

Moving the elevator outside the hotel saved valuable hotel room space (one room per floor) but getting it built required considerable patience by Handlery and Paderewski. Two major national elevator companies, Otis and Westinghouse, refused to build the controversial design before the three partners in the local firm, Elevator Electric Inc., agreed to the installation. Those men — Arnold Hunsberger, Wendell “Vern” Larson and Richard McIntyre — met with Paderewski at the Pullman restaurant on Fifth Avenue to firm up details. According to Hunsberger, “four hours and 50 napkin drawings later we had the elevator’s original concept.”60 Paderewski also designed an elevated moving sidewalk that linked El Cortez with the Travolator Motor Hotel, a $2.3 million motel-garage across Seventh Avenue. Like the glass elevator, the sidewalk — called simply the “travolator” — offered riders a view of downtown San Diego.

Handlery and his staff catered to the business community still located in downtown, making the El Cortez the center of meetings, programs, and fundraisers. With no convention center in the city, many organizations turned to the hotel to provide space for their special dinners, including city and county government. It also served as the site for a variety of business activities: the idea for the first all-female public relations firm in San Diego, Sullivan & Sample, germinated at a March of Dimes fundraiser held at the El Cortez in 1951; several key powerbroker organizations, such as the San Diego Rotary, Kiwanas, and the Ad Club, held their meetings at the hotel; and the Singles Club Association held its weekly dances in the ballrooms.61

As former city planner Anthony W. Corso explains, the 1950s represent a time when San Diego “grew larger but not necessarily more urbane.”62 Content with the expansion into the suburbs and continued relationship with the military, San Diego’s leaders seemed unaware of the lack of major building projects in the city since the boom period of the twenties, especially in its downtown. The 1959 layoff by defense builder Convair of some 21,000 workers “disrupted this idyllic state of prosperity,” emphasizing once again San Diego’s dependency on military contracts.63 Commercial and business leaders responded to the dilemma by forming San Diegans, Inc., an organization which soon became the “official representative of downtown interests.”64

A variety of projects dedicated to the revitalization of downtown began in the 1960s, namely the Charles Dail Community Concourse and the 3,000-seat Civic Theatre on Second and C Streets which opened in January 1965. No longer a sleepy resort town, San Diego now claimed prestige as the sixteenth largest city in the country. That same year, Harry Handlery died of a heart attack, signaling the decline of the El Cortez Hotel as a center of the downtown social world. Staff recognized the owner’s devotion to service as he often made rounds throughout the hotel checking on its smooth operation, helping waiters clear tables and bartenders mix drinks during rush hours.65 His younger son, Paul, took over the hotel’s management, however, he did not share in his father’s love of the El Cortez. In 1978, he sold the building for almost eight million dollars to Rev. Morris Cerullo, head of World Evangelism Inc., and the hotel entered an unusual if short period of service as home to evangelical ministry and training.66 World Evangelism put an indelible mark on the building: first, by poorly installing individual air conditioning units that eventually disfigured the hotel’s exterior; and secondly, by ripping out the interiors to accommodate cafeteria-style eating rather than fine dining. Single-family living areas were converted into dormitory-style quarters and the deluxe furnishings of the hotel’s early years were auctioned off.67 The hotel quickly fell into disrepair when the organization failed to expand as intended. Sold again in 1981, the El Cortez changed hands several times in the last two decades of the twentieth century, making it vulnerable to demolition by neglect.

Sources suggest that hotel staff felt betrayed at the sale of the hotel. In describing Paul Handlery, one employee stated, “He is a very nice person but he does not like San Diego.” Another expressed that, “[Harry] never would have sold this place. It was his love.”68 But perhaps the younger Handlery understood that newer buildings in downtown, such as the Home Federal Savings and Loan high-rise which rose twenty stories, surpassed the romantic splendor of the El Cortez. The once-commanding presence of the hotel upon Cortez Hill had whittled away with the turn to skyscrapers in San Diego’s downtown.

Revitalizing Cortez Hill

The 1990 historic site designation to the exterior of the El Cortez paved the way for the revitalization of Cortez Hill, a process riddled with differing views, agendas, and interested parties. Ten years later, the historic preservation development firm, J. Peter Block Companies, celebrated the completion of the hotel’s exterior restoration by hosting a gala benefit party in June 2000. Purchased by the company in 1997, the renovation of the El Cortez exemplifies the “fundamental transformation” occurring in urban development over the past several decades. Urban renewal analyst Alexander J. Reichl notes that cities no longer focus on “large-scale projects of clean-sweep destruction and rebuilding that characterized urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s,” but rather look to historic preservation as the “only widely accepted strategy guiding urban development” in most major cities. In fact, Reichl argues, that “historic preservation has become the glue holding together pro-growth coalitions in some cities today.”69

Historic preservation in San Diego illustrates the success of “pro-growth coalitions,” starting with the rebirth of the Gaslamp Quarter District in the 1970s and continuing in the twenty-first century with mixed-use neighborhoods such as Cortez Hill.70 The preservation of the El Cortez structure offers a sense of how certain constituencies such as commercial developers, civic leaders, and preservationists coalesce to redevelop and grow particular areas of the cities. The focus of preserving notable structures for multi-use projects remains the guiding principle to establishing historic significance. As historian Diane Barthel explains, the tangibility of historic structures create a collective historical identity in ways unique from “historic texts and media representations…thus a resource that should not be wasted or treated casually or negligently.”71

Structural preservation, however, often supersedes the gathering of the social history of the area. In America, preserving a building equates to saving the stories created in the building; the first acts of preservation centered around saving the birthplaces of presidents or Constitutions, namely the homes of George Washington (Mount Vernon in 1853) and Andrew Jackson (The Hermitage in 1856), and the site of the First Continental Congress (Carpenter’s Hall in 1856).72 “In the United States,” Barthel explains, “preservation initially served as one means of social integration: not just of classes but, equally important, of the increasingly diverse racial and ethnic populations. The homes of local heroes, revolutionary leaders, and of presidents were meant to teach civic obedience both to new generations and to new immigrants arriving through the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They helped construct civic identities.”73

Preserving that identity, however, is neither simple nor unbiased. Judgments rendered through observation, research, and politics establish the direction and success of preservation projects. Restoration of the Gaslamp Quarter District, a sixteen-block area that combined structural preservation with inventive retail development, offered city officials a successful model which the El Cortez Hotel did not fully meet.74 Some city leaders argued the eyesore should simply be razed, thereby clearing the way for the modernization of the area.75

If demolished, preservationists argued, gone would be the memories of hundreds of San Diegans relaxing in the pools of the hotel, dancing at their Senior proms, dining at dignitary dinners, and protecting their country during time of war atop the hotel’s roof. Although not mentioned by preservationists, gone too would be the countless untold stories revealing the seedier side of the El Cortez, where organized crime members were reputed to conduct business and show girls endured sexual harassment.76 While nostalgia privileges the pleasant memories, the grit of the hotel has also cast a shadow across Cortez Hill. Scholar Dolores Hayden reminds us that the vernacular landscape is an important yet often forgotten reflection of urban life, making the story of “how places are planned, designed, built, inhabited, appropriated, celebrated, despoiled, and discarded” critical features of urban history. According to Hayden, urban preservation is enlarged upon the telling of diverse histories that situate the underclass as central components of the story rather than keying into “European architectural fashions and their application to American monumental buildings.”77

Controversy had swirled over designating the El Cortez Hotel as a historic structure since fears of it being razed surfaced in the early 1980s.78 It fit the criteria for historic designation, but it was also one of three sites in the city selected as potential ground to build a much-needed, taxpayer-supported convention center. That status initially overrode its historic significance.79 It soon became obvious, however, that other properties proved better suited to a convention center, and preservationists shifted their attentions toward defining which phase of the hotel’s life established its historic importance. For a period of time, developer and current owner of the hotel, J. Mark Grosvenor who purchased the property in December 1986, pursued placing the El Cortez on the National Register of Historic Places on the strength of its original 1927 design. Tax credits for the renovation drove his motivation to get the hotel named on the registry.80

The hotel’s Walker and Eisen design credentials carried great weight with national and local decision-makers, yet saving certain elements found in the hotel — namely the glass elevator, rooftop sign and neon stars — caused an emotional stir among interested citizens.81 Grosvenor planned to return the El Cortez to operating order sans elevator and stars. Claiming replacement parts to repair the machine were obsolete, Grosvenor found himself in a preservationist tangle. Several members of the city’s Historic Site Board regarded the elevator as a key component of the hotel’s historic significance. Memories of proms held particular weight among board members. Chair Kathryn Willets, who attended the 1961 Our Lady of Peace prom, stated “To any longtime San Diegan, the elevator has both emotional and historic significance.” Fellow board member Vonn Marie May also spent her prom night at the El Cortez (Point Loma High ’63), adding “It was the elevator that made a night at the El Cortez so thrilling. Any restoration that doesn’t include the elevator is incomplete.”82

True, the building had stood vacant and in disrepair since it closed in 1978, but why focus on 1927 when the hotel had survived decades of additions, many of which added to the distinction of the El Cortez as San Diego’s landmark hotel. Critics of the designation believed that additions and alterations, such as the glass elevator and moving sidewalk, added historic character. Inventions of the 1950s, these technological wonders created widespread attention for the city, making the El Cortez Hotel a center for promotional gimmicks and stunts as well as host to numerous business dinners and political fundraising parties. Yet, advocates of pure preservation pointed to other additions made in the 1950s by Handlery as changes infamous for their glaring ignorance of architectural dignity. Radiating fifties kitsch, the Caribbean wing, twelfth-floor Starlight Room (described by architectural purists as “bat wings”), and neon on many of the hotel’s surfaces (including the massive red neon sign on top of the building) overshadowed the intent of the original architecture to capture the Spanish romance already flowing in nearby Balboa Park.83

The Handlery stamp on the hotel spelled out much more than simple architectural freedom; it surrounds the hotel with post-World War II consumerism and zest for all things modern. The neon and “bat wings” of the Handlery phase oozed of what architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable describes as “fake” architectural forms perfected in the West and “invented to satisfy new social, commercial, and cultural requirements and criteria.”84 San Diegans and their out-of-town guests loved Handlery’s additions, especially the glass elevator that took them to the Starlight and Sky Rooms. A young soldier’s memory captures the significance of El Cortez as more than structure, especially in a city so dominated by the military:

In the summer of 1961, when the San Diego sun had scabbed my peeling, scrubbed skin I began to feel I always had lived at Navy boot camp in Point Loma and had been born there. My education, it seemed, consisted only of knots, ships, marching and the plodding literature of the Blue Jackets’ Manual. I probably would die in my rack one night after watch and be put on report the following reveille. Often I stared from the frame of my recruit life — my two aching arms and the 9-pound M-1 rifle I was born pushing over my head — at a colorful, bubbling point on San Diego’s dusk skyline over the then mostly vacant tidelands. It was the El Cortez Hotel, with its pink and green stars fizzing up to its Starlight Room. But I did not know that then. To me, at 17, the lights just meant civilization.85

But it wasn’t just the additions San Diegans loved; the hotel seemed to have gotten under their skins. One journalist described the El Cortez as “more than just a landmark, it is a memory-fogger. …More than the peak of the downtown skyline, it was for years the pinnacle of the social aspirations of young San Diegans.”86 Bob MacDonald, senior reporter for the Times-Advocate, publicly reminisced about lunch in the Starlight Room with his mother in honor of his high school graduation as well as sorority balls and fraternity dances in the Don Room “in the days when those things mattered.” MacDonald also remembered interviewing international dignitaries and leaders in those same rooms, recognizing that in some ways his entire life had been connected to the El Cortez.87

The National Park Service, however, disagreed with the local concerns and “strongly endorsed” proposals to remove the 1950s alterations and restore the original entry and roof ornamentation removed during Handlery’s ownership.88 Efforts by local preservationists and developers had solidified historic site designation but not without great debate, especially over certain elements so cherished by many San Diegans. In the end, national criteria and power directed local preservation decisions.

The varied stories of the El Cortez — those that stretch beyond the fanciful parties of San Diego’s elite — reveal life in the city beyond the utopian vision so marketed by civic leaders. Dennis O’Brien, general manager of the El Cortez when it closed in 1978, called the hotel a “nostalgic landmark.” O’Brien certainly held many memories of the place since he lived in the El Cortez as a youngster when his father, Harry F. O’Brien managed the hotel. “I think it sticks in people’s minds,” reflected the younger O’Brien. “It’s the hotel on the hill with the glass elevator. There’s an awful lot of people who have had some kind of important experience in the El Cortez.”89

The Sky Room and glass elevator with its sparkling stars no longer hold reign over the El Cortez nor does the original architecture enjoy the popularity it held in its wonder years. Its very presence on the hill, however, allows for nostalgia, no matter the period or decade in which those memories took form. The structure remains to guard some of the stories established when it was an apartment hotel and public servant, a neon wonder, and even a crumbling eyesore. The twenty-first century will bring new stories and memories as a different energy swirls about the hill, an energy determined by the ideals of historic preservation yet carried out by corporate development. So continues the enduring allure of the El Cortez, where gentrification will return the luxury so remembered by long-time residents of San Diego. San Diegans can now turn the tide and welcome the hotel back to Cortez Hill; “Sea Bienvenida” El Cortez, you have been missed.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors wish to thank the J. Peter Block Companies for supporting this project, especially in making available correspondence and artifacts from the El Cortez Hotel.


Notes

1. Don Juan Ramon, “El Cortez: San Diego’s Distinguished Electrical Hostelry,” News Meter, 3, no. 7 (January, 1928): 1-2, 5.

2. Corporate logos on tops of such buildings include the Comerica, Bank of America, and Union Bank of California; Marriott Suites; Harcourt Brace and Company; and Sempra Energy.

3. For an overview of the impact that the Exposition had on land development in San Diego see Richard Amero, “The Making of the Panama-California Exposition, 1909-1915,” Journal of San Diego History, 32, (Winter 1990): 1-47.

4. Preserving historically and architecturally important buildings, sites, structures, districts and objects became federally-monitored in 1966 with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. The action created a National Register of protected properties and infused federal money into state and local systems. The process of historic preservation is reviewed in Robert E. Stipe, “Historic Preservation: The Process and the Actors,” in The American Mosaic: Preserving A Nation’s Heritage, Robert E. Stipe and Antoinette J. Lee, eds. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997). Specifics on the historic designation of the El Cortez Hotel exterior are outlined in Historic Site Board Reports [hereafter HSB Reports], number 269 in the San Diego History Center Research Archives, in Balboa Park [hereafter SDHC]. See in particular Resolution Number R-90072513, 25 July 1990; and The Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Diego, “Environmental Impact Secondary Study for the El Cortez Hotel Block, the Villas at Cortez Hill, and the Lofts at Cortez Hill,” 10 March 1995, p. 5

5. Using historian Roger W. Lotchin’s definitive study of areas that successfully allied with the military to create new federal cities after World War I, Gregg R. Hennessey argues that, “beyond the tremendous economic and physical growth and the important governmental changes wrought by the naval presence in San Diego, the military also changed the social character of the city. Many servicemen chose to live in the area after retirement or discharge and could be found at all levels of the social structure.” See page 148 of Hennessey, “San Diego, the U.S. Navy, and Urban Development: West Coast City Building, 1912-1929,” California History, 72, (Summer 1993): 129-149. For a good overview of Lotchin’s theory on the development of the “martial metropolis,” especially as it pertains to cities in California see Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

6. Ibid., and Abraham Shragge, “‘A New Federal City’: San Diego During World War II,” Pacific Historical Review, 63, no. 3 (August 1994): 333-361.

7. Howard P. Chudacoff, The Evolution of American Urban Society, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1981), 200. Specific demographics for San Diego can be found in Albert Camarillo’s research on Mexican immigration. San Diego’s population changed from 74,683 in 1920 to 147,995 in 1930. See Camarillo, Chicanos in California (San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser Publishing Company, 1984), 34.

8. Lindburgh consulted engineers at nearby Rockwell Field in Coronado when preparing for his solo transatlantic airplane flight from New York to Paris in May 1927. See Iris H. W. Engstrand, San Diego: California’s Cornerstone (Tulsa: Continental Heritage Press, Inc., 1980), 86. Promotional slogans are listed on page 100.

9. For details on the architect see Sarah J. Schaffer, “A Civic Architect for San Diego: The Work of William Templeton Johnson,” Journal of San Diego History, 45, (Summer 1999): 167-187.

10. Engstrand, San Diego: California’s Cornerstone, 98.

11. Kyle E. Ciani, “The Fox Theatre: Dream Fulfilled for Philip L. Gildred,” unpublished paper, March 1990; and “First Earth Turned for Hotel Annex,” San Diego Tribune, 4 January 1954.

12. The Pathfinder Social Survey of San Diego published in 1914 catalogued some of the social welfare needs in the city. Researched and authored by the husband and wife reform team of Edith Shatto King and Frederick A. King, the report was the first document produced by the social work community in San Diego. The Kings’ investigation fell into eight categories: public health and sanitation; public education; recreation; delinquency; industrial conditions — foreign population; betterment agencies; civic improvement; and taxation and public finance. Strident in their critique of health care, social service and labor conditions, the Kings warned San Diegans on page 4 of their “undeveloped state of social consciousness and unconcern of many of its citizens for the needs of the whole.” For analysis of social welfare programming in the city see Kyle E. Ciani’s dissertation, “Choosing to Care: Meeting Children’s Needs in Detroit and San Diego, 1880 to 1945,” (Michigan State University, 1998); and Cyrus Wayne Stephens, “The History of Social Welfare Agencies in San Diego County, 1872-1914,” (M.A. thesis in Social Work, San Diego State College, 1966).

13. Hennessey offers an excellent account of the complex interplay between public and private water suppliers, attempts to reform city politics, and government mismanagement during the late twenties in his previously cited “San Diego, the U.S. Navy, and Urban Development.”

14. John Nolan, A Comprehensive City Plan for San Diego, California (Cambridge: Harvard Square, 1926), 21 and 28.

15. The Reid Brothers of Hotel del Coronado fame designed the home for Oren S. Hubble in 1887, who sold the property within two years to an unknown buyer. In 1893, the founder of National City, Ralph Granger, purchased the property. Two months later, Fannie C. Grant, daughter-in-law of former president Ulysses S. Grant, purchased the land and home. From there, she and her husband, U. S. Grant, Jr., could watch construction of their namesake hotel (the U.S. Grant) underway in San Diego’s downtown on Broadway. In 1926, the U.S. Grant Company sold the property to the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank. Richard R. Robinson, Jr. acquired the property from the bank shortly thereafter and tore down the Reid-designed home to make room for the El Cortez. Details outlined on page 1 of Author unknown, “El Cortez Hotel,” [hereafter Anonymous Report] in HSB Reports 269. On the accomplishments of the Reid Brothers see, Cynthia Barwick Malinick, “The lives and works of the Reid brothers, architects 1852-1943,” (M.A. thesis, University of San Diego, 1992).

16. San Diego Magazine, 5, (March 1929).

17. Robinson also “backed construction” of the Commonwealth Building, located in downtown San Diego at Fifth and B Avenues as well as a “number of other successful local projects.” See “$2,000,000 Hotel to be Erected at Seventh and Ash,” San Diego Union, Development Section, 14 November 1926, 1.

18. Donald J. Schippers, “Walker & Eisen: Twenty Years of Los Angeles Architecture, 1920-1940,” Southern California Historical Quarterly (December 1964): 379. For an overview of the effects certain architects (including Walker and Eisen) established for Southern California in terms of hotel and apartment living, see Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), especially pages 211-217.

19. “Walker & Eisen: Buildings list” in HSB Reports 269.

20. Building With Confidence (Los Angeles: William Simpson Construction Company, 1945) located in SDHC. In San Diego the company also built the first seven structures of the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park, the Fox Theatre, and the Sanford and Colonial Apartment Hotels.

21. Named after Spanish architect Jose Churrigucra (1650-1723), churrigueresque architecture is characterized by elaborate and extravagant decoration, often of or relating to the Baroque period of architecture in Spain.

22. Margaret K. Stewart, “El Cortez,” Progressive Arizona, 6, no. 4 (April 1928), 2.

23. Ramon, “El Cortez: San Diego’s Distinguished Electrical Hostelry,” 5.

24. Stewart, “El Cortez,” 3.

25. Ibid.

26. Quoted in Stewart, “El Cortez,” 3. Other articles included Ramon, “El Cortez: San Diego’s Distinguished Electrical Hostelry;” and Author unknown, “Pieces of Gold and Faithful Service,” Progressive Arizona (July 1928).

27. Stewart, “El Cortez,” 2.

28. Chudacoff, Evolution of American Urban Society, 74, and 203-204.

29. Ibid., 203.

30. Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 708.

31. Americans accepted apartment house living as early as the 1830s as an alternative to the crowded and deprived living conditions of tenements and boarding homes. Historian Gunther Barth explains that, “as an essential urban institution the apartment house had a number of economic advantages. It was an intensive and functional way of living that permitted the concentration of people in most areas of the big city, boosted land values almost everywhere, stimulated building construction, and augmented the power of capital to provide services.” See Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 52.

32. Talbot Faulkner Hamlin, The Yale Pageant of America: The American Spirit in Architecture (New York: United States Publishers Association, 1926), 280.

33. Dining room menus in the SDHC Collection list stuffed lobster thermidor and boneless royal squab with wild rice for the main course; turtle soup, and French pastries as house specialties.

34. “50,000 View Beauties of New El Cortez Apartment Hotel,” San Diego Union, 24 November 1927, 9.

35. Stewart, “El Cortez,” 2.

36. Interview with Edwina B. Sample, 1 April 2000, by Kyle E. Ciani.

37. Anonymous Report, 2; and Steve LaRue, “Misty, water-colored memories of the way we were,” Times-Advocate, 20 August 1978, 4. Rumor placed Robinson in El Centro driving a Pennzoil truck after he departed San Diego. Little is known about the El Cortez Company.

38. Dates derived from photographic evidence in the SDHC Photograph Collection.

39. “New Sky Room,” San Diego Progress Journal, 14 June 1940.

40. “Liberty Town, World War II,” San Diego Union, 28 September 1988.

41. Correspondence from George L. Stillings to J. Peter Block Company, 1 December 1999 in possession of authors.

42. Interview with Herman Silversher by Susan Painter, 24 May 1990, San Diego Historical Society, Oral History Program.

43. Ibid.

44. Stillings correspondence, 1 December 1999.

45. Anthony W. Corso, “San Diego: The Anti-City,” in Sunbelt Cities: Politics and Growth Since World War II, Richard M. Bernard and Bradley R. Rice, eds. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), 329.

46. Ruth Martin to Kimberly A. Hall, February 1993, San Diego State University Oral History Collection, San Diego State University Special Collections, Malcolm A. Love Library. Hall’s interview with Martin is one of several she conducted with women who experienced World War II in San Diego. They provide a nucleus for her masters thesis, “Women During War: Responses to Situations in San Diego, 1941-45,” (San Diego State University, 1993).

47. On the expansion of housing during World War II, see Carl Abbott, The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 118-119; and Christine Killory, “Temporary Suburbs: The Lost Opportunity of San Diego’s National Defense Housing Projects,Journal of San Diego History, 39, (Winter-Spring 1993): 33-49.

48. Anonymous Report, 2.

49. Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 253-54.

50. John Findley, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture After 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 17.

51. Businesses contracting with the Travolator Motor Hotel included American and National Airlines to house its overnight flight crews. See San Diego Tribune, 10 July 1978, B1.

52. “El Cortez Addition Hailed As Opening New Era for San Diego,” San Diego Union, 30 December 1954.

53. San Diego Daily Transcript, 6 July 1982.

54. La Rue, “Misty, water-colored memories,” 4.

55. “El Cortez Outside Elevator to Feature Transparent Cab,” San Diego Tribune, 8 December 1955.

56. Sample interview.

57. Daisy Burns Munchtando, “Section II-1968 Article and Poetry Winners, First Exterior Glass Elevator,” in possession of J. Peter Block Companies.

58. Craig Macdonald, “From Atop the El Cortez See a City Below,” San Diego Union, 17 October 1976, F6.

59. “Only One of Kind: El Cortez Outside Elevator to Feature Transparent Cab,” San Diego Tribune, 8 December 1955.

60. Greg Joseph, “An Engineering Visionary: Builder ‘Reconstructs’ First Glass Elevator,” San Diego Tribune, 25 August 1989, D-5.

61. Sample interview; and San Diego Tribune, 10 July 1978.

62. Corso, “San Diego: The Anti-City,” 331.

63. Ibid., 332.

64. Ibid. See also Clare White’s interesting history of the organization in “The Big Stroll,” San Diego Magazine (November 1986): 125-26.

65. LaRue, “Misty, water-colored memories,” 3.

66. The exact amount of sale was $7,485,000. LaRue, “Misty, water-colored memories,” 3-4; and San Diego Tribune, “Handlery Rite Held,” 8 October 1970.

67. Anonymous Report, 9 and 11.

68. Ibid., 4.

69. Alexander J. Reichl, “Historic Preservation and Pro-growth Politics in U.S. Cities,” Urban Affairs Review, 32 (March 1997): 513-36.

70. Journalists Roger Showley and Lori Weisberg offer general accountings of neighborhood rebirth in The San Diego Union-Tribune, 26 March 2000, H1.

71. Diane Barthel, Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 2.

72. Ibid., 19.

73. Ibid., 33.

74. Criteria for historic designation stipulate the presence of original forms as well as cultural supports within the vicinity. Ordinance No. 10519 of the Historic Site Board defines a historical site as “any site (including significant trees or other plant life located thereon), building, structure or mark of historical significance due to its association with such things as noted past events, historical persons, or distinguishing architectural characteristics.” See HSB Reports 127. Letters between Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), various lawyers, and historic researchers from 1989 – 1993 reflect disagreement on whether the El Cortez adequately met established criteria. See the exchanges in HSB Reports 269.

75. Dirk Sutro, “Historic Site Merit Weighed,” San Diego Daily Transcript, 6 July 1982; and Thor Kambian Biberman, “Fate of famed hotel key issue for El Cortez area,” San Diego Business Journal, 23 June 1986, 3.

76. Correspondence from George Stillings to J. Mark Grosvenor, 12 November 1989 in possession of J. Peter Block Companies. The casual treatment of sexual crime is reflected in Stillings recounting of an incident at the hotel which wrongly positions a “show girl” in a position of power. Stillings account has “a show girl [take] off all her clothes” on Christmas 1950, thus inviting “her male friend … to make improper advances.” The woman escaped from the room, running naked into the hotel lobby where members of a San Diego State Fraternity were gathered for a dance. Stillings tells us that, “Needless to say, she was the hit of the floorshow.” The terror this woman must have felt during this incident is downplayed by Stillings use of humor, thus denying the obvious victimization of the “showgirl.” We will never know the accurate sequence of events or the willingness of the woman to be involved in consensual sexual activity. We do know that ultimately she fell prey to unwanted advances and fled the scene, a public act that speaks louder than any misinterpreted acts occurring in private spaces.

77. Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 15 and 11.

78. Roger Showley, “El Cortez Hotel Would be Razed for New Complex,” San Diego Union, 15 May 1982.

79. Sutro, “Historic Site Merit Weighed;” and Paul Krueger, “The Inside Story,” The Reader, 22 July 1982.

80. Steve Schmidt, “Renovation planned for El Cortez Hotel,” San Diego Union, 24 March 1989, B-6.

81. “Historical Site Board Minutes,” 24 May 1989, Attachment 1 in HSB Reports 269.

82. Anthony Perry, “Hotel’s Outside Elevator Caught in Middle of Rift,” Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1989.

83. Playing off the popular 1960s television show, “Batman,” purists named the addition so for it did resemble wings, and was quite noticeable since it was glass, not smooth stucco.

84. Ada Louise Huxtable, The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (New York: The New Press, 1997), 75. Huxtable is perhaps best known for her public debate with urban sociologist Herbert J. Gans in a series of op-eds appearing in January and February of 1975 in the New York Times. Their debate over the meaning and reason for historic preservation is sensitively analyzed by Hayden in The Power of Place, 3-6.

85. Author unknown, Times-Advocate, 20 August 1978.

86. Bud Sonka, “El-Egant Thoughts: Landmark Requires Nostalgic Article Because it is The El Cortez,” Upfront, 24 May 1981.

87. Bob MacDonald, “Columnist says farewell to El Cortez Hotel,” Times-Advocate, 2 October 1978.

88. “Historic Site Board Report,” 14 September 1993, and U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service letter regarding the El Cortez Hotel historic site designation, 27 September 1989, both in HSB Reports 269. On September 27, 1989 the National Park Service declared that the “proposal to remove the sky room, cotillion room and exterior elevator is commendable,” thereby restoring the El Cortez essentially to its original 1927 appearance.

89. Hugh Grambau, “El Cortez to end its towering role in city’s history,” San Diego Evening Tribune 10 July 1978, B-1.


Kyle E. Ciani is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of San Diego where she teaches U.S. history, specializing in the histories of Women, Labor, the Environment, and the American West. She is currently working on a manuscript that analyzes how the changing culture of work directed child care choices made by parents, reformers, employers, and educators during the twentieth century. Dr. Ciani earned her Ph.D. in the history of Women and Gender from Michigan State University, and holds M.A. and B.A. degrees in History from the University of San Diego.

Cynthia Malinick is the Executive Director of the Coronado Historical Association. She has curated numerous exhibitions there since 1996, and most recently has overseen the organization’s renovation of and move into its new facility, the Museum of History and Art. She has researched, written and lectured about several prominent San Diego architects including: James and Watson Reid, builders of the Hotel del Coronado; Harrison Albright, designer of the U. S. Grant Hotel and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion; and William Wheeler, architect of the San Diego Athletic Club. Ms. Malinick holds a B.A. degree in Education and Fine Arts from the College of William and Mary, and an M.A. in History from the University of San Diego. Contact her at the Coronado Historical Association (619) 435-7242 or jsprckls@pacbell.net

Postcard views of the El Cortez Hotel