The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2000, Volume 46, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Back to the article: The Twentieth Century Life of the El Cortez Hotel

El Cortez under construction in 1927

The El Cortez under construction in 1927 shows the mixed nature of the neighborhood the hotel would come to dominate. 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. [Photo 7235]
Cortez Hill in the late 1930s

Cortez Hill in the late 1930s. In 1937, the San Diego-based El Cortez Company installed the large “El Cortez” sign which could be seen for miles at both day and night. [Photo 83:14590-1]
Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. home

The Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. Victorian-era home was demolished to make way for the El Cortez. [Photo 628-2]

The recessed entry of the hotel was done in cast stone and carried the inscription, Sea Bienvenida, or “Be Welcomed”. The National Park Service, however, disagreed with the local concerns and “strongly endorsed” proposals to remove the 1950s alterations and restore the original entry. [Photo 1877-6]
El Cortez Sports Deck

The hotel’s second-floor Sports Deck was above the entrance and provided views of downtown, Coronado, Point Loma, the Coronado Islands, and the Pacific Ocean. [Photo 1877-10]
Cortez Hill

This 1929 photo shows Cortez Hill just west of the hotel and the building boom in the area. To the right is the Fox Theatre Building under construction. [Photo 6891]
Matt F. Heller's 80th birthday luncheon

Prominent businessman Matt F. Heller’s 80th birthday luncheon was held in the Don Room of the El Cortez in 1929. [Photo 12798]
Entrance to Don Room

The octagonal-shaped Don Room on the ground floor of the El Cortez was 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. [Photo 95:19385-24]
Hotel bedroom Hotel bedrooms could be part of an apartment or converted to hotel rooms by opening and closing certain doors. 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. [Photo 1877-9]

This 1937 photo shows the hotel before the sign was put on top of the building and with its gardens still intact. [Photo 7061]

This menu for the Don Room offers a sumptious dinner for $3 per person, including cover charge. [Friday October 18, 1940] 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. [ephemera box]
C.J. Paderewski

C.J. Paderewski designed the glass-enclosed elevator. Paderewski’s design called for a 12-inch thick steel ram to push the cab up the front of the hotel. [Photo S-6416]
Starlight Express

San Diego mayor Charles Dail shakes hands with Harry Handlery. May 10,1956. [Photo UT 84-4907]

The first ride in the new “Starlight Express” was filled with dignitaries. May 10,1956. The elevator served its purpose of attracting visitors to the hotel and became one of the most memorable forms of entertainment for San Diegans. [Photo UT 84-4907]
photo shows major changes Handlery made to the El Cortez

This 1956 photo shows all of the major changes Handlery made to the El Cortez. The famous “Starlight Express” whisked visitors to the newly enclosed winged upper floor that held the Starlight Room and the Sky Room. The Sports Deck above the entrance was also enclosed for restaurants. [Photo S-2897]
Travolator Motor Hotel

The Travolator Motor Hotel was built in 1959 and connected to the El Cortez hotel by a moving sidewalk. [Photo S-4907]
The Sky Room in 1964

The Sky Room in 1964. 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. Soon after its opening, the Sky Room became the social gathering place for fashionable San Diegans. [Photo 93:18923]
The annual debutante Harvest Ball

The new El Cortez became the downtown center for important social events in the 1950s and 1960s. The annual debutante Harvest Ball brought these fathers and daughters to the hotel in 1955. [ Photo UT84:special events/harvest ball, 10/1/1955]
El Cortez

The architects of the El Cortez, Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen, produced this rendering of the El Cortez Hotel. They also designed the jewel of apartment hotels, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, the same year as the El Cortez. [Print: ephemera box 156-8]
El Cortez

Back Cover: The newly refurbished El Cortez includes a new neon sign created by San Diegan Vince Scillato, who also made the original neon sign 63 years earlier.