The largest resort hotel in the world and the first to use electric lighting opens on Coronado Island in San Diego. Its red-shingled roof and signature turret, with double rows of dormers and exterior 360-degree catwalk, make the hotel instantly recognizable. The hotel’s 9,300 square foot Crown Room with his 30-foot high ribbed ceiling uses only pegs and glue – not a single nail. A reporter for the San Diego Union writes:
“This vast and elegant room, with its wealth of appointment, is a rare sight, especially under the brilliant incandescent lights that illuminate it. The polished floors, over which an army of trained servants noiselessly glide, the high inlaid ceilings, the snowy linen and the flitter of the silverware and glassware combine to make it a most charming picture. The room may have its equal…but it certainly is not surpassed anywhere.”
Construction begins in March 1887 with the wife of co-owner Elisha Babcock turning the first spade of dirt. Babcock and his partner Hampton Story are land developers who buy Coronado in 1880 for $110,000. Like other real estate developments around the state – and nation – the addition of a hotel is thought to bring credibility to the venture. While sales of their subdivided island are brisk and profits far outstrip their initial investment, the grand design for the Del Coronado requires more money. Babcock and Story receive a $100,000 loan from sugar magnate John D. Spreckels who within two years has bought out both men and becomes sole owner of the hotel. The hotel stays in the hands of the Spreckels family until 1948. Babcock and Story hire Midwest architect James Reid and his brothers Watson and Merritt to build the Del. Babcock tells them he wants a hotel:
“Built around a court…a garden of tropical trees, shrubs and flowers,…. From the south end, the foyer should open to Glorietta Bay with verandas for rest and promenade. On the ocean corner, there should be a pavilion tower, and northward along the ocean, a colonnade, terraced in grass to the beach. The dining wing should project at an angle from the southeast corner of the court and be almost detached, to give full value to the view of the ocean, bay and city.”
The tall order is made taller by a lack of both lumber and labor in San Diego. Reid turns to Northern California for both, using Chinese immigrants from the Bay Area for labor and signing contracts giving him exclusive rights to lumber from Eureka-based Dolbeer & Carson, one of the biggest timber companies in the nation. Reid engages Thomas Edison to inspect the electrical wiring. The inventor returns in 1904 when the world’s first electrically lighted outdoor Christmas tree is placed on the hotel’s lawn.
Over the past 125 years, the majestic resort, which once sports an ostrich farm and jackrabbit hunts, is visited by 16 presidents, beginning with Benjamin Harrison. Other notable visitors include: Lillie Langtry, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Rudolph Valentino, Madonna, Judy Garland, James Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey and George Harrison. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, is a regular enough visitor that he pens at least three books in the series while staying at the Del during the first part of the 20th century: Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, The Road to Oz and The Emerald City. Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII of England, is feted at a Crown Room banquet on April 7, 1920. At the soiree is his future wife, Wallis Simpson, a resident of Coronado at the time. Liberace is discovered while playing piano at the Del in 1950. Management tells Liberace attendance is light enough he can cancel his show. Liberace refuses. A TV producer in the audience is wowed by Liberace’s ability to connect with the small crowd, thinking he’d be perfect for the small screen. The hotel itself stars in numerous films, most notably as the “Seminole Ritz” in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic, Some Like it Hot with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. It also plays a major role in 1980’s The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole.
Burke Ormsby describes the hotel in it’s post World War II days in a 1966 article in the San Diego Historical Society Quarterly:
“In the period from 1948 to 1960, the grand lady began to grow shabby. The basic architecture remained superb, but the interior showed lack of care. The furniture was a combination of sagging wicker, 1920 overstaffed, 1930 chrome and 1950 Grand Rapids. A slightly musty air of neglect hung about the upper rooms.”
In 1963, the hotel is purchased by real estate magnate Larry Lawrence for roughly $10 million. He spends $150 million to restore the hotel to its pre World War II grandeur as well as increasing the rooms to 700. He tells People in a March 21, 1988 interview:
“Our original plan was to buy the Del just for the value of the land; we were going to build condos but I couldn’t tear her down. I have to confess I fell in love when I first set eyes on her. When we took over the place the hotel’s total sales volume was $2 million a year. Now we can do that over a good weekend.”
Shortly after Lawrence’s death in 1996, his widow sells North America’s largest Pacific Coast beachfront resort, a National Historic Landmark since 1977, to the Travelers Group real estate and insurance conglomerate, which, in turn, sold it to The Blackstone Group in 2003.
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