Monday, October 26, 2020

The History Behind the Luxury: A Series About the Finest Historic Hotels in the World #2

The History Behind the Luxury, Part 2
Hotel del Coronado, San Diego

If you have ever visited Walt Disney World, you have likely seen the red gabled roofs of the Victorian-inspired Grand Floridian hotel, arguably the most luxurious and elegant of all on-property resorts. The resort was built in 1988, exactly 100 years after one of its main inspirations, the Hotel del Coronado which is located just across the bay from San Diego.  When the Hotel del Coronado (also known as "the Del") opened, it was the single largest resort in the world and is still the second largest wooden structure in the United States, second only to the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon. 

When the idea of the Del was beginning to form, San Diego was starting to undergo a transformation.  With a population of only 2,637 in 1880, by 1887, the area had grown to over 35,000 people. Often, during this time, developers would build grand hotels to draw people to undeveloped land.  Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story were no exception.  In 1885 they, and a group of investors, bought a 4,000 acre island and began planning the town of Coronado, a resort community intended to service their piece de resistance, the Hotel del Coronado.  They used the sale of land lots to help fund the project, and when construction began in 1886, nearly 2,000 laborers were working on the hotel full-time. 

Just as the hotel was nearing completion, the California land boom collapsed, and Babcock and Story found themselves in need of additional funds.  They turned to Charles T. Hinde and John D. Spreckels, who loaned them $100,000 to finish the hotel.  By 1890, Spreckels had bought out Babcock and Story, and his family retained ownership until 1948.  

When the Del opened in February 1888, over 1400 people boarded a ferry to travel to the island for the grand opening.  Guests were impressed with the hotel's amenities which, for the time, included such advancements as electricity, a state of the art sprinkler system, a phone system, and a steam-powered hydraulic elevator.  Rooms started at $2.50 per night.  In 1911, a chandelier designed by L. Frank Baum of "Wizard of Oz' fame was installed in the Crown Room, a location that was also a masterpiece in it's own right. Not a single nail was used in the ceiling - it was installed using only pegs and glue.  In 1904, the hotel debuted the world's first outdoor lit Christmas tree.  

Over the years, the Del has hosted many well-known figures including celebrities, royalty and US Presidents.  In 1920, a grand event was held in the Crown Room to honor Edward, Prince of Wales, and many speculate that this event is where he met his future wife Wallis Spencer.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the hotel became known as "Hollywood's Playground" because many celebrities would travel south to party during the Prohibition.  Over the years, such notable guests as Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, George Harrison, Barbra Streisand, Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey have frequented the hotel. The Del also seems to have a permanent guest. Kate Morgan checked in on November 24, 1892 and was found dead on the steps leading to the beach three days later.  Her death was declared a suicide, and her story became the inspiration for a Stephen King short story.  Presidents from Benjamin Harrison to Barack Obama have also stayed at the Del, and the hotel has been the backdrop for films such as "Some Like It Hot', starring Marilyn Monroe.  

During World War II, the Del became the hub of Naval activities and housed pilots and other military personnel. What was unusual during this time is that the hotel, unlike many others along the West coast, continued to accommodate civilian guests. After the War, the hotel began showing signs of age, and in 1960, a local millionaire purchased the hotel and spent $2M in renovations. He sold the Del in 1963 to M. Larry Lawrence who planned to demolish the historic hotel and develop the land around it but instead invested $150M to renovate and expand the property.  In 1977, the Hotel del Coronado was declared a National Historic Landmark. Since Lawrence, the hotel has had many different owners and today, Hilton manages the iconic hotel.  Currently undergoing a $200M renovation, the hotel closed to the public for the first time in its history in March 2020 for 90 days due to COVID-19 concerns.  Construction has continued, however, and the multi-year "re-imagination" is scheduled for completion in 2022. 

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