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Hotel history draws both locals and visitors

Across the bay from San Diego, on the bucolic island of Coronado, sits one of America's most beautiful beach resorts - the Hotel Del Coronado. This 118-year-old hotel is a registered National Historic Landmark, which has hosted 10 U.S. Presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison in 1891. With the foresight of two visionaries and lots of hard work, the elegant Victorian resort took only one year to construct. As Producer Milan Kovacevic shows us, a walk through the Del is a walk through time.

Kevin Starr, University Professor, University of Southern California: "Great buildings store time, store the reverberations of the past. And to this day, the Hotel del Coronado stores time, stores the reverberations of that first generation, that first national generation to discover the amenities and possibilities of San Diego."

The completion of Santa Fe's trans-continental railroad to San Diego in 1885 spurred an economic boom in the region.

Bruce Coons, Executive Director, Save Our Heritage Organization: "Two real estate investors named Babcock and Story were the builders of the hotel. They were attracted to the possibilities of the boom in real estate and they believed also that we were going to become the next great city and they wanted to build a magnificent hotel to match."

Starr: "The builders of the hotel wanted first of all to put a great resort hotel in a spectacular site and that was their focused ambition, but by implication most of the great resort hotels of the 19th Century were quasi-utopian statements. They stylized, idealized all the urban amenities that were possible now to this brave new world of the 19th Century."

Starr: "So the Del Coronado, in showcasing the weather, the beauty, the civility that were possible in San Diego, really showcases, forecasts what the city might offer as well as it grows up around the hotel."

Opened in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the Hotel del Coronado continues to attract visitors from across the United States and around the world.

Christine Donovan, Director of Heritage Programs, Hotel del Coronado: "There are two things that make the hotel unique overall: one, that it ever got built in the first place, and two, that it's still here. It was under rather extreme circumstances that the hotel was constructed. There was no wood here, there were no workers here, there was no industry in San Diego to support an effort like this so everything had to be imported, including, if you think about it, the vision to build to the hotel because that came from the Midwest and back east."

Supervised by Midwest transplants Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story, the one-year construction of the hotel began in March 1887. Support structures, including a brick kiln, planning mill, metal shop and barracks to house several hundred workers were built. Chinese carpenters from San Francisco bolstered the local labor shortage. And some 6,000 barrels of cement, 3,000 windows and doors, and 2,000,000 shingles went into building the Del.

Coons: "The hotel is made of Douglas Fir frame, which was called at the time Oregon Pine, and that's where it came from. Also, California Redwood, which came from Northern California. All of this material was shipped down from the San Francisco area on lumber barges and steamers and actually lumber ships."

The Hotel Del's lavish and flamboyant Queen Anne architecture was a favorite style for grand resorts of the Victorian period and a natural choice for the Del.

Coons: "This is a really great area to show some of the character-defining features of the Queen Anne architecture: the asymmetrical massing, the different tower styles and shapes. You can see several of different shingle patterns, which are common on Queen Anne's: the fish scale up on this dormer, and the random-butt shingles on this dormer, also the siding differentiates different floors and the angle Japanese railings up there, again. You can also see the stained glass, some of the original stained glass in the stairwell upstairs that was really prevalent in the hotel at one time."

Five stories high, the hotel was designed by architects James and Watson Reid around a central courtyard almost one-acre in size. Balconies and windows give views to the hotels nearly 400 rooms. And modern visitors stroll on the central garden's original serpentine walkway. Pioneer horticulturist Kate Sessions helped create the hotel's original gardens. Her choices included bougainvillea and palms, and she introduced the Bird of Paradise to San Diego at the Del. That the hotel still stands today, attests to the quality of its design, workmanship and materials.

Coons: "Wow Chris, this is really a good spot to see the old wall of the cistern, and it was also the same as the foundation. It was built out of really high quality concrete. You can see there's almost no deterioration to the concrete, even today. Look at the size of the aggregate in it; this size is almost as big as our heads. But, uh, the rainwater cistern was reputed to be able to handle 500,000 gallons of rainwater. Who knows if it was ever full in San Diego?"

Donovan: "The other thing the cistern was reputed to handle was liquor during Prohibition. Apparently we could get liquor easily in Mexico and we stored it in here."

Coons: "It's a good place to hide."

Donovan: "Bruce, this is a great space that most of our guests never see. It's the tunnel that connects the hotel with the original power plant."

Coons: "Yeah, in fact, it's still in its original use, carrying all the utilities, water, power, and heat like it did when it was built in 1887 - 88. And of course, it connects down to the power plant that's still using the original marble switch panel to control the electricity today. The power plant was the largest of its type in the world when it was built. It also provided all the power to all of Coronado up until the 1930s."

Starr: "We preservationists know that the best way to preserve a building is to use it profitably and properly. You can take a building, you can take it off the market, you make it a museum, empty it out of human association and the building sort of dies."

Coons: "Well this is great, the original elevator coming out to where we can still see the original balconies and ceilings."

Starr: "You take a building and keep life in it, and be aware of preservationist values simultaneously, but keep life flowing through it, that building will stay on - and we know this from Europe - that building will stay on for hundreds and hundreds of years."

Donovan: "The Del was built for an elite segment of our society. Back in 1888 there was basically the very wealthy, the very, very wealthy and the poor. So the kind of people that came to the Del in those early days were fabulously wealthy I think in a way that we can't even appreciate today. For instance, they came as a family; they came for three months at a time."

Coons: "Well, here we are in one of the great spaces of the hotel, the lobby. Over here is where the ladies billiard rooms were that ran all across this side, down to the other stairway. And the original desk was on this side of the room. And of course, this is one of the original columns with a lot of great detail on it. This must have been quite a space to be in the early days."

Donovan: "I think it was. People checked in here, they probably met their friends here and they also gathered here before dining."

Coons: "Well, this is the most magnificent room in the hotel, the Crown Room. It's one of the largest unsupported spans that was built in the United States during the Victorian era and certainly the most magnificent survivor."

Donovan: "And the reason it was so large is because all our guests back then had to have three meals a day here. And really the reason it's so magnificent is that the meals back then were magnificent. That's when people really dined, they dressed, they spent a lot of time here, they had a lot of servants to attend them, and they had many course meals. It was very complicated and very involved."

Coons: "Well, Victorians wanted a proper setting for every activity and this certainly is the proper setting for dining."

Donovan: "It was, it was."

Coons: "You can really see the ceiling on this side of the room. Once again, there are no supports. It's beaded, tongue-and-groove Sugar Pine ceiling. It's one of the rooms that you can really feel the hotel and see what it was like in its glory days. It's one of the most original rooms in the building."

Donovan: "It's beautiful, and one thing everyone loves about this room is the chandeliers. They're crown-shaped. The originals were designed, we think, by L. Frank Baum who wrote the Wizard of Oz. These particular versions were installed in the 1920s. I think what makes the Del so special to so many of our guests is its history, and not just that it's old and has been here a long time, but many of our guests have a connection to the Del themselves."

Starr: "By connecting itself to the joy of life for the whole region, the Hotel del Coronado has gathered to itself, over time, the collective affection of the citizenry because most people in the region, or many people in the region can remember, at one time or another, good times they've had there. And that gives a tremendous sentiment of support for that building, for that business, for that institution, for that resort."

Coons: "This hotel is probably the best example I can think of, of a structure that means more than the bricks and mortar and wood that it's built of to people for literally hundreds and thousands or reasons that are hard to quantify but you know it when you see it. It provokes an emotional response every time you see this hotel. When you come across the bridge into Coronado and you see it in the distance. It's an old friend, but it's a magnificent friend. This is this is a loved one, really, for almost anyone who sees it."

Starr: "The key thing about the Hotel del Coronado is that 125 years later, it's still with us, still flourishing, still better than ever, still filled with people coming to rest and recover themselves, coming to enjoy some of the pleasures and poetry of life. And I think as long as San Diego is flourishing, the Hotel del Coronado will flourish, and probably vice versa. It would be interesting to come back 100 years from now and see this 225-year-old building still flourishing."

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