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Hotel Del Coronado has Landmark History

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This segment originally aired November 10, 2006.

Across the bay from San Diego in Coronado sits one of America's most beautiful beach resorts, the Hotel Del Coronado. This 118-year-old hotel is a National Registered Historic Landmark. It's hosted many former presidents. The Victorian resort took only one year to construct. A walk through the Del is a walk through time.

Kevin Starr, University of Southern California:

Great buildings store time. Store the reverb races of the past. To this day, the Hotel Del shows the first generation to discover the amenities and possibilities of San Diego.

The completion of Santa Fe's transcontinental railroad to San Diego spurred an economic boom in the region.

Bruce Coons, Save Our Heritage Organization:

Two real estate investors named Babcock and Story were the builders of the hotel. They were attracted by 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.

Kevin Starr:

The builders of the hotel wanted to put a great resort hotel in a spectacular site and that was their focused ambition. By implication most of the great resort hotels were quasi-utopian statements, they stylized all the urban amenities that were possible. So the Del Coranado showcases what the city may 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, Hotel Del Coronado:

I think 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 Del 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 was imported. Including, if you think about the vision to build the hotel because that came from the Midwest and back East.

Supervised by Midwest transplants, the one-year construction of the hotel began in March 1887. Support structures including a brick kiln, planning mill 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 million shingles went into building the Del.

Bruce Coons:

The hotel was made out of Oregon Pine at the time. That's where it came from, and also California redwood, which came from northern California. All of this material was shipped down from the San Francisco area on lumber barges, in steamers and actually lumber shifts.

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

Bruce Coons:

This is a great area to show some of the character defining features of the Queen Ann architecture, the asymmetrical masting, the different tower styles. You see several of the different shingle powers which are common on Queen Anns, and the random shingles on this dormer and also the siding differentiates different floors and the angle Japanese railings up there, again.

The hotel was designed by architects James and Watson Reid around a central courtyard, balconies and windows give views to the nearly 400 rooms and modern visitors stroll on the central gardens original serpentine walkway, pioneer horticulturalist helped create the hotel’s original garden, her choices included ponds and she introduced the bird of paradise at the Del. The hotel still stands today attests to the quality of its design workmanship and materials.

Bruce Coons:

This is really a good spot to see the old wall of the cistern and it's also the same as the foundation, and it was built at a really high quality concrete. Can you see? There's almost no deterioration of the concrete even today. Look at the size of the aggregate. This size is almost as big as our head. But the rainwater was said to handle 500,000 gallons of rainwater. Who knows if it was ever full in San Diego?

Christine Donovan:

The other thing the cistern was refuted to handle was liquor during prohibition, apparently we could get liquor easily in Mexico and we stored it here.

Bruce Coons:

Good place to hide.

Christine Donivan:

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.

Bruce Coons:

Yeah, in fact, it's still in its original use. Carrying all the utilities, water, power, heat, like it did since it was built in 1887, 1888 and, of course, it connects down to the power plant that still is using the original marble switch panel that controls 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 for all of Coronado up to the 1930s.

Kevin Starr:

Preservationists know the best way to preserve a building is to use it profitably and properly. You could take a building, you take it off the market. You make it a museum. Empty it out of human association, and the building sort of dies.

Bruce Coons:

This is great - the original elevator coming out to where we can still see the original balcony in the ceiling.

Kevin Starr:

You take a building and keep life in. And be aware of preservation values simultaneously. Keep life flowing through it, that building will stay on. We know this from Europe. The building will stay on for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Christine Donovan:

The Del was built for an elite segment of our society back in 1888 there was basically the very, very wealthy. 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 we can't even appreciate today. For instance, they came as a family. They came for three months at a time.

Bruce Coons:

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

Christine Donovan:

I think it was people checked in here, they met their friends here, and they gathered here before dining.

Bruce Coons:

This is the most magnificent room in the hotel. It's one of the largest unsupported spans built in the United States during the Victorian era, and certainly the most magnificent survivor.

Christine Donovan:

The reason it was so large, is because all our guests back then had to have three meals a day here. 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 many servants to attend them. It was very complicated and involved.

Bruce Coons:

Victorians wanted a proper setting for every activity. this is the proper setting for dining.

Christine Donovan:

It was. It was.

Bruce Coons:

Really, see the ceiling on this side of the room, there's no supports, its beaded tongue and groove sugar pine ceiling. It's one of the rooms you can really feel the hotel and see what it was like in its glory days; it's one of the original rooms in the building.

Christine Donovan:

It's beautiful. One thing everyone loves about this room are the chandeliers, they're crown shaped, the originals were designed by L. Frank Ball who wrote

the Wizard of Oz

, these particular versions were installed in the 1920s.

Christine Donovan:

I think what makes the Del so special today to so many of our guests is its history. And not just that it’s old and it's been here a long time, but so many of our guests have a connection to the Del.

Kevin Starr:

By connecting 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. Most people in the region or many people in the region can remember at one time or another good times they've had there, that gives a tremendous sentiment of support for that building for that business for that institution, for that will resort.

Bruce 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 is felt out of for literally hundreds of thousands of reasons that are hard to quantify, but people know it when they see. It provokes an emotional response every time you see this hotel. You come across the bridge and you see it in the distance. It's an old friend but a magnificent friend. This is a loved one really for almost anybody that sees it.

Kevin 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. I think as long as San Diego’s flourishing, the Hotel Del Coronado will flourish and probably vice versa. It will be interesting to come back 100 years from now and see this 225-year-old building still flourishing.

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