The Storied Hotel Del Coronado: The Gilded Age Holds the Hand of Modern Luxury

Imagine for a moment that you are a character in a fairy tale, gazing out to sea from the mainland shore. The sun shines brightly and with never-ending warmth. The waves crash gently around you on the fine sand. With every breath, you draw in the salty air and feel renewed. In the distance, you glimpse a peninsula; close enough to touch, yet far enough from your mainland perch that it seems like another world.

Rising from that peninsula, shimmering in the sun, you glimpse what can only be described as a castle. It’s painted pure white, while its roofs glow in red and the windows are scattered across it like diamonds. Turrets rise high above the roofs and palm trees lovingly encircle it before giving way to the beach. You are royalty and you are gazing upon your home.

Now, imagine for a moment that this is no fairy tale, but your reality and this castle on the peninsula is real. To have that moment is to see the Hotel Del Coronado for the first time. To stay there is to be transported to a Gilded Age while still holding the hand of modern luxury. And, like all castles, “The Del” has a story to tell.

The Gilded Age: An Age Like No Other

It isn’t surprising that a hotel of this magnitude came to be in an age that is characterized by lavishness.  By the late 1870s, the Reconstruction period had ended and the factories that were created for the Civil War were used to foster new industries such as oil, coal, steel, and railroads. For the first time, the US economy was led by industry, and not agriculture, and there were titans that rose in these industries. A small, but powerful percentage of businessmen became very wealthy very quickly and their tastes followed suit. They built palatial homes on acres of land with every possible luxury. They threw lavish parties and dressed in the finest fashions of the day. A newly powerful and fervent newspaper media reported on their activities on a daily basis, perpetuating the obsession with the material. Yet, the reason this age is referred to as gilded, and not golden, is that not everyone prospered. The majority of Americans had to work hard, often in horrific conditions and for long hours, in these new industries. There was a great disparity between the rich and poor that had never existed before, though this disparity remained hidden, gilded over if you will, by the country’s economic success. Still, in spite of this disparity, the Gilded Age gave rise to a belief that Americans had never had the luxury of believing before: you can make your dreams come true.

A Dream is Born

In 1885 two wealthy and retired businessmen, Elisha Babcock and Hampton L. Story relocated to San Diego largely under the new mystique of the West. Babcock had made his money in railroads while Story was a successful piano manufacturer.  Though how they met remains a mystery, they struck up a friendship and went hunting one day on the barren peninsula of Coronado. They reportedly were so inspired by the natural beauty around them that they decided to buy Coronado for $110,000. In keeping with how the allure of the West was created, the men decided to build a hotel to attract others to the area. Yet, they endeavored not just to build any hotel, but one the likes of which the world had never seen. It would have to be magnificent, massive, and the height of modern luxury. Babcock and Story were pragmatic dreamers, however, and knew how to raise money for their dream. They established the Coronado Beach Company that, in turn, established a ferry to the mainland and its own water treatment facility and electrical plant. They planned out Coronado’s streets, parks, and commercial zones and divided it up into plots of residential land that were auctioned off to the public. By June of 1886, every parcel of land had been spoken for and they had $2.5 million to fund the hotel of their dreams.

Getting Down to Business: The Business of Building a Castle

Babcock, Story, and a third investor, Herbert Ingle, hired architect James Reid to come up with the design of the hotel and it is he and his brother who devised the iconic red and white structure, complete with turrets, that the Hotel Del Coronado was destined to be. Babcock, Story, and Ingle loved it, built a lumber mill and held a hugely publicized groundbreaking ceremony in May of 1887 to kick off the project. At the end of the 19th century, San Diego was still just a small Western port city and didn’t have nearly enough of the resources and manpower to feed such a massive undertaking. Lumber and a workforce had to be shipped in from the Northwest. By November of 1887, 250 men had almost completed the hotel’s exterior and its 120 feet tall iconic ballroom tower was complete. Meanwhile, the hotel’s manager traveled east to poach some of the finest hotel staff in all of Chicago for this new modern masterpiece. The finest mahogany furniture and European bedding were loaded on to the ferry on a daily basis and Babcock and Story began advertising their hotel as a health resort for its daily sunshine and restorative sea air. In only eleven months, the Hotel Del Coronado was completed and opened its doors to expectant guests on February 19, 1888.

The Hotel Del Coronado: A Modern Marvel

“The Del,” as it almost instantly became nicknamed, was a success from that very first night. When the first guests entered the lobby, known as The Rotunda, they were greeted with an indoor fountain, potted exotic fruit trees, music and billiard rooms, and a second-floor balcony, perfect for people watching.  The guest rooms were lavishly furnished, all with views of the garden or ocean, and The Del was proud to advertise that 71 of those 400 rooms had their own bathrooms and water closets (private facilities were unheard of luxury at that time). The Hotel Del Coronado also boasted other technological wonders that guests had never before experienced. At the time, it was thought to be the largest building in the country to have electricity, courtesy of Coronado’s own electrical plant that supplied power to the rest of the peninsula. It also housed one of the first steam-powered hydraulic elevators, a modern emergency sprinkler system, and telephone service, which had only come to San Diego seven years prior to the hotel’s opening. The main dining room, located under one of the hotel’s two turrets and known as The Crown Room, was an architectural marvel that spanned 160 feet by 60 feet and was 33 feet high without a single pillar to block the view.

The Elite Flock to The Del

In 1890, their dream realized, Babcock and Story sold The Del to their most loyal and generous investor, John D. Spreckels.  He would remain the owner until his death in 1926, with the hotel remaining in his family until 1948.  During this time, The Hotel Del Coronado became one of the premier destinations in Southern California, attracting the country’s wealthiest and most renowned, who would often spend the entire winter in this sunny paradise. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was a frequent guest in the early 1900s, often staying for months at a time and writing three books in his Wizard of Oz series during these stays. Presidents Harrison, Taft, and both Roosevelt presidents were regular guests, as well as Edward, Prince of Wales, who stayed for three days in 1920. Interestingly, his future wife, and the woman who changed the course of British royal history, Wallis Simpson, was residing in Coronado with her 2nd husband at the time of his visit. Though rumors persist that they met during the prince’s stay at The Del, the Duchess of Windsor herself confirmed they didn’t meet until 10 years later, with the prince abdicating the throne to be with her in 1936. The Del Coronado was further etched into American history when the welcome-home party for Charles Lindbergh was held in The Crown Room following his first solo transatlantic flight. As The Spirit of St. Lewis was built in San Diego and The Del was now synonymous with the city, there was no better host for the event.

A Proper Castle Needs a Proper Ghost

One cannot recount the tale of The Del without paying homage to Kate Morgan. Miss Morgan was not a famous actress or the wife of a tycoon but, rather, a domestic-turned-guest that never checked out. Her ghost haunts The Del to this day, playing harmless pranks and making fleeting appearances. Yet, despite these benevolent occurrences, Miss Morgan’s story is a sad one. In November of 1892, she left her position in a wealthy Los Angeles household and checked in to the hotel under a pseudonym. By all observations, she was beautiful but sickly and often despondent. She reportedly told a hotel employee that she was suffering from stomach cancer and was waiting for her brother, a doctor, to meet her. Others surmised she was a married woman who had run away from home and was meeting her lover at the hotel. After five days with no one coming for her, Kate purchased a pistol in San Diego and shot herself in the hotel garden, on the steps leading to the shore. At the time of her death, police couldn’t identify her and Kate was known as “the beautiful stranger” for several weeks until her identity was confirmed. Evidence showed she was indeed estranged from her husband, but for whom she was waiting remains a mystery. Meanwhile, Kate Morgan’s spirit remains very much alive. She will flicker the lights in her third-floor guest room (the most requested in the hotel), turn the TV on and off, open and close doors, or create a cool breeze as she passes. Like so many castles over time, The Del’s resident spirit has merged with the hotel’s very identity and “the beautiful stranger” and the Hotel Del Coronado are forever intertwined.

The Hotel Del Coronado and Hollywood

To talk of The Del without discussing its enduring Hollywood connection would be like talking about Lucille Ball without mentioning Dezi Arnaz (both of whom were frequent guests). The sunny and temperate San Diego weather made it a favorite location with early film directors and the choice place to stay for actors, starting in 1922’s Beyond the Rocks with Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, when Ms. Swanson played a bride who falls in love with someone else during her honeymoon at The Hotel Del Coronado. As Hollywood morphed from a fledgling industry into a social and economic powerhouse, The Del became the clubhouse to the stars. Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Jimmy Stewart, and Ginger Rogers made The Del a second home, even more so during Prohibition when the hotel’s proximity to Mexico and unlimited liquor made it even more attractive. When Bing Crosby built the famous Del Mar racetrack in 1938, it was yet another draw to the area for Hollywood. The 1950s ushered in the era of the small screen and The Del actually played a role in the success of several stars.  In 1950, Lucille ball and Dezi Arnaz stayed at the hotel to practice their traveling comedy routine and it was there that they created the “Ricky and Lucy” characters America came to love. Also in 1950, a young piano player by the name of Liberace was hired to play to hotel guests but, on a particularly slow night, he was told he could cancel his show rather than play to a minimal crowd.  He declined and performed his show at his usual high caliber. One of the few in the crowd was a television producer who immediately felt the young man’s connection to the audience. Soon after, Liberace and his candelabra-lit pianos were a household name.

Then Came Marilyn to The Del

The Hotel Del Coronado and Hollywood solidified their relationship in the annals of Hollywood history when Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis filmed Some Like It Hot there in 1958. In fact, it has been said that The Del is the fourth costar for the impression it made with audiences, who instantly loved the movie. Though only exterior scenes were shot on location, the sun, the palm trees, and the brilliant red and white turrets of the hotel captured the imaginations of viewers. The comedy, in which all three stars were at their comedic best amid cross-dressing confusion and falling in love, has since been named the #1 comedy of all time by the American Film Institute and is the film for which Marilyn is best known. As the years came and went, the movie and television stars of the day continued to parade through the hotel in an enduring relationship with the exclusive luxury that has always been part of the hotel’s draw.  However, it is Some Like It Hot that made The Del a permanent part of Hollywood lore.

A Castle for the 21st Century

In 1969, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge was completed, providing not only a direct route by car to the peninsula but a beautiful one.  In 1977, after decades of meticulous record keeping by the hotel’s personal historians, The Hotel Del Coronado was named a National Historic Landmark, forever preserving it in our nation’s history. Despite the focus on preserving The Del’s historic Victorian look, the hotel has always endeavored to keep up with the luxuries of the time and, in 2007, Beach Village at The Hotel Del Coronado opened. The Village is a collection of 78 villas that feature luxuriously styled living and dining areas as well as fireplaces and balconies. This new addition has further entrenched The Del as a celebrity destination, as Brad Pitt, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama have all stayed at Beach Village since it opened.

2018 has been a special year for The Del in that it marks the hotel’s 130th anniversary.  The year has been filled with black tie events, fireworks displays, and champagne toasts yet, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer people who actually experienced The Hotel Del Coronado in it’s Gilded Age glory or at the height of Hollywood’s magical aura. Perhaps this is what still keeps The Del shrouded in the mystery and allure of a bygone age when one could look across the mainland to see a castle rising from the peninsula and wonder if it could actually be real.

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