The Resurrection of El Cortez


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“I miss the music and the good times,” says Blu Cava, who used to sing with Dick Ryan’s trio at the Hideaway in Hillcrest (now a parking lot, she grieves) and went afterward to the El Cortéz, where Woody Johnson was playing. “Because I worked six nights a week, I didn’t know what other musicians were doing, but I always tried to go by the Cortéz, to that big room to the right of the lobby or up to the Sky Room. She was such a grand old girl. It would break your heart, what happened to it.”

A sentiment voiced all over town. People remember formal dining in the Aztec Room, senior proms in the Don Room, riding up in the glass elevator. “We thought we were the bee’s knees,” says one fan, who stood in line outside the building at the age of 15 to ride the elevator. It was only the second exterior-glass hydraulic elevator in the world. “There was always a line on the sidewalk.”

The El Cortéz opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1927, as an apartment hotel, a fancy concept in those days. Some folks stayed for a night; some resided there for years. It marked the beginning of downtown as a fashionable gathering place. After all, San Diego had mushroomed in popularity; its population had doubled in the Twenties to 148,000.

The El Cortéz was designed by Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen, the architects responsible for the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Observers will notice the similarity in these buildings, winged and set at oblique angles—“the wedding cake look,” says Anthony Block, partner in The J. Peter Block Companies, the development team that has resurrected this fabulous old structure.

The ornate décor of the El Cortéz, including crests, urns, stone foliage and sculptural ribbons, lent a baroque air to the churrigueresque-style building. The architects used pilasters topped with Corinthian columns and finials at the roof line. Inside, tiled fountains and palm courts spelled Spanish Renaissance.

It was indeed the bee’s knees. But capitalist Richard T. Robinson Jr., the original owner, didn’t weather the Depression as well as his hotel did. In 1936, he sold the building and disappeared from the San Diego scene. The new owners, the El Cortéz Company, installed the giant neon sign at the crest of the building that could be seen for miles around. In 1940, they added the Sky Room on the 15th floor, where San Diegans could enjoy the feeling of drinking in the sky —a sophisticated post-Prohibition touch.

In 195l, San Francisco businessman Harry Handlery purchased the hotel, determined to make it “the finest hotel on the Pacific Coast. The [construction] hammers will never be still as long as I own the hotel,” he said. He added a swimming pool in 1952, the Caribbean wing in 1954, the Starlight Room on the 12th floor in 1956 and the Travolator Motor Hotel with its people-mover connecting walkway across Seventh Avenue in 1959—all to attract a new kind of client, the business traveler.

The Caribbean wing was Handlery’s answer to the lack of a convention center in San Diego. But his most famous addition was the Starlight Express, the exterior glass elevator installed in 1956 that delivered passengers to the 15th-floor Sky Room, with a stop at the Starlight Room on the 12th floor.

Daisy Burns Munchtando’s description of her experience riding the elevator won her first place in a writing contest. “We hung suspended in midair in a clear glass cage as we slowly climbed up the front of the building... There was complete silence lest someone break the spell. The verbose had lost voice, overwhelmed by the magic fairyland of the city far below” (The Journal of San Diego History, published by the San Diego Historical Society).

Alas, the building was destined to fall into shameful disrepair. Purchased by evangelist Morris Cerullo in 1978, and later owned by the Grosvenor family of San Diego, it was vacant for more than 20 years. Skateboarders practiced in the drained swimming pool, and vagrants ripped out shower doors and threw them down the stairwells.

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