By Thomas K. Arnold
(page 1 of 5)
Belle of the Bay
Fifty years ago this summer, William D. Evans looked out over the swampy mud flats just east of the Giant Dipper roller coaster in Mission Beach and saw something no one else saw. At the time, Evans ran several downtown walk-up hotels that catered mainly to the military. He was part of San Diego’s post-war “brat pack,” a group of savvy young businessmen who in 1950 had elected one of their own, John Butler, to the mayor’s office.
Evans envisioned a resort hotel that would draw Los Angelenos south for the summer. City officials had just drafted plans to dredge what was then known as False Bay and develop it into a grand aquatic park, with commercial development paying the way. Evans secured a lease, and in the summer of 1953 the Bahia Resort Hotel opened for business, the first hotel on Mission Bay, built with $200,000 in borrowed funds.
“I remember when we were dating, we would go to La Jolla for dinner and he would bring me back to Mission Beach and say, ‘I’m going to build a hotel here,’” recalls Anne Evans, who married the brash young hotelier in 1954. “I thought he was crazy, because it was dark and clammy and muddy, and at certain times of the day it was kind of stinky. Keep in mind that Mission Bay did not really exist; there was nothing here people had ever heard of.”
To save money, Evans built the hotel himself, using his own laborers. The hotel opened with 52 concrete-block rooms, all of them with kitchens.
“Bill’s feelings were that in the summer we would get visitors, but in the winter he would rent apartments to schoolteachers who were here for the school year, or to Navy officers,” recalls Anne, whose husband died in 1984. “It was a smart thing, too, because that first winter we were pretty much empty.”
The Bahia grew incrementally, as did Mission Bay Aquatic Park. Evans would build; the city would dredge. By the late 1960s, the Bahia was one of the premier waterfront hotels in the city. For a frantic week in the summer of 1968, the spit of land it occupies was sealed off by the Secret Service as GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon holed up there with his staff to plot his successful campaign for the White House. That was 35 years ago this month, but Anne Evans remembers it as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
“The telephone men dug a great big trench from the lobby all the way to the point, and then the Secret Service came and asked my husband to clear out the entire hotel for a whole week,” she recalls. “He [Nixon] was the first celebrity we had, and everything was just whiz-bang-boom.”
The Bahia, now with 321 rooms, is celebrating its golden anniversary in style. Movies from the 1950s are shown around the pool, menus have added 1950s-style food, and everyone from bellboys to desk clerks has been outfitted in period costumes.
Evans, meanwhile, is looking ahead, eyeing a major makeover similar to the one that 15 years ago transformed her family’s other Mission Beach resort, the Catamaran, into a tropical paradise. “I’m quite proud of the fact we’re still here,” she says.