Hotel del Coronado: Facts or Fantasy?

Toward the tail of the San Diego, Calif. real-estate boom of the 1880’s, construction of the Hotel del Coronado (“the Del”) began in March 1887 on the smallish island town of Coronado, just across San Diego Bay from San Diego; across the world in Paris France, construction was also beginning on the Eiffel Tower.

Funded by the Coronado Beach Company, construction of the Del was overseen by architect James Reid. Given the lack of lumber in the San Diego area to build such a structure, the Dolbeer & Carson Lumber Company of Eureka, CA was contracted to ship wood down the coast. Labor was provided by Chinese from the San Francisco Bay area, tapped through the Chinese Six Companies. It is said that design plans would change daily as the building grew. When the Del opened its doors in February 1888 – its main portion completed in just 337 days* – it was the largest resort in the world.

Railroad lines across U.S. circa 1888 that could get you to the Del.

Built in the wooden Victorian style all the rage of its day with Norman architecture insides, the Del proved to be quite the sight with its stately silhouette, numerous towers and turrets jutting into the sky. Adding such splendor to the pleasant environs (beachfront property with amicable climate), it’s easy to see why princes, presidents, magnates and movie stars would eventually come flocking. While there is no doubt that President Benjamin Harrison and subsequent U.S. presidents, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Vincent Price and hundreds of other famous folks you’ve heard of, have stayed at the Del, it seems clear that in some instances, time may have been less factual with the when and/or the why.

One such case is inventor Thomas Edison. If you read any given bio/article on the Del, you’re likely to read that Edison came to the hotel before its opening to inspect the final installation for what would be the first commercial building illuminated throughout by electricity. Also, you may read that Edison returned to Coronado in 1904 to oversee the 1st outdoor illuminated Christmas tree, which stood on the front lawn of the Del. Per Edison historians, however, the first time Edison set foot in the San Diego area was in 1915, after visiting the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Edison did in fact stay at the Del during his visit in 1915, but he’d never been there before. While the San Diego Union heralded the Del power plant as the “largest installation of its type in the world,” it was actually installed by Mather/Westinghouse, who helped pioneer the Alternating Current electrical system that is still used today (vs. Edison’s Direct Current). As for the Christmas tree, though the Del’s 1904 tree might have been the 1st outdoor illuminated Christmas tree on the west coast, the 1st outdoor illuminated Christmas tree had happened almost 22 years previous, in 1882, created by Edward H. Johnson, then vice president of the Edison Electric Company.

Another bit you may read about the Del, is that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, modeled his Emerald City after the design of the Del. Fact is, the first time Baum visited Coronado was in 1904, four years after the publication of Wizard of Oz. Though Baum and his wife were keen on Coronado and the Del and would stay there numerous times post-1904, it seems clear the Del had nothing to do with the Emerald City’s initial inspiration. More likely, if the Emerald City was inspired by a real place at all, it was the White City at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, as Baum moved to Chicago in anticipation of the event and visited it frequently. Lastly, one of the most widely purported links to Baum at the Del can be found in its exquisite Crown Room. It is said that the crown-shaped chandeliers that presently hang there were designed by Baum. While the Del mentions this as fact on their website^, it is interesting that their Director of Public Relations chose not to include the chandeliers within a press release having to do with Baum’s ties to the Del; likewise, it is odd that when the Coronado Historical Association and Museum of History and Art ran an exhibit in 2009 titled, “Ozily Yours: L. Frank Baum in Coronado,” the exhibit had no mention of the chandeliers, no plans, no photos, nothing.

While there can be no doubt about the Hotel del Coronado’s rich and storied past, it does appear, that some of what passes for history about it today, may in fact be closer to fantasy.

All that said, there’s no question, that one of the most factual, and famous occurrences at the Del, was when director Billy Wilder chose to use it as a backdrop for part of his 1958 film, Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe.

*Though the main building of the hotel did open to guests in February 1888, the entire structure was not yet complete. As the S.D. real-estate boom turned to bust, it looked as if the Coronado Beach Company wouldn’t have the money to finish it. Enter sugar millionaire John Spreckels, who bought umpteen suffering companies around Coronado and San Diego. He invested money into the finishing of the Del, and by 1890, was the sole owner. By the turn of the century, the Del was S.D.’s biggest single industry. It remained with the Spreckels family until 1948.

^On the other hand, while the full page dedicated to the Crown Room does mention “four magnificent crown chandeliers,” it does not mention L. Frank Baum.

[While my tours and this blog are mainly concerned with San Francisco history, I may sometimes report on other locales within CA that I visit]

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