A living legend for more than 130 years, The Del celebrates its rich history as the proud host to celebrities, royalty, U.S. Presidents, and beach-loving guests for generations. Built in 1888 by Elisha Babcock, Jr., and Hampton L. Story and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, this historic beach resort is a San Diego icon.
A Decided Place
Hotel founders, Elisha Babcock, Jr., and Hampton L. Story, along with San Diego developer Alonzo Horton, survey Coronado beach, c. 1886. Although neither Babcock nor Story had experience in the hotel business, they were so inspired by the natural beauty of Coronado that they decided to buy the island and build a magnificent hotel, one that would be “the talk of the western world,” an iconic California destination where “people will continue to come long after we are gone."
Coronado Beach Company Created
Hotel founders Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story first created the Coronado Beach Company, after which they established a number of additional enterprises to support the development of the Coronado community (a ferry company, water company, railroad company and an electrical power plant). As soon as a site was chosen for the historic Hotel del Coronado, the men laid out Coronado’s parks, civic areas, commercial zones and streets (Isabella and Adella avenues were named for the founders’ wives).
Development of Coronado Island
Once the town of Coronado was established, it was time to attract residents, so Babcock and Story held a very well-publicized land auction, which attracted a reported 6,000 people. 350 lots were sold during the auction, raising about $100,000. By June 10, 1887, Coronado lot sales had reached the $1.5 million mark. The grand total would eventually reach $2.25 million.
With lot sales to fund the hotel’s construction, a stenographer was summoned to the beach on a beautiful December day in 1886 and Babcock, Story, Herbert Ingle (one of the hotel’s original investors) and James Reid (architect) conceived the resort’s basic layout. The design included a courtyard, pavilion tower and dining wing. Reid would later recall that “preliminary sketches were quickly prepared, and because of lack of time, remained the unchanged basis of construction.” This depiction of the proposed hotel showcased its less prominent sides, those facing Orange Avenue and downtown Coronado.
Although digging the foundation had begun in January 1887, construction on The Del did not begin until after the historic groundbreaking ceremony. Visitors turned out in droves to watch. The architects hired were the Reid Brothers of Evansville, Indiana. Construction began along the northern face, which was simpler in design, in the hopes that the mostly inexperienced workforce would gain skills for building the more complicated sections at the pioneering San Diego resort.
By May 1887, approximately 250 men were employed in the construction of the exciting new destination beach resort, and The San Diego Union reported: “A million feet of lumber is scattered about the yard, and more is coming all the time.” The all-wooden Hotel del Coronado used a variety of lumber: Douglas fir for framing and California redwood for exterior siding (it was thought to be termite resistant); hemlock and cedar were also on order. The lobby featured Illinois white oak, and the Crown Room ceiling would be done in Oregon sugar pine, chosen for its lack of knotholes.
First Wedding at the Hotel
May Barnes and Harold Scott, the daughter and son of two building supervisors, were married during the San Diego resort’s construction in a beachside ceremony on June 9, 1887. According to a Coronado newspaper, the couple repeated their vows beneath a “beautiful arch of evergreens,” in the company of “nearly every man, woman and child on Coronado Beach.” Serenaded by “the lively music of two violins,” May and Harold were rewarded with a “ripple of applause” after the ceremony, followed by refreshments and “dancing till a late hour.” The bride was the height of Victorian fashion, outfitted in a white wedding dress.
The Highest Point of the Hotel
By November 1887, much of the exterior construction was complete. The highest point of the soon-to-be famous San Diego hotel was 120 feet (the iconic, red-roofed Ballroom tower, on the left). An artificial ice machine (producing 15 tons per day) was installed; a cistern was being constructed; the electric plant and laundry machine had arrived; and a “furniture parade” conveyed freight loads of furniture down Orange Avenue from the ferry landing on the bay. Manager John B. Seghers was back East hiring employees.
The Del Debuts
Although guests began arriving as early as late January 1888, Hotel del Coronado’s birthday has generally been celebrated on February 19 – the day the historic Southern California hotel served its first meal in the main dining room (today’s Crown Room). An early promotional brochure described the many amenities of the new destination, including its interior court with a fountain and exotic fruit trees, luxury guestrooms overlooking the garden patio or exterior vistas, private parlors, reception rooms, music and billiard rooms, expansive verandas and was promoted as a health resort for its abundant sunshine and restorative ocean air. Room rates – which included three meals a day – started at about $2.50 per day. The hotel was built at a cost of $600,000 and furnished for $400,000.
An 1888 brochure for the new Southern California destination spoke of the comfort of the lobby, which was called the rotunda: “This is a handsome apartment, large and lofty. Raised high over it, and running all around it, is a wide gallery which commands a view of the floor of the rotunda, where the main office is. This gallery is much frequented by the ladies. Thither they resort for friendly, social converse, and to see newcomers entering below and registering their names.” Although the hotel's historic lobby has changed over the years, its main configuration has remained the same, including its second-floor balcony. The lobby’s elevator was also an original amenity; during a trial run, a reported 2,500 pounds were easily conveyed.
When Hotel del Coronado debuted, it was considered a technological marvel. Electricity was still a novelty in 1888, and The Del was thought to be one of the largest buildings in the country to have been “electrified” (contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison did not install The Del’s electrical system). The Del also supplied electricity to the city of Coronado. Other technological assets of the newly constructed California resort included steam-powered hydraulic elevators (among the first in the country), a state-of-the-art fire sprinkler system, and telephone service, which had reached San Diego only seven years earlier.
The Woman in the Window
Hotel del Coronado’s most prominent stained-glass window – located on the front façade – garners a great deal of attention from visitors. Original to the hotel, the window was first mounted in the massive lobby chimney, visible from the front exterior as well as the lobby interior. After the fireplace was removed in the 1920s, the famous stained glass was displayed in a variety of interior locations. In 1995, it was moved to the fourth floor exterior, above the lobby entrance. In 2020, the piece was carefully removed for a complete restoration and will be returned to its original second-story location by summer 2021. Architect James Reid described the stained-glass scene as an “allegorical representation of Coronado” with a landscape background “representing mountains, valleys and a bay.”
The Crown Room
The Crown Room was considered an architectural achievement spanning 160 feet by 60 feet, without any pillars to interrupt the view. This iconic San Diego venue is also famous for its 33 foot high ceiling, paneled in beautiful Oregon sugar pine. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum is credited for designing the famous crown chandeliers, which were installed c. 1911. In 1920, an enormous banquet was held here for England’s Prince of Wales, and in 1927 Charles Lindbergh was honored with his own celebration after his successful solo trans-Atlantic flight. Today, the Crown Room’s tradition of elegance continues as it plays host to a spectacular Sunday Brunch.
Hotel del Coronado featured more than 400 guestrooms that, according to an early brochure for the San Diego destination resort, “are all large, well ventilated and lighted, the sun reaching every room in the house at some hour of the day” with rug carpets, the “handsomest” wood furniture, and windows shaded with Venetian blinds. “The suites of rooms are grouped around sitting rooms, giving every suite of four or five rooms a special reception sitting room,” all with fireplaces and “richly carved mantels with large French bevel-plate mirrors.” The Bridal Chamber (pictured) was considered the "handsomest guestroom in the house, furnished in solid natural mahogany, with upholstery and tapestry of pale blue and cream." In 1888, private bathrooms were a luxury, and The Del was proud of its approximately 71 bathrooms (bathtubs) and 71 water closets (toilets).
The ballroom is housed beneath the San Diego resort's signature red-roofed turret. In the early days, the underside of the roof formed the interior ceiling of the Ballroom, and the turret windows provided light and ventilation for visitors below. Originally called the “theatre,” the commodious Ballroom also featured a raised oceanfront seating area for those guests who wanted to while away the hours in restful wicker rockers.
Owner John D. Spreckels (1890-1926)
When the resort was under construction, an economic downturn sent many investors out of San Diego and The Del's founders were concerned. John D. Spreckels, son of wealthy "Sugar King" Claus Spreckels, fell in love with Hotel del Coronado and provided generous loans and other assistance to the resort's founders, Babcock and Story, in order to keep the dream alive. Ultimately, the two businessmen chose to transfer complete ownership to Spreckels. Spreckels remained owner until his death in 1926, and the hotel remained in his family until 1948.
President Benjamin Harrison Visits The Del
President Benjamin Harrison (in top hat at the bottom of the stairs), who was touring the country by train, had breakfast at The Del. This was the first time in history that an in-office United States president had visited San Diego. Later, Harrison told future President William Taft (another Del visitor), “One who has ever breathed this atmosphere would want to live here always.”
Between January 20 and April 20, 1892, a little girl named Noel wrote a series of remarkable letters to her cousins back East, describing all of the wonderful things she saw and did while spending the season at Hotel del Coronado in Southern California. Each one contains a lively watercolor by the family's "Nurse," a governess who gave Noel and her brother daily instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic. She wrote in a letter dated February 14, 1892: "This is the loveliest, biggest hotel you can imagine. It has ever and ever so many funny little windows and balconies like the big dovecote at Grandma's. The hotel is white and has red roofs everywhere. The red and the white between the bluest sky and the bluest water is like a beautiful dream in a fairy story."
Kate Morgan Mystery Begins
Kate Morgan, a pretty young woman in her mid-twenties, checked into the hotel alone under the name "Lottie A Bernard" from Detroit. Five days later, on November 29, Kate was found dead on a hotel exterior staircase leading to the beach. She had a gunshot wound to the head, which the San Diego County coroner later determined to be self-inflicted (some skepticism still surrounds this finding).
Tent City Opens
From 1900 until 1938, The Del's Tent City was a popular camp-style destination for travelers to Coronado Island who couldn't afford to stay in the big hotel. Designed like a small city, its grid of dirt streets eventually became well-worn thoroughfares, lined with mature trees. An early getaway brochure described the accommodations: “A furnished tent comprises electric lights, matting on boarded floor, comfortable beds and cots, bedding, wash-stand, mirror, tables, chairs, rockers, camp-chairs and stools, necessary cooking utensils, clean linen, daily care of tent, and laundry service of tent linen.”
Author L. Frank Baum
Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum traveled to Coronado Island repeatedly between 1904 and 1910, where he usually resided at Hotel del Coronado in Southern California for months at a time. He wrote at least three books in the Oz series during that period ("Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz" 1908, "The Road to Oz" 1909, and "The Emerald City" 1910), and also designed the crown chandeliers in the famous Crown Room. In a 1905 poem about Coronado, Baum wrote: "And every day her loveliness, shines pure, without a flaw; new charms entrance our every glance, and fill our souls with awe!"
In 1904, The Del – already considered a technological marvel – made history when it unveiled the world’s first electrically lit, outdoor, living Christmas tree. Holiday lights were strung from the hotel to a nearby Norfolk Island Pine. Although indoor trees were popular in America by this time, electric Christmas lights were a rarity (candles were still commonplace).
President William Taft
President William Taft had a sister living in Coronado, who he visited in April 1900. After his presidency, Taft stayed at The Del to attend the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Upon his visit, he called it “the first real vacation I have had for years.” A California magazine offered more details about his stay at the famous resort, saying that Taft “rested on his laurels after 10 days of strenuous golf played on the links of the Coronado Country Club.”
The Pearl of Paradise
Since the early 1900s, movie stars and moviemakers have been frequenting Hotel del Coronado, a sought-after set for filmmakers as well as a popular SoCal vacation getaway for celebrities. One of the most popular early films that used The Del as its backdrop was "The Pearl of Paradise", starring Margarita Fischer.
Aside from its movie making celebrity roster, Hotel Del Coronado has been a storied SoCal vacation destination for Hollywood stars since its earliest days, with esteemed visitors such as W.C. Fields, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, shown here, played polo while staying at The Del.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh was honored at The Del on September 21, 1927, following his solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to France. Lindbergh's plane, "The Spirit of St. Louis," was built in San Diego where Lindbergh oversaw its construction. An estimated 1,000 people attended the historic celebration in the Crown Room (among them was humorist Will Rogers), which featured "Lone Eagle Stuffed Eggs," "Salad Lindbergh" and "Spirit of St. Louis Striped Bass."
The Ballroom Expands
By 1931, convention demand had outpaced the ballroom's size, and The Del began "extensive alterations ... which will give the famous hostelry the largest convention auditorium of any resort hotel west of Chicago." Plans included an extension of 15' on three sides "elevated above the dance floor, permitting an unobstructed view of the stage." The extension offered the famous hotel the capacity to accommodate general sessions of large state, Pacific coast, western and national organizations. By the mid-20th century, fashion and technology dictated a less cavernous interior space (among other things, acoustics was a problem), and the ceiling was lowered.
President Franklin Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt
President Franklin Roosevelt visited The Del for the first time in 1914, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy and made the trip to assess San Diego’s harbor and nearby North Island. He also attended San Diego’s 1915 exposition. President Roosevelt returned again in 1935 with Mrs. Roosevelt for San Diego’s historic California-Pacific International Exposition, where he gave a speech to 50,000 people in Balboa Park. During his stay, Roosevelt flew the presidential flag from The Del’s turret, making the hotel the official White House during his stay.
Some Like it Hot
Filmed at Hotel del Coronado in 1958, "Some Like It Hot" showcased the talents of Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon while also highlighting the hotel’s assets – a spectacular sun-drenched silhouette of Victorian architecture, the perfect backdrop for the film’s 1929 setting. Named the #1 comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, the movie has an honored place in film and Del history.
San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge Opens
In 1969, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge was completed and made Coronado Island and Hotel del Coronado much more accessible. There were several proposals over the years to build a bridge (including one by hotel owner John D. Spreckels in 1926), but it wasn't until 1964 that the bridge was approved by the Pentagon with the help of the California State Division of Highways.
Nixon’s State Dinner at The Del
On September 3, 1970, President Richard Nixon hosted the first state dinner held outside of the White House at Hotel del Coronado. The gala dinner took place in the Crown Room for Mexico's President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. Among the 1,000 people in attendance at the event were former President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, California Governor and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne.
The Stunt Man
"The Stunt Man," starring Peter O’Toole and Barbara Hershey, required the construction of a fake tower atop the hotel’s iconic Victorian roof, followed by a dramatic explosion. Filming took place at The Del in 1977 and 1978.
National Historic Landmark
After years of painstaking effort and documentation, Hotel del Coronado was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
President Jimmy Carter
When President Jimmy Carter attended the AFLCIO Building and Construction Trades convention in 1979, a Del reception was given in his honor on October 11. Carter also stayed at the historic hotel in 1989 in conjunction with a Habitat for Humanity project. More recently, he and Mrs. Carter made visits to The Del in 2012 and 2013.
President Gerald Ford
President Gerald Ford attended an economic conference at The Del in April 1975. He made other frequent visits to the iconic Southern California hotel in 1980 (pictured), 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Moved to Hotel del Coronado property in 1983 and restored in 1987, this 1887 building was actually Coronado Island’s first hotel (and one of the island’s first structures). A welcomed addition to the fledgling community, it housed VIPs working on The Del’s construction, including architects James and Watson Reid.
Beach Village at The Del Opens
In 2007, The Del unveiled Beach Village, an enclave of 78 luxury Coronado beachside accommodations and vacation rentals that feature living/dining areas as well as kitchens, fireplaces, balconies and terraces.