Historic Structures

El Cortez Apartment Hotel, San Diego California

Date added: July 16, 2019 Categories: California Hotel

The history of the El Cortez Area is well-documented. Named after the "imposing" El Cortez Apartment Hotel, the El Cortez Area encompasses a geographic section of San Diego which rises from around a 25 feet elevation along Front Street to approximately 65 feet at 10th Avenue. The area has been defined as bounded by Interstate 5 to the north, the community of Little Italy to the west, Interstate 163 to the east, and A Street to the south. The highest point in the El Cortez Area is "Prospect Hill," located within the Bay View Homestead subdivision between Ash and Date Streets and Sixth and Tenth Avenues. This hill contained some of the most spectacular Victorian residences in the city.

During the 1880s, prominent businessmen erected their homes on Prospect Hill because it provided them with magnificent views of the city and harbor as well as the city park. Unfortunately, the majority of ornate structures and their gardens from that period are no longer in existence. After San Diego recovered from the Panic of 1893, affluent citizens constructed more modern and less massive residences on the hill. With plans beginning in 1909 for a Panama- California Exposition in the newly named "Balboa Park," the Cortez area experienced a surge in hotel and apartment building. Between 1910-1913, the majority of the apartment complexes in the Cortez area were erected.

After city planner John Nolen returned to San Diego in 1926 and revised his 1908 plan for the city, it became apparent that local visionaries, along with several businessmen, desired to see the city develop in an orderly fashion with a focus on the waterfront and Balboa Park. Nolen's plan included several buildings and a civic center on the waterfront to be surrounded by other public buildings and a tree-line paseo leading up Cedar Street, connecting the waterfront to the park area. Acting in anticipation of the implementation of this plan, several stately structures were then erected in the Cortez area.

The El Cortez is located on Lots 1-12, Block 11 of the Bay View Homestead, also called "Caruther's Addition," according to Maps 150 and 254, filed on January 29, 1873 and August 18, 1871, respectively. The site was once owned by Oren S. Hubbell, a well-known capitalist and banker, who had constructed a magnificent Victorian residence on the property around 1887. In 1893, Ralph Granger, the founder of National City, acquired the property. Less than two months later, the property was sold to Fannie C. Grant, the daughter-in-law of former President Ulysses S. Grant and wife to Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. From this prominent residence atop Prospect Hill, U.S. Grant, Jr. had a commanding view of downtown San Diego and could watch the construction of his large hotel, the U.S. Grant (which began construction in 1905 and was completed in 1910). In 1926, the U.S. Grant Company sold the property to the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank, which shortly thereafter sold the property to Richard T. Robinson, Jr, a local capitalist and landowner, who would finance the construction of the El Cortez.

Prior to the construction of the El Cortez, San Diego had, between during the mid-1910s and mid-1920s, experienced intense urban development, much of which centered around the growing presence of the United States Navy. The installation of major naval bases in San Diego County helped create "a new federal city" in the West as construction, technological, and industrial concerns scurried to serve the military. During the 1920s, the city continued to profit from its amiable relationship with the military as well as a measurable increase in tourist dollars, whereby San Diego's population, like other warm-climate cities, doubled during this period. Cortez Hill at this time represented one of the first neighborhoods in San Diego to have combined commercial and residential living as the center of fashionable entertainment. Major building projects in and around Cortez Hill during the mid-1920s, took form to "announce the confidence of the age. Much of the new architecture symbolized the strength of banking and manufacturing, as well as recreation and entertainment, in the city."

The El Cortez was financed by Richard T. Robinson, Jr., who secured the two million dollar venture with a national bonding company. Robinson selecte.d the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker & Eisen (composed of Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen) to design the building. The design was prepared for Robinson's "Grant Terrace Building Company," in October 1926 and revised in December 1926. The William Simpson Construction Company of Los Angeles oversaw construction.

The architectural firm of Walker & Eisen was comprised of principals Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, who formed their association in Los Angeles during the year 1919. Both Walker and Eisen were native Californians. Eisen, a second generation Californian, was born in December 1885 in San Francisco. With a father (Theodore Eisen) and grandfather (Augustus Eisen) as architects, it is little wonder that Eisen followed in their footsteps. He was educated in the public school system and received his license to practice architecture in 1906. After which, he worked with his father under the firm name "Eisen and Son."

Albert Walker was born in Sonoma, California in 1881. In 1902, he moved to the East coast where he attended Brown University in Rhode Island. Upon his return to California, he joined the architectural firm of Hebbard and Gill in San Diego, composed of William Sterling Hebbard and Irving John Gill. After a year in San Diego, Walker moved to Los Angeles where he continued his apprenticeship, first with Parkinson and Bergstrum, later with the firm of A.F. Rosenheim, Hunt and Grey. In 1909, he established his own practice where he primarily produced designs for domestic and church architecture. In 1910, Walker formed a partnership with John Terrell Vawter, called "Walker and Vawter." This association lasted until October 1917 when Vawter joined the United States Army. Over this period, the firm produced varied styles for residences and churches.

In 1919, Walker entered into a partnership with Eisen which was to last until 1941. Over the course of their partnership, Eisen occupied himself predominately with the procurement of contracts for the firm. His social acceptance and friendly disposition aided him in gaining access to investors, and it is estimated that he arranged for more than sixty per cent of the firm's commissions. Walker, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with the design work, although both men shared this responsibility. His mastery of detail and special ability in anticipating construction costs and other related problems appear to have been a particular asset in attracting prospective clients. By bringing together this combination of ability, personality, business acumen, and respect for traditional designs, these men quickly established their reputation as substantial architects.

During the 1920s, Southern California became the focal point for one of the largest internal migrations in the history of the United States. Almost one and one-half million people had settled in or near Los Angeles during this period. Construction of new buildings at this time overwhelmingly favored structures of a commercial nature, most of which were designed for the tourist trade. Office buildings, apartment houses, hotels, and motion picture theaters predominated. In particular, a large number of new apartment houses and hotels went into construction over a widespread area. Through the construction of large commercial buildings, the firm of Walker & Eisen gained the status of a top-ranking organization. Not only did the firm obtain the bulk of contracts in the city, but also employed the most draftsman and architects. In short, it was largely through hotel and apartment house building that they made their debut as business partners.

Percy Eisen died in November 1946, and Albert Walker expired in September 1958. Over the course of its twenty-two year existence, Walker & Eisen produced designs for various hotels and apartment houses, office and bank buildings, and theaters and stores. The firm's designs are located in almost every major city in California, including San Francisco and Berkeley. In other states, the firm designed buildings in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; Denver, Colorado; Portland, Oregon, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In Mexico, the firm designed a building in Mexico City, and another in Baja, California. Examples of the firm's apartment and hotel work during the 1920s include the Ardmore Apartments in Los Angeles (1924); the William Perm Hotel in Whittier (1924); the Hollywood Plaza Hotel in Hollywood (1924); the Havenhurst Apartments in Hollywood (1924); the Breakers Hotel in Long Beach (1925); the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (1926); the Arcady and Gaylor Apartments in Los Angeles (1926); the Mar Monte Hotel in Santa Barbara (1927); and the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs (1927). Of these, the Beverly Wilshore Hotel, designed during the same year as the El Cortez, has been noted as "an excellent example of the product of Walker and Eisen, and at the same time is representative of one of the stylistic trends of the 1920s." Many of these designs emphasized the Beaux-Arts tradition including adaptations of the Renaissance and Mediterranean expressions based upon classic models. Variations of the Romanesque and Gothic were wedded in a startling array. To this combination, "Spanish," "Mission," and "Moresque" were often added. Other buildings of note designed by the firm include the Fine Arts/Signal Oil Building in Los Angeles (1925); the United Artist Theater and Texaco Building in Los Angeles (1927); and the Sunkist Building in Los Angeles (1936). The firm engaged in many public works projects during the early to mid-1930s.

In 1879, the founder of the William Simpson Construction Company, William Simpson, began a career as a builder in Denver Colorado. In 1903, the William Simpson Construction Company was incorporated in Denver, and in later years, was changed to a California Corporation. Until 1912, the company maintained headquarters in Denver, during which time projects were constructed throughout the Western United States for the United States War Department, the Denver Rio Grande Railroad, and other large corporations.

In 1912, the company moved to San Diego, and three years later, relocated to Los Angeles. In 1917, William Simpson died, leaving the company to administered by his two sons-William A. Simpson (President) and C.C. Simpson (Vice-President). Between 1912-1920, the company was involved in many projects, including work for the United Verde Copper Company at Clarkdale, Arizona, and the United Verde Extension Copper Company at Jerome, Arizona. The company, however, concentrated upon the construction of the Santa Fe Railroad between San Diego and Albuquerque. Two government projects were also built during this period, one a cantonment for the United States Army in 1918 at San Pedro, California, and a Veterans Hospital at Prescott, Arizona in 1920.

Between 1921-1931, the company directed its attention to construction projects within the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. Projects completed during this period included work on office buildings, theaters, hotels, warehouses, stores, and churches, many of which, cost in excess of $1 million. In 1921, the company constructed the first of seven buildings of the San Diego Naval Hospital. From 1931-1939, the company continued to work on large projects including the Planetarium in Griffith Park, the I. Magnin Store Building, and the Pellisier Building, all of which were in Los Angeles. With the coming of the Second World War, the company built the private Vega Plant for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for $5.5 million. During the war, the company was awarded nine contracts by the Navy Department totaling approximately $35 million dollars. After the war, the company resumed private construction.21 Of note is the fact that the William Simpson Construction Company collaborated with Walker & Eisen in the construction of the El Cortez, and other buildings in Los Angeles including the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the California Fruit Growers Exchange Building, the Farmers Insurance Building, the Commercial Exchange Building, and the Medical Dental Building.

In November 1926, the former Grant residence was demolished during groundbreaking for the new construction of the El Cortez, a fourteen-story Spanish Colonial Revival or Spanish Renaissance apartment hotel. The cost for the hotel, its landscaping, and furnishings was two million dollars. Of this amount, $1,200,000 was spent on actual construction while the remainder was used for landscaping and furnishings.

The El Cortez opened for business on November 23, 1927. Over 50,000 San Diegans out of an approximate population of 159,000 toured the hotel on its opening day. Like the El Cortez, "typical American hotel apartment house[s]" as symbols of capitalistic success during the 1920s.

Nowhere was the communal emphasis on recreation and entertainment more profound than in the El Cortez. The octagonal-shaped "Don Room" on the ground floor, fashioned in an older Spanish style, was considered the "gem" of the hotel. Designed to evoke images of Spanish galleons, the room's ornately carved sandalwood ceiling supported by eight massive pillars and a $3,000 inlaid maple floor provided San Diegans with a grand ballroom unlike any other ever seen in the area. Extraordinary special effects of electric lights which shown through tiny openings in transparent blue glass overhead center panels produced the feeling of "dancing under the stars." The Don Room soon became the site of wedding receptions for San Diego's most prominent families as well as dinners for visiting dignitaries. In addition, the El Cortez also featured other public pleasures such as the 200 seat "Aztec Dining Room" which has been described as a "scheme of Moorish Spanish elaboration on a fundamental Aztec design," an "outstanding eating rendezvous of the community...because of its vast windows, brilliant ceiling and handsome equipment."

Very little is known about the early history of the El Cortez. From all accounts, however, the hotel gained popularity with San Diegans and quickly established itself as the social center for San Diego. Despite the fact that the Depression gripped San Diego during the early 1930s, the El Cortez continued to host special engagements. Unfortunately, the hotel's owner, Richard Robinson, did not weather the financial storm as well as his hotel. In 1936, his Grant Terrace Building Company sold the building to the San Diego-based El Cortez Company.

With the acquisition of the El Cortez, the El Cortez Company began a large expansion program. In 1937, the Company installed a large "El Cortez" sign which could be seen for miles around night and day. In June 1940, the Company added the "Sky Room" on the fourteenth floor. Known for its 360 degree view, patrons could enjoy ocean sunsets through 70 percent glass exterior walls. Other features associated with the new construction included stylish decor with an art deco Lucite "extravaganza" above its elliptical-shaped bar, and a modern air conditioning system which changed the air every four minutes. The Sky Room soon became the social gathering place for fashionable San Diegans.

During the Second World War, the El Cortez served another purpose divorced from luxury and entertainment. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, United States Marines secured the El Cortez as a point of military operation. The very next day, an anti-aircraft battery and radar station was installed on the roof of the building. Between 1942-1945, the Army's anti-aircraft 244th Regiment in San Diego occupied the roof.

The Second World War brought unprecedented prosperity to San Diego. Connections to defense production and general support of major military installations led to a healthy economy which lasted until the 1980s. The expansion of business beyond downtown San Diego spurred the need for suburban planning and improvements. The development of Mission Valley for shopping and Mission Bay for recreation created new attractions for San Diegans. The allure of these new leisure opportunities created competition for the El Cortez. According to some, in the midst of the "Modern" era, the El Cortez was in need of a change in its Spanish design.

In October 1951, the El Cortez was purchased by San Francisco businessman Harry Handlery, the President of Handlery Hotels, Inc. The thirteenth hotel acquired by Handlery, who was reputed to have fallen in love with it, he soon made it his personal residence. Determined to make the El Cortez into a "dream hotel" and "the finest hotel on the Pacific Coast," Handlery almost immediately pursued a multi-million dollar program of expansion, addition and alteration. Preserving the original beauty of the structure, however, did not figure into his plans. The strength of Handlery's determination was exemplified by his statement, "the hammers will never be still as long as I own the Cortez."

Handlery well understood the American consumer of the 1950s. American lust for consumer goods after the Second World War did not include a luxury hotel room in slowly declining downtown. In the 1950s, traveling vacationers turned to motels for lodging. The presence of motels (from 26,000 establishments in 1948 to 60,000 motels in 1950 and 120,000 by 1972) signaled the demise of the hotel. The popularity of motel use shifted travel stay, and consequently dollars, from urban centers to the suburbs. To fight the lure of new suburban shopping centers, Handlery installed technological novelties such as marketing ploys to attract tourists and residents alike to the El Cortez, especially the white, middle-class visitor. The El Cortez soon "catered to suburban families looking for a more affordable ballroom to hold their wedding, prom or bar mitzvah banquet."

In order to attract resort visitors back to San Diego's downtown and especially to the El Cortez, Handlery added a swimming pool in 1952, the Caribbean Wing in 1954, the Sky Room on the fifteenth-floor, the Starlight Room on the twelfth-floor in 1956, and the Travolator Motor Hotel across Seventh Avenue in 1959, all of which catered to a new kind of client-the business traveler in for conventions or sales meetings. The Caribbean Wing served as Handlery's answer to the absence of a San Diego convention center. The eight-story, two million dollar addition, included 100 rooms and suites, a grand ballroom, swimming pool, patio, and patio-side dining room called the "Cafe Cortez." To entice visitors to spend more than just hotel dollars in San Diego, Handlery replaced the palm court and garden of the original hotel design with retail space at the street floor. In order to make room for the bar within the Sky Room, which provided spectacular views of San Diego, the Pacific Ocean, and Mexico, three penthouse suites on the fifteenth floor had to be removed. The Sky and Starlight Rooms "created widespread excitement for the fabulous view and chic experiences they offered to patrons, especially to young adults enjoying their first tastes of nightlife.""

With all of Handlery's changes, arguably the most prominent and impressive was the addition of the "Starlight Express" or "Haroun al Handlery's Flying Carpet," an exterior glass elevator installed in 1956 which delivered passengers from the hotel lobby all the way up to the fifteenth-floor Sky Room. The elevator also made stops at a new dining room built over the lobby deck and the Starlight Room. Designed by architect C.J. "Pat" Paderewski, the elevator was built by Elevator Electric, Inc., a local firm, and became only the second operational glass exterior elevator in the world. The elevator's unique design used a hydraulic ram principle which created quite a stir among architects and builders. While an exterior elevator in Europe operated on the traditional cable principle, Paderewski's design called for a 12-inch thick steel ram to push the cab up the front of the hotel. The solid steel ram, powered by five motors aggregating 150 horse-power, dropped 175 feet into the ground when the elevator was at rest on the lobby level. Two rails held the cab in place, and neon stars decorated the enameled metal in between the elevator rails.36 After its construction, the elevator soon became the site of many promotional stunts, an object of interest to many, attracting visitors to the hotel—one of the most memorable forms of entertainment for San Diegans. In addition to the Starlight Express, in 1959, Paderewski also designed an elevated moving sidewalk which linked the El Cortez with the Travolator Motor Hotel, a $2.3 million motel-garage across Seventh Avenue.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Handlery and his staff catered to the downtown business community. Over this period, the El Cortez became the center of meetings, programs, and fundraisers. Without a convention center in the city, many organizations turned to the hotel which served as the site for "a variety of business activities."

In 1965, Harry Handlery died. This circumstance signaled the decline of the El Cortez as a "center of the downtown social world." While Handlery's son, Paul, took over the hotel's management after his father's death, he did not share in his father's love of the hotel. In October 1978, the El Cortez Hotel was sold to the World Evangelism, Inc., headed by Reverend Morris Cerullo for almost eight million dollars. After this conveyance, the hotel entered into a short period of service as a home to evangelical ministry and training. World Evangelism, Inc. left an indelible mark upon the building. Not only did the organization poorly install individual air conditioning units which eventually disfigured the hotel's exterior and add a neon "El Cortez Center" sign atop the building, but interior spaces were modified to accommodate cafeteria-style eating rather than fine dining. In addition, single-family living areas were converted into dormitory-style quarters and the deluxe furnishings of the hotel's early years were auctioned off. The hotel quickly fell into disrepair when the organization failed to expand as intended. In an effort to bring in income, the organization attempted to rent some hotel and convention center facilities to the public.

In December 1981, World Evangelism, Inc. sold the El Cortez to El Cortez Associates, a partnership comprised of the Considine California Company, Inc. and Bass Brothers Realty Company of Philadelphia. In December 1986, the property was acquired by J. Mark Grosvenor. In July 1990, the El Cortez was designated as City of San Diego Historical Landmark #269 on the basis of the building's long-time status as San Diego's "landmark hotel"; its association with many and nationally significant personages, including Richard T. Robinson, Jr. and Harry Handlery; its having been the focus of many significant local events; and its significance as a local work of prominent Los Angeles architects, Walker and Eisen.