Historic Structures

Building Description El Cortez Apartment Hotel, San Diego California

The El Cortez is a fifteen-story tower constructed of reinforced concrete set upon a reinforced concrete foundation. Designed in a Spanish Colonial Revival or Spanish Renaissance architectural style, the building is situated diagonally on the site to take advantage of the sweeping views of San Diego's downtown and harbor. The building features a "C-shaped" floor plan which is divided into three sections-the main tower or central section of the building which consists of the first through fifteenth floors, and two projecting ells along the northwest and southeast sides of the building which serve the first through sixth floors. The latter ells are "cut back," tangent six-story wings set at a 45 degree angle from the central tower. This configuration reflects a stepped back appearance at the seventh, twelfth, and fifteenth floors.

The Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style is derived from earlier building forms influenced by the design elements brought to the New World from Spain and merged with the indigenous styles of the Americas. Various stylistic influences can be seen in Spanish Eclectic designs which capture the rich architectural heritage of old Spain. The style uses decorative details borrowed from the entire history of Spanish architecture. These may be of Moorish, Byzantine, Gothic, or Renaissance inspiration, an unusually rich and varied series of decorative precedents. Decorative details include a range of arch types, an asymmetrical pattern to the overall design, large massed blocks, spiral columns, pilasters, carved stonework, patterned tiles, red Mission tile roofs in a mix of styles, brick or tile vents, heavy wooden doors, a variety of window sizes and shapes, window grilles, cantilevered balconies (usually paired and glazed with multiple panes of rectangular glass), fountains, courtyards, walled gardens, towers, tile terraces and wrought iron accents.

The Spanish Colonial Revival style is most common in the southwestern states, particularly California, Arizona, and Texas. These were the areas heavily settled by the Spanish during their colonial period. With the development of the missions, ranches, and public buildings, the Spanish influence on architecture was felt well into the 20th century. During the 1920s, many new communities in southern California were planned in the Spanish Eclectic style, as it symbolized the beauty and heritage of California. In addition, the designs blended well with the landscape of the region and allowed many of the newcomers from the cold climes of the East Coast to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle of California. The Spanish Eclectic style reached its peak during the 1920s and 1930s and passed out of favor during the 1940s.

The El Cortez consists of 8" reinforced concrete walls and concrete floors. The roof is flat with built-up roofing materials. The exterior consists of stucco on lath. Fenestration is varied. Windows are located along each floor across the main central section of the building and the two supporting ells. Varieties range from vertical doublehung with upper pane sashes, vertical double-hung pairs with upper pane sashes, as well as smaller vertical doublehung. Most of these windows are believed to be original.

The main section of the El Cortez is topped by the "tower," which is composed of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth floors. The fifteenth floor consists of a penthouse. The tower contains original crests, torches, pilasters, friezes, and scroll work. Of note is the fact that along the roofline above the fourteenth floor and below the fifteenth floors, richly ornate parapets and scroll work rise upward adding an elegant Spanish flair. The top of the tower is adorned with a red neon "El Cortez" sign which was added to the building in 2000. The original 1940 sign at this location had read "El Cortez Hotel." In the 1970s, that sign was replaced by one which read "El Cortez Center."

A broad band exists above the tenth floor with two projecting decorative balconies. Decorative arched molding exists above the windows behind the balconies. Above these windows, at the eleventh floor, are two non-operational leaf-shaped, quatrefoil windows. Two more broad bands, located above the twelfth and fourteenth floors are highlighted by short, decorative scrolled columns.

Ornate parapets and scroll work, which once topped the twelfth floor roof, no longer exist along the fourteenth and fifteenth floors, having been removed at an unknown time. Two metal enclosures with glass windows are located along the twelfth floor in the area formerly known as the "Starlight Room" (1956). The enclosures were added in 2000. In addition, an emergency staircase has been added to the northwest side of the main section during this year.

The El Cortez features two projecting ells along the northwest and southeast elevations. At these elevations, the ells include the first through sixth floors of the building. Originally, the building featured parapets and scroll work (identical to the main section above), as well as two decorative arched parapets (one on each ell). However, the parapets, scroll work, and arched parapets were removed at an unknown date. Original decorative molding located along the center of each ell at the fifth and sixth floors still remains.

Between the two ells, there originally existed a one-story, inverted "C-shaped" elevated driveway and entrance. This area featured the main entrance to the El Cortez and terrace above. The entrance to the building is highlighted by a magnificent ornament combination of carved pilasters, scrolls, and parapet with decorative crest. The entrance is composed of cast stone, flanked by columns roped in cable molding and a cartouche overhead etched with "Sea Bienvenida," or "Be Welcomed." The entrance features a variety of motifs including shells, foliage, figures, urns, crests, ribbons. A large set of wooden doors and multi-paned inset windows is located within the recessed entrance. A palm garden, which originally existed at the corner of Seventh and Ash Streets, was replaced by one-story retail space in 1957. This retail space itself was replaced with newly constructed retail space in 2000. Overall, the exterior is in excellent condition.

Over the years, the El Cortez had been the subject of numerous "Modern" modifications and/or alterations. Most improvements which affected the original design/construction of the building were performed during the early to mid-1950s. Overall, improvements which impacted the building included the installation of a neon "El Cortez" sign (1937) at the top of the building; the addition of the "Sky Room" on the fifteenth floor (1940); the addition of a swimming pool (1952); the addition of the "Caribbean Wing" along the northwest elevation (1954); the addition of the "Starlight Room" on the twelfth floor (1956); the construction of the "Starlight Express," an exterior glass elevator located off center to the southeast which served the Starlight and Sky Rooms (1956); the construction of one-story retail additions at the corner of Seventh and Ash Streets, which replaced the original Palm Garden, (1957); and the creation of a "moving sidewalk" which connected the El Cortez to the Travolator Motor Hotel which was built across Seventh Avenue (1959). Other subsequent changes to the exterior of the building during the late 1970s and early 1980s included the installation of air-conditioning units along the building's exterior.

Beginning in June 2000, the El Cortez underwent substantial Certified Rehabilitation. During this period, major elements of the rehabilitation work included the removal of the Caribbean Wing (1954) and replacement with an auto court, garden court, and dining terrace; the removal of retail structures along Seventh and Ash Streets (mid-1950s) and replacement with new retail structures; the removal of decorative columns and trellis along the hotel driveway (mid-1950s) and the addition of a new "pull off/parking area" to complement the existing original driveway; tfce removal of an aluminum storefront and entry doors (mid-1950s) and replacement with replicated wooden doors and decorative ornamentation restored; repair of the Don Room facade (1927); restoration of balconies and doors (1927); the removal of the Starlight Room along the twelfth floor (1956) and restoration of original configuration; the removal of the Starlight Express glass elevator (1956) and restoration of original apartment configuration; the removal of the Sky Room along the fifteenth floor (1940) and resumption of apartment unit use; and the removal of mechanical equipment along the fifteenth floor (1927 with modifications over the years).

The basement of the El Cortez includes a garage, boiler, mechanical, electrical, fitness facility and storage rooms. The first floor is composed of the lobby and administrative offices within the former Aztec Dining Room. A portion of this space is dedicated to an historic photographic gallery with memorabilia on the building. First floor space formerly included restaurant, bathroom and kitchen space. The Don Room, which had been painted and slightly modified over the years has been restored. It is basically octagonal in shape with restored wood flooring and carpeting, with light fixtures and intricately-carved sandalwood ceiling. Ceiling panels were carved in a style depicting the era of the Spanish Conquistadors.

Former guest floors, second through twelfth, were formerly double loaded corridors which had, over time, been substantially remodeled. Single-family living areas were converted into dormitory-style quarters during the late 1970s and early 1980s. While the original building had 117 units, comprised of 85 apartment suites and 32 hotel rooms, all rooms (except one suite on the thirteenth floor) were converted into hotel guest rooms over the years. While some original bathrooms, wood trim, moldings and paneled doors exist, the second floor interior including the Cotillion Room, have been extensively renovated and partitioned into meeting rooms. Ceilings throughout the building are plaster; except for some applied acoustic tile ceilings and sprayed acoustical ceilings in the lobby and guest rooms.

Prior to 1999, upper floors included the former Starlight Room on the twelfth floor; a penthouse suite on the fifteenth floor with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and bathrooms; and the Sky Room on the fifteenth floor, which had been converted into a religious telephone center and chapel.

Certified rehabilitation work performed during 2000 to the interior, included the removal of employee locker rooms (1927) and Starlight Express equipment (1956) and its replacement with a new gymnasium facility; restoration of the main entry lobby floor and vaulted ceiling (1927); removal of elevator lobby wood paneling (1950s) in main entry lobby; and the addition of new lighting in main entry lobby.