Coaxed to the Coast

By Kubin, Jacquie | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 11, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Coaxed to the Coast

Kubin, Jacquie, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

SAN DIEGO - Coronado Island was barren wasteland frequented mostly by hunters until two entrepreneurs decided a century ago it would make a grand resort.

Hampton L. Storey of Chicago and Elisha S. Babcock Jr. of Evansville, Ind., met in 1884 while vacationing in San Diego, bought Coronado for $110,000 and formed the Coronado Beach Co.

Coronado Island's name comes from Las Yslas Coronadas, or the "Crowned Ones," three uninhabited islands in nearby Mexican waters. They were named by a Spanish explorer in the mid-15th century and still can be seen from the seaside beaches of Coronado. Another explorer, Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, had taken possession of the peninsula and the Southern California coast for Spain in 1542.

Although Coronado Island has changed vastly over the past century, the Hotel Del Coronado resort that Babcock and Storey built in 1887 still stands in much of its original splendor.

The exterior of Hotel Del, as it is known affectionately, is a famous example of Victorian architecture, with gracious guest rooms that open to salted air and the rush of the surf. The hotel's original design was a large E with two large red-roofed gabled turrets at either end and a smaller turret in the center. The architect was Stanford White, who was fatally shot in 1906 by Harry K. Thaw for his affair with Thaw's wife, vaudeville starlet Evelyn Nesbit.

The hotel's interior exhibits the area's Mexican influence, especially in the large courtyards protected from the ocean winds and, as it originally was designed , wide walkways from which guests entered the rooms.

What the casual visitor does not know is that Hotel Del is a living time capsule of American history. Babcock and Storey not only built a resort that has endured more than a century, but also created a town. At the time building began, the peninsula had no electricity, water or sewage facilities. There were no workshops to bend metal, hone board or bake brick.

The sparsely populated area of that time did not have a labor force, and the only way to get to Coronado Island was by water.

Before hotel construction could begin, a brick kiln, metal shop and planing mill had to be built. Trees brought down the Pacific Coast became the warmly aged oak paneling that covers the ceiling and walls of the two-story lobby.

Hotel Del, from its beginning, was lighted by its own electrical plant. The property's electrical system was designed and installed by another Chicago native, W.M. Thomas, a competitor of Thomas Edison's.

That same electricity powered some of the earliest elevators - Otis Nos. 62 and 63. A gilded bird-cage elevator - No. 63 - still carries guests from the lobby to the upper floors.

The hotel also holds one of the earliest examples of modern fire prevention: Pipes in its ceiling could quickly spray water in any area of the hotel where the temperature rose above 115 degrees.

That electricity and fire-prevention system greatly reduced instances of fire from gas lamps and candles. These innovations are greatly responsible for the fact that the Hotel Del's original structure is still standing today .

Hotel Del and Coronado Island also are guardians of perhaps the first sighting in one of the 20th century's most famous love stories - the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In 1920, he was the prince of Wales and she was Wallis Warfield Spencer, resident of Coronado and wife of Cmdr. Earl Spencer, the commanding officer of nearby North Island Naval Station.

The prince visited Coronado that April, and it is speculated that he first met Mrs. Spencer at an event held there in his honor. It is not known for sure if their paths crossed, though Cmdr. Spencer did verify that his wife was with him and that they did meet the prince in the receiving line.

About 15 years later, the duchess-to-be was married to Earnest Simpson when she officially met her next husband, by then King Edward VIII of England.

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