San Diego's Stately Del Coronado Hotel Is 100, and the Star-Studded Old Girl Never Looked Splashier

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

One hundred years ago, when the Hotel del Coronado was being built on a spit of land off San Diego, you could still get good help if you were willing to pay for it. Elisha Babcock Jr., the retired railroad executive who built the hotel, was quite willing, and he wanted only the best. Thus the wiring for the hotel's state-of-the-art electric lighting was supervised by Thomas Alva Edison himself.

At the time it was the most extensive wiring job west of New York City, and there were justifiable fears that the patrons might have difficulty adjusting to the new technology. Signs posted in every room informed guests, "This room is equipped with the Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with a match." The owners hedged their bets, though; gas lamps were installed next to each bulb—just in case.

Pursuing his dream of a grand hotel in the most luxurious European mode, Babcock had hundreds of Chinese laborers shipped down the coast from San Francisco. They worked around the clock, and the del Coronado was finished in exactly 11 months at a cost of $600,000 for the building and $400,000 for the furnishings. It became everything that Babcock envisioned and many things that he couldn't have foreseen—a playground for the rich and titled and a backdrop for books, movies and TV shows.

This year, the Del, as it is affectionately known, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. After a period of decline following World War II, when it was reconverted from use as a military hospital, it is once again the grand hotel it was built to be. And, as was the case 100 years ago, the Del is being driven by one man's idea of luxury.

Real estate magnate M. Larry Lawrence, 61, the Del's sixth owner, had no notion of becoming a hotelier when he bought the place for about $10 million in 1963. "Our original plan was to buy the Del just for the value of the land; we were going to build condos," he says. "But I couldn't tear her down. I have to confess I fell in love when I first set eyes on her." At the time, certainly, he couldn't have been seduced by her balance sheet. "When we took over the place," says Lawrence, "the hotel's total sales volume was $2 million a year. Now we can do that over a good weekend."

In the grand old days of the del Coronado, a good weekend had more to do with who was there than with how much money was made. Twelve presidents have slept there. Mary Pickford was a regular, as were Tallulah Bankhead, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Mae West.

For a brief period in 1902, the Del closed for repairs, and guests were relocated to a tent city on the beach. In that hearty era, presided over by Theodore Roosevelt, the well-heeled visitors found that they rather enjoyed roughing it in the sand. The Tent City became a year-round attraction and continued until 1939 with a collection of arcades, fortune-tellers, shooting galleries and other features that turned the area into a West Coast version of Atlantic City's then-glamorous Boardwalk.

From the moment movies were invented, directors have been unable to resist using the Del as a backdrop. The hotel is as much a star of Some Like It Hot as are Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis or Marilyn Monroe. Simon & Simon episodes are shot there frequently, and the Del has also appeared on Hart to Hart and on miniseries like Rich Man, Poor Man and Captains and the Kings.

If there is some vaguely familiar hint of childhood magic about the del Coronado's gingerbread structure, with its nine-story tower, its turrets and setbacks, it is worth remembering that L. Frank Baum stayed there, both as a young glassware salesman and later as the successful author of the original Oz books. Indeed legend has it that the venerable old hotel is the model for the Emerald City.

The del Coronado has changed from the hotel Elisha Babcock envisioned during a hunting trip to the San Diego area in 1884. Lawrence has poured more than $50 million into it since he took over, practically doubling the number of rooms. There were 399 in Babcock's time; now there are close to 700, and the renovations continue. Every week, five rooms at a time are taken out of service so that carpenters, painters and decorators can restore them.

Lawrence and his wife, Jeanne, who supervises the day-to-day operation of the hotel, seem determined to bring back the del Coronado's legendary elegance and style. The new parking attendant's cabin is an exact duplicate of the ticket booth that once stood at the gateway to the Coronado ferry (which ran from downtown San Diego to the hotel until 1969). And when an early photograph showed that a gazebo had once stood in the central courtyard, Lawrence decreed that a replica should be erected on the spot.

Perhaps the most challenging task of restoration lay in fireproofing the hotel's colossal, all-wooden structure to the satisfaction of the Coronado Fire Department. That alone cost $8 million. "Considering the number of modern sprinklers we've put in," says Lawrence, "our guests are more likely to be drowned than burned."

—By Michael Neill, with Arky Gonzalez in San Diego

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