The Hotel Del Coronado has symbolized the town of Coronado since it opened its doors in 1888. The 400-room beachfront resort was built on a peninsula that had contained little more than sage brush and jackrabbits. For more than 134 years, the Queen Anne Victorian hotel has hosted vacationers, presidents, and Hollywood icons.
“The Del” remains one of America’s largest wooden buildings and had a leading role in the classic 1959 film Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe. In 1977, the hotel was designated a National Historic Landmark and was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp in 2012.
When the Hotel del Coronado originally opened, there was a large covered veranda at the main entry. Since then, significant alterations were made when windows were replaced and enlarged, the grand chimney was removed, railings were changed, and upper floor balconies were enclosed. Most significant of all, the ground floor veranda was pushed out 30 feet and eventually enclosed. By the 1970s, the veranda was gone.
San Diego firm Heritage Architecture & Planning was hired by The Del’s owner, BRE Hotels & Resorts, to reconstruct the original size and shape of the historic veranda along with its 1888 detailing. The design team included WATG and Wimberly Interiors. Swinerton Builders was the contractor. Construction began in April 2020, one month after the first COVID-19 shutdown, adding to the project’s challenges.
The reconstructed veranda includes replicated mahogany spindle handrails, and the “Ladies Stair” has been recreated. In 1888, the Ladies Stair was used by unmarried women to enter the building. The stair led to the Ladies Billiard Room. Married women accompanied by their husbands were entitled to use the main stairs.
Since providing disabled access is a key component for any restoration project, a new wheelchair ramp was added between the two historic stairs and was configured in a zig-zag shape to create space for landscaping.
One of the architect’s biggest challenges was trying to accurately recreate the historic railings that were too short and had openings too large to meet code. Rather than changing the railing’s historic appearance, frameless glass railings were installed on the inside face of the historic wood railings — a simple, safe, and transparent solution.
On the upper floors, the restoration involved reclaiming the original balconies by reducing the size of four suites and removing a boxy addition. Non-historic windows were removed and 114 new wood windows were fabricated, complete with historic detailing and counterweights.
Since The Del’s two largest stained-glass windows were originally located in the middle of the removed grand chimney, the restoration incorporates brickwork around the windows as a historic nod to the former chimney. Historic colors were also restored, including the white walls, dark red window sashes, and the veranda ceilings in “haint blue.” Victorian porch ceilings were historically painted pale blue to ward off evil spirits. “Haint” is a Southern variation of the word “haunt.”
An antique Victorian lantern was used as a model for two new custom lights, complete with colored glass “jewels” and crowns etched into the beveled glass. The new free-standing porte-cochère has a Victorian aesthetic by incorporating exposed wood rafters, turned columns, bronze lanterns, and ridge cresting.
The lobby, with its elaborate use of white oak, was very dark in 2018 due to the loss of windows and re-staining. Dozens of workers spent months stripping away the non-historic wood finishes and reapplying the lobby’s 1888 stain and shellac. In the front desk area, the coffered ceiling was dismantled and reassembled to conceal new steel beams.
There was no requirement to reconstruct the 21 missing stained-glass windows, but ownership knew that bringing back these colorful jewels would be the icing on the cake of the restoration project. The replica stained-glass windows all include a small engraved “2021” so future historians and architects will know that they are not original.
After five years of research, design, and construction, the $14 million restoration of the front façade, veranda, and lobby of the Hotel del Coronado has recreated the historic appearance. The love and pride that the citizens of Coronado have for their National Historic Landmark hotel cannot be overstated.
Seeing locals and visitors relaxing in rocking chairs on the restored veranda brings one instantly back to 1888. New for all who visit, whether to dine, to tour, or to enjoy a staycation, the recently completed restoration of the Hotel del Coronado will continue to provide cherished memories.
The Ups and Downs
One of the Hotel del Coronado’s most beloved features is its vintage “birdcage” elevator in the lobby. Guests love to ride the cab and watch the floors go by through the open bronze grillwork.
When the hotel opened in 1888, it had only one passenger elevator and one freight elevator to serve 400 rooms. These elevators were manufactured by the Ellithorpe Air-Break Company of Chicago. A second passenger elevator was added in 1911 by the Otis Elevator Co. and later modernized. The lobby elevator was rebuilt by Otis in 1918 and the changes included a new ornamental iron car with black leather seat.
The lobby elevator carried its first passengers on February 11, 1888. Guests at that time were wary of elevators, fearing they would get stuck — or worse. For this reason, the ground floor rooms were initially the most expensive. In 1890 it was reported that the lobby elevator “fell from the third to the first floor,” but the three women inside were not injured because the automatic brakes worked.
One of the charms of old birdcage elevators is that they often have an operator onboard. The Del employed Andrew Lounsbury, who ran the elevator for 41 years and sometimes serenaded guests before he retired in 2020.
Today, the elevator has been upgraded to meet safety requirements while maintaining its historic look and feel. Gone are the finger-pinching scissor gates and the busy scrollwork grille at the lobby that was added in 1961. In the just completed restoration, the non-historic grille was replaced by a replica of the 1888 design, matching the open bronze elevator shaft on the other floors. The Hotel del Coronado’s birdcage “time machine” is poised to serve guests for another 134 years.
The largest and most ornate stained-glass window at the Hotel del Coronado is known as the Coronation Window and it was designed by The Del’s architect James W. Reid. Coronado is the Spanish term for “crowned,” so Reid wanted the window to represent the establishment of Coronado, also known as The Crown City.
In an 1887 edition of the San Diego Union, Reid described the window’s design as “an allegorical representation of Coronado. In the foreground is the figure of a young girl crowning herself with flowers and scattering them about. In the distant background there is a landscape, representing mountains, valleys, and a bay. The sun is just rising above a high elevation. This piece of stained-glass will alone cost $600. It will be one of the most prominent and artistic features of the hotel.”
As part of The Del’s two-year restoration, the Coronation Window was carefully removed and restored by Bera Stained Glass Studios in San Marcos. The window’s 700 colored and hand-painted glass pieces were meticulously dismantled, cleaned, and reassembled. One piece with multiple cracks and several poorly matched previous repairs were replaced with new matching glass. The window is now reinstalled in its historic second floor location and can be viewed up close from the lobby’s mezzanine. The beautifully restored Coronation Window continues to symbolize not only the history of the Hotel del Coronado, but the entire island of Coronado.