I'm all for the kind of change Barack Obama is talking about, but some change sucks. Hotel Del Coronado, you're dead to me now. Granted, you retain a modicum of nobility, but the thing I liked most about you is gone and, therefore, so am I. And since the Night & Day (diner) was already dead to me once that horrible CD jukebox was installed, if it weren't for Tartine (café), I might never visit you again, Coronado.
Last week, on the same night a man jumped to his death from the Coronado Bridge after three hours of negotiation, I circumvented the closed span and took the long Silver Strand route via Imperial Beach to reach my destination: the lobby of the Hotel Del.
The best thing about the Del was its lobby. Most San Diegans won't shell out $400 to spend the night in a tiny room just because Marilyn Monroe might have bumped the doorknob as she sashayed down the hall on her way to shoot a scene for Some Like it Hot, and we're rarely, if ever, gonna spend $90 on Sunday brunch for the sake of gazing up at an impressive ceiling. Maybe if the prices were commensurate with the accommodations—but that'll never be the case. The Del-as-hotel has long been mainly a tourist bamboozle.
Hanging out in the lobby of the Del, though, was a San Diego tradition worth preserving, but the corporate cretins who bought the hotel, in order to add another notch to their investment portfolio belt, have gutted the lobby and ruined the tradition.
This is the dominant paradigm. Modern corporate capitalism has no patience for value unless an insipid cost-benefit analysis determines that the value is a potentially massive profit increase. The historic must be destroyed. If one acquires property protected by state historical status through a government entity, it must be transformed into a Disneyesque shadow of its former self in order to maintain the illusion of respecting that status while maximizing profit—usually by pairing necessary and defensible structural maintenance with misguided modernization schemes that actually harm the property's true value. The bottom line is shortsightedness.
If you once savored the Del lobby experience, etch it in your mind, for I discovered last week that it no longer exists.
Until last year, the Del lobby complemented its Victorian architectural elements with Victorian ambience. You'd enter and immediately be struck not by grand spaciousness, but by grand Victorian complexity. Stately, clean, comfortable antique chairs, polished wood side tables and period details seemed to grow out of every nook and cranny. It was a lobby you could vanish into.
Once inside, the spirit of past generations, floating on vibrations from the venerable grand piano tucked in the corner, summoned you through the stately labyrinth. This music—the kind that takes years of careful practice and dedication to produce and a receptive soul to hear—led you gently and seductively toward the calm, elegant lobby bar. There, you'd listen to the piano player working over a standard, place your foot on the brass foot rail, watch the bartender stir your martini, then carry your drink back into the main room, seeking one of the little enclaves you'd make your own for an hour or two, where you and a friend could bask in the ritualistic ever-presence of a truly civil environment. But when KSL, a La Quinta-based resort-management and development company, bought the Del in 2003, it didn't buy the place to maintain it—it bought it to improve it, which is corporate doublespeak for ruination. That October, KSL executive Scot Dalecio told Michael Kinsman of the San Diego Union-Tribune that the Del was “a resort that could be made even better.”
And what is KSL? “An opportunistic buyer that traditionally buys undervalued properties and invests in them,” Bob Rauch, director of San Diego State University's Center for Hospitality & Tourism Research, told Kinsman.
According to Rauch, “KSL is one of the top operators of luxury resorts, but they are usually looking for deals where they see value in the development side of the deal and can drive room rates up,” and “they must be thinking they can do this with the Hotel del Coronado, or they wouldn't have purchased it.”
Who cares that the Del didn't need a lame, corporate betterment scheme but, rather, preservation, maintenance, care, love and respect for its history and employees?
Four years, $125 million and a long labor dispute (but that's another story) later, and look what you get, San Diego: Obtrusive, inappropriate new private beachside thousand-dollar-a-day, condo rentals, barely themed to match the hotel.
The classically elegant Prince of Wales Room restaurant gone and replaced with the hideous, out-of-place, tacky pseudo-modernism of 1500 Ocean.
The once-beautiful Babcock & Story Bar downstairs, named for the hotel's founders, with its old mahogany bar crafted a century ago and transported by ship around Cape Horn, now gaudily dishonored with multiple flat-panel television screens like Ready Whip on a crème brulée, yet still represented on the hotel's website by a photograph of what it used to look like. Also removed: the numerous little seating enclaves that gave the Story Bar the feeling of Rick's Café in Casablanca.
And the biggest travesty of all: Aside from one tiny corner nook, the Victorian lobby has been gutted, furniture, plants, details, piano removed. It looks like a Vegas Fremont Street hotel minus the casino now—all cold and empty, only the chandelier, elevator and carpeting left intact. The wonderful lobby bar is gone, replaced with a tacky souvenir shop.
The fate of the lobby says it all. Now, it's just a place for tourists to walk through on the way to their overpriced rooms. This post of last March to the blog of the American Institute of Architects has been rendered irrelevant:
“I was a carpenter on this grand hotel. I helped restore the lobby bar & palm court to its original splendor years ago. This will always be one of my proudest experiences. It is a grand old place.” —Fred Hartman
Thanks, but sorry, Fred. It used to be a grand old place. Now it's just a grand hustle.