Other than the metallic-green water tower to the east and the "Boulevard" sign to the west, the Colonial-mansion design of the venerable Lafayette Hotel stands as El Cajon Boulevard's most storied adornment--for now.
The developers have scurried back to the drawing board for the moment, but the continued war on San Diego's historic structures now hears a new battle cry among city officials and local preservationists: "Save the Lafayette!"
In recent weeks, representatives of Lennar Communities--a major California home-builder more accustomed to planned communities than urban in-fill projects--have met with community leaders over plans to demolish the 57-year-old hotel complex, which covers a square city block, to make way for 199 mid-priced condominiums.
City planning officials who have seen the plans say the only segment of the old structure scheduled to avoid the wrecking ball is the popular Red Fox Steak House and adjacent bar at the northeast corner of the hotel property, which stretches between Mississippi and Louisiana streets. (The white portico, including the massive Doric columns that frame the hotel's entrance, would also come down but will later be reincorporated into the condo complex's design, officials add.)
While the plans may be undergoing change, the intent isn't sitting well with people in North Park, where the hotel has endured several transformations since the mid-'40s.
One city employee who stayed at the Lafayette with his parents when he first came to San Diego at age 5 said that as he sat through Lennar's recent presentation, "my heart just kept sinking deeper and deeper. I thought that maybe, OK, this won't be so bad, but the reverse was true. It was kind of like, 'OK, I've described the murder of your child, now let me show you.'
"This one tugs at my heartstrings a lot, and I know for a lot of other folks as well."
City Councilmember Toni Atkins, whose district includes the old Lafayette, was visibly steamed at a recent community meeting, where talk of the old hotel buzzed around the room like wildfire. At the time, she vowed to put up a fierce fight to save the history-rich resort hotel. In a statement this week, Atkins told CityBeat, "The Lafayette Hotel is one of the grandest buildings in all of North Park. It has hosted innumerable civic, cultural and social events, and its loss would be devastating to this community."
Atkins is not alone in her outrage over Lennar's proposal.
Alex Sachs, head of the Uptown Planners community group, said he has been concerned since word started circulating about the hotel's proposed demise. "I can't see how you would do a redevelopment which would be!" said Sachs, his voice trailing off. "I mean, the whole place is historic. It's not just a facade."
City planners believe Lennar is merely testing the developmental waters at this point, which might explain why company representatives were not heard from when contacted by CityBeat to respond to community concerns. The hotel's manager also did not return a phone call to confirm speculation that the property is already in escrow.
The hotel, now owned and operated by Arizona-based InnSuites, boasts a colorful history that rivals some of San Diego's most adored hostelries, including the U.S. Grant Hotel downtown and the area's most famous, the Hotel del Coronado. Said to be the only such establishment built during World War II, the Lafayette's first name was Imig Manor, the brainchild of Larry Imig, at the time a 30-something super-salesman enamored with Hollywood who fancied himself a playboy and was a major player in town.
According to early press clippings, the Nebraska-born Imig came to San Diego when the Navy dropped him off to recuperate from injuries he suffered in a boiler-room explosion on board a ship. The story doesn't necessarily jibe with his obituary in 1968, which said he was discharged after two years "on disability caused by arthritis," but much of Imig's personal and professional history is shrouded in mystery.
After the Navy, Imig is said to have become a car salesman but went into home construction in the mid-'30s when he reportedly traded a car to a customer in exchange for her unfinished house. Liking the gig as a contractor, Imig opened a 30-home tract in Pacific Beach four years later.
He continued building tract homes in San Diego's mid-city, including the 340-home Imig Park near Euclid and University, as well as homes to the east in Fletcher Hills. His efforts were estimated to have added between 1,000 and 2,000 homes to San Diego County's tax rolls.
A man on a professional roll, Imig had little problem thinking big, and as his tract homes began selling out, he decided to build a modest motel along El Cajon Boulevard, at the time the primary east-west thoroughfare in San Diego.
The Lafayette is "a carryover of auto-oriented tourism, because they hadn't quite gotten into air travel by then," said Alex Bevil, a state parks historian and a mid-city history expert. "El Cajon Boulevard at the time was part of the transcontinental highway system. This was the jazz-and-martini crowd!. The mindset of that whole post-war era was 'Let's party!''"
Imig saw the spot as an ideal midway point for Hollywood types who liked to travel to Tijuana for its nightlife, racetracks and eclectic entertainment. At the time, it was more than a day's journey from Hollywood to Tijuana, due mostly to the poor road quality. Imig Manor was in a perfect location.
Thinking big again, Imig changed his plans in midstream and opted for a much larger hotel and apartment complex that would compete with the big boys in town, the U.S. Grant and the Hotel del Coronado.
And for a while, the $2 million gamble (the cost to build the hotel) paid off. Comedian Bob Hope was the first registrant at the hotel, apparently orchestrated by Imig, who by then was referring to himself in his publicity releases as "an Orson Welles of the construction world, cutting through red tape, shortages and other problems that bog down the less aggressive."
The hotel still exhibits a wealth of photos from its halcyon days, including Imig with beautiful women and of the hotel's official greeter, the 47-inch-tall Chico Colla, who posed in top hat and tails or in traditional Mexican garb with celebrities, which included such starlets as Lana Turner, Betty Grable, Ava Gardner and swing-band giant Harry James, who drew large crowds to the hotel's Mississippi Ballroom. Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller is said to have designed the terrazzo, Olympic-sized pool in the complex's central courtyard. (Both the ballroom and pool are destined for extinction in Lennar's current plans.)
But deep in debt, Imig sold his interest in the Imig Manor to a troika of hotel heavyweights only two years after the 1946 opening. The trio included Joseph Drown, co-operator of the U.S. Grant, and Conrad Hilton, owner of the hotel chain bearing his name. Hilton, the first owner of the San Diego Chargers when they moved from Los Angeles, had his NFL offices in the Lafayette.
The hotel went through numerous changes after that, including its name to the Lafayette Hotel and Club. Portions of the hotel complex were demolished in the '50s. The hotel's brickwork was painted gray at one point, only to be sandblasted back to its original look in the mid-'90s by developer Bud Fischer.
In 1993, the city's Historical Site Board found the hotel historically important "on its past political, social and cultural significance, particularly with respect to the African-American community" for hosting the region's first NAACP conference and the first Ebony Fashion Fair, a heavily attended community event for years.
The public has saved the Lafayette before--including a move years back to convert the hotel to "transitional housing," a euphemism for halfway house.Atkins thinks the community can come through again. "The Lafayette Hotel is one of a handful of structures, including the North Park Theater, Georgia Street bridge and the water tower, that are close to the hearts of the people in this community," the councilmember said. "The last time this building was threatened, the community banded together to preserve it as a hotel. I'm hopeful that those efforts weren't in vain."