The “El” Word

By Pat Sherman
Photos by Stacy Keck and Don Mirra

(Published in the January 2011 issue)

When it opened in 1927, the El Cortez Apartment Hotel was San Diego’s tallest and most elegant building.

Constructed on the former site of Ulysses S. Grant Jr.'s home at Ash Street and Seventh Avenue, the $2.5 million Spanish Colonial Revival hotel boasted jawdropping views of a San Diego Bay that, at the time, included neither the Coronado Bridge nor Harbor and Shelter islands.

During the next three decades, a series of additions and innovations made El Cortez the destination of choice for visiting celebrities and dignitaries, from President Dwight Eisenhower to Bing Crosby.

Elvis Presley stayed at El Cortez in April 1956 during his first visit to San Diego. After one of his two sold-out concerts, police reportedly arrested 12 girls running naked through the halls of El Cortez in search of “The King.” Mayor Charles Dail was so incensed by the libidinal hysteria that he reportedly passed a resolution barring Elvis Presley from performing in San Diego again (Presley wouldn’t return until 1970).

Senator Robert F. Kennedy appeared in El Cortez’ 3,300-square-foot Don Room for a fundraiser on June 5, 1968, the night before his assassination. Nearly collapsing minutes into his speech, Kennedy had to be rushed into the bathroom, where he threw up then briefly lay on the floor.

In 1940, the art deco Sky Room lounge was added to the 15th story, featuring a panoramic view of the San Diego skyline. The cost for Lobster Thermidor in the hotel’s dining room that year was just $4.95.

The spacious Starlight restaurant was added to the 12th story in 1956, along with the world’s first exterior glass elevator. On weekends, people waited in a line stretching around the block to ride the “Starlight Express” skyward for dinner and dancing.

In 1959, owner Harry Handlrey added another first-a moving walkway called the Travolator, which arched over 7th Avenue, connecting El Cortez with an annex hotel and garage (today a Holiday Inn Express) across the street.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, the hotel’s image became tarnished, and the property fell into disrepair. In 1978, El Cortez was purchased by San Diego evangelist Morris Cerullo, who closed it. It was sold again in 1981, but stood as a ghostly shell for more than two decades while several renovation schemes fell by the wayside.

Vagrants were known to sleep on the Travolator bridge until its demolition in 1986. El Cortez narrowly avoided demolition in 1990, when it received historic designation by the San Diego Historic Site Board.

Anthony Block, part of the development team that returned El Cortez to its 1927 splendor, said that when he first walked into the heavily vandalized building in the 1990s, there was nothing left but graffiti, bird droppings and “empty wino bottles.” The ornate sandalwood roof of the octagonal Don Room had partially collapsed.

Block and former business partner Peter Janopaul purchased the property in 1997 for $2.4 million-less than it cost to build it in 1926. Though Block said they had hoped to re-create the Sky Room experience and restore the exterior glass elevator, modern building codes precluded those plans. Instead, the duo focused their attention on the Don Room, which has become “the premier destination for wedding events,” Block says. “That’s pretty much what it’s going to be for the next generation.”

El Cortez was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 for its architecture and engineering. Today, its iconic neon sign, installed in 1937, continues to illuminate the skyline, welcoming passengers landing at Lindbergh Field and serving as a beacon of history above the downtown neighborhood now officially named Cortez Hill.

Celebrities who’ve visited El Cortez

Ginger Rogers, Ethel Barrymore, Bo Derek, Leeza Gibbons, John Stamos, Leslie Nielson, John Ritter, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Burgess Meredith, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix

El Cortez in TV and Film
Film: “Almost Famous” (2000) and “A Ticklish Affair” (1963)
TV: “How to Marry a Billionaire” and “Extreme Makeover”

Prominent features and year added

The El Cortez’s iconic neon sign with 12-foot-tall letters (added in 1937, restored in 1999)

Sky Room (1940)

100-room Caribbean Wing and grand ballroom (1946)

Starlight restaurant and glass elevator (1956)

Travolator bridge (1959)

El Cortez
702 Ash Street, Downtown ,

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