Keeping the Hotel del Coronado's Majesty Regal

Times Staff Writer

Thankfully, there remain patrons and a place for yesterday's crusty, wonderful, elegant hotels where tubs sit on lion's feet and if you sit on anything else it goes boing.

"Bless 'em all," sighed Dixon Morrow.

These are the big inns and posadas from a day when corridors were built wide enough for wickerwork Bath chairs abreast. In the generations, decades and depressions since, their floors may have sagged into lumpy fairways that creak. But those night scents of varnished pine, old carpet, and cigar smoke from 1910 clinging to brittle wallpaper are worth every whiff and should be offered in aerosol.

"Nothing like 'em," agreed Dixon Morrow.

Transoms. Elevators in cages. Brass and porcelain. No true planes. Stairs that not only descend but slope to the center. Doors that fit against jambs with tolerances varying from stuck tight to daylight.

"And tomorrow," added Dixon Morrow, "all the spaces will be different."

So go the seduction factors of one man's international and very personal appreciation of dowager hotels. The Savoy (1889) of London. The Plaza (1907) in New York City. Quebec City and the Chateau Frontenac (1892). The Belmont Manor (1900) in Bermuda . . . and the oldest by just a few weeks and several reservations, the Hotel del Coronado (1888) across the bay from San Diego.

Queen's Personality

Especially the Hotel del Coronado.

"It really is alive, it breathes, it is malevolent and certainly female with a distinct personality. Whose? Maybe Queen Victoria."

If this be, if the Del Coronado ( coronado : crowned) can assume royal alliance, then Morrow clearly is her consort.

As resident designer, he has spent 21 years returning the hotel from dank firetrap to Victorian authentic that next month celebrates her 97th birthday and commencement of the countdown to a centennial.

This red-shingled, wooden-walled wedding cake is $40 million into what has set in as perpetual restoration. Room by room, from turrets through gingerbread balconies to sugar-pine ceilings, often with modern materials formed to yesterday's shapes, Morrow has created a seamless blend between effective reproductions and functional antiques "to give the old feeling . . . without it being too jarring."

The Del now is precisely what Morrow has dictated it would be and that is almost exactly what its first architects established it to be. "One day I'll get it all," vowed Morrow, "and as close to the original as I can get.

"Must the Del survive? Absolutely. There ain't ever going to be another one. If this one goes, if we take a direct hit from one of those Navy jets who play tag and sometimes come awfully close, it couldn't be rebuilt.

"Building codes wouldn't let you go six stories with wood and the cost would be prohibitive in both labor and materials. It would cost $24 million to replace the shops alone."

Morrow, 50, an old-line Philadelphian (that's the Morrows of Philadelphia . . . tea and coffee, import and export) is comfortable with Seth Thomas clocks, London pubs, ghosts, the 19th-Century, blazers, the Victoria & Albert Museum, vintage cars and, if it enriches the history of the Del, laundering apocrypha into anecdote.

In 1920, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and eventually the Duke of Windsor, attended a state dinner at the Del. It is possible that he met Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, then a U.S. Navy wife, later his wife as the Duchess of Windsor, in the reception line. "Believe it," demanded Morrow. "That was their first meeting."

Thomas Edison allegedly threw the switch to light the hotel's first Christmas tree. "Expunge 'allegedly,' " insisted Morrow.

Model for Emerald City

Did one guest, L. Frank Baum, use its shape as his model for Emerald City's castle in the Wizard of Oz? Is it true that the ornate wooden trim was a style borrowed without approval from British designer Charles Locke Eastlake, who died detesting the adaptation? No doubt about it.

Yet Morrow isn't really into tales about people. He's tried marriage and that decided him to trust things. Like the hotel. They were married in 1964 when friend, political shaker and financial mover M. Larry Lawrence bought the Del as the state's biggest fixer-upper.

His restoration plans called for only one tool. A bulldozer. But the shabby hotel took hold of emotions and Lawrence began doubting his idea for another colony of coastal condominiums.

Morrow, a San Diego home designer, was called in. He poked around. He reached a conclusion. Good God.

"Nobody knew where to start," remembers Morrow. "There was no water to the upper floors and the wiring was a rat's nest. Steam radiators had leaked onto carpets that were 1,000 years old. No curtains. If I'd been able to see all of it then, I'd never have started. But we just started with the bigger rooms and began chipping away."

His 25-man team of painters, carpenters, upholsters and designers tore out walls and found old fireplaces. Pencilings on the back of corner blocks on door frames identified them as scavengings from pre-1888 buildings in Santa Monica. Antique pieces--dressers and chairs snitched by long gone employees decades earlier--were located, bought back and brought back.

A gazebo existing only in ancient photographs was reproduced and reinstated as a courtyard centerpiece. Brash picture windows installed in the '50s were popped out and restored to classic casement. The eventual renovation of all 686 rooms at the resort was nothing more than a signal to start all over again.

To keep work incessant, Morrow makes sure that five rooms are held out of service at all times. To guard against sly or inadvertent bookings, he has the toilets disconnected.

Everything has become sacred.

To the town of Coronado, the Oxford Hotel was nothing more than a flophouse. But Morrow knew it was where architects stayed during construction of the Del. "So we bought it, sawed it in half and had it brought over to be restored and eventually used by the hotel staff."

To anyone, a crumbling smokestack near the hotel was an eyesore. But Morrow knew it was attached to California's first power plant, which serviced the hotel and the City of Coronado until 1922. He spent $35,000 refurbishing it to a cozy museum piece "because it belongs here."

"That was a Christmas present from Larry (Lawrence) to me and I've cost him a lot of money," explained Morrow. "I call myself a very expensive luxury. He calls me his resident pain, and I try to excel at that."

Like his hotel, his old friend, Morrow is something of a relic. "I'm comfortable with old things," he admitted. "I've never really been comfortable in the 20th Century."

So, just for the joy of tradition and comradeship, he's part of an annual ritual for a select circle that hoists a few every May 24 because that's the anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth.

High above the Del there's a tiny turret room with a private staircase that is Morrow's favorite. He's keeping it in his back pocket to be restored with minimum compromises and just the right furniture from 1888 because every craftsman deserves a private self-indulgence . . .

But within this affection there is a fear. Morrow knows that ancient wood is drier than popcorn. One slip with a welder's torch, he remembers, came close to destroying the Arizona Biltmore designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. A second desert landmark, Desert Hot Springs, where Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy recovered from his PT-109 wounds, was clawed by an electrical fire.

So does he dream and dread being awakened by a 3 a.m. phone call telling him of a blaze at the Del?

"Every morning," said Morrow. "And every morning when I drive in from La Jolla I get to the top of the (Coronado Bay) Bridge and start looking for her . . . looking for the damned hotel and making sure that nobody had stolen her during the night."

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