Hotel’s Outside Elevator Caught in Middle of Rift

Once the crown jewel of downtown San Diego, the 61-year-old El Cortez Hotel has been mostly empty and off-limits to the public for nearly a decade.

The neon stars on the western face no longer shine.

The panoramic views from the El Cortez Skyroom and Starlight Roof no longer make it the place for an elegant evening of dining and dancing. Its hand-carved wooden doors, well-worn bar stools and polished brass fixtures have been auctioned off.

Starting with its purchase in 1978 by evangelist Morris Cerrullo, the El Cortez began a slippery slide to its current sad state. Now, several owners and failed proposals later, the El Cortez has an eager new owner, San Diego hotelier Mark Grosvenor, who has pledged to restore the 14-story, 250-room hotel to glory.


But a mini-flap has now erupted because Grosvenor does not plan to restore one of the hilltop hotel’s most distinctive and beloved features: the outside glass elevator added in the early 1950s.

Hailed as the first such elevator in the country, its design was later copied by the Fairmont in San Francisco and the Ilikai in Waikiki. The El Cortez elevator provided a view from Tijuana to Point Loma and beyond.

A Grosvenor spokesman says replacement parts for the German-made hydraulic piston which drove the elevator shaft are no longer available. Plus, structural problems have been found with the vat of oil that serves as an emergency “cushion.”

The city’s Historical Site Board is dubious about that explanation.


“It was the elevator that made a night at the El Cortez so thrilling,” said board member Vonn Marie May, whose senior prom (Point Loma High ’63) was held at the El Cortez. “Any restoration that doesn’t include the elevator is incomplete.”

Added board chairwoman Kathryn Willets: “To any longtime San Diegan, the elevator has both emotional and historic significance.” Willets also attended a prom (Academy of Our Lady of Peace, 1961) at the El Cortez.

Grosvenor has asked that the El Cortez be dubbed a historic site, a double-edged designation.

Being named a historic site provides federal tax incentives and a looser interpretation of building codes. But it also gives the site board the right to delay renovation for up to 360 days if its members are dissatisfied with details.

The elevator issue had been set for discussion at today’s meeting of the site board. But Grosvenor asked for a month’s delay to discuss the site board’s plea to reconsider whether the elevator can be restored.

Rangoon? Try Rangone

Here and there:

* The city of San Diego has stepped up its keep-'em-standing policy toward the downtown homeless.


More benches, this time along C Street four blocks from City Hall, have been yanked out to discourage sleeping. And newspaper racks have been removed from Horton Plaza Park, with the approval of the newspaper companies.

“The transients were setting up shop on the racks--sitting, sleeping, eating and doing drug deals on them,” said Park and Recreation supervisor Ted Medina.

* Geography has overtaken zoology even before Friday’s

grand opening of the Sun Bear Forest exhibit at the San Diego Zoo.

The direction sign to Rangoon--home to some of the exotic bears and monkeys--will have to come down. After innumerable centuries, the city’s name was changed this week to Yangon by the military government in Burma.

In a Blaze of Old Glory

News notes:

“In the wake of the Supreme Court’s finding that the Constitution protects flag-burning, members of Congress are defiling Old Glory--by wrapping themselves in it. Cheap appeals to voters’ emotions insult their intelligence.” --from Tuesday’s New York Times.


“Rep. Bill Lowery, incensed by the Supreme Court OK on burning the American flag, has ordered up 2,000 miniature flags (non-flammable) to pass out at three community parades on the 4th of July.” --from Tuesday’s San Diego Union.