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Fire Destroys Palm Springs’ El Mirador Hotel

Times Staff Writers

The stately remains of El Mirador Hotel, a desert landmark for six decades and a one-time winter playground for the rich and famous, was reduced to rubble Wednesday by an early morning fire.

Although firefighters arrived shortly after flames were spotted at 12:15 a.m., they were unable to prevent the blaze from destroying the historic hotel and toppling its dramatic bell tower.

Visited through the years by W. C. Fields, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and countless captains of industry, the El Mirador last received guests in 1973. It was boarded up and unoccupied at the time of the fire, serving as a warehouse for the current owner, Desert Hospital. The fire came just hours after the board of directors at the hospital--located next to the hotel on Indian Avenue--approved a $2-million renovation plan to reinforce the fragile tower and reconstruct the hotel’s single remaining building in its original style. The hospital planned to use the new structure as a rehabilitation facility for cardiac patients.

“It’s such a cruel irony,” hospital spokeswoman Kay Hazen said. “After working very hard to save the tower, to integrate it into the plans, we were finally ready to go ahead. And then this.”

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As temperatures soared to 113, Palm Springs fire investigators prowled the charred ruins, looking for clues to what sparked the blaze. Fire Department spokesman Mark Avner said there were unconfirmed reports that transients--who had previously been chased from the vacant building by hospital security guards--were spotted inside the structure late Tuesday night.

Fire officials completed their investigation Wednesday evening and listed the cause as suspicious since no accidental causes were apparent. The fire started in a wing having no electrical wiring, ruling out an electric spark as a cause. However, investigator Duane Sands said damage from flames was so extensive “we may never know the answer to this one.”

Avner said three of the 30 firefighters who battled the blaze suffered minor injuries. It took three hours to put the fire out.

News of the blaze spread quickly through town and cast a gloom over many Palm Springs residents, who considered the hotel and 68-foot tower cultural treasures and a rare remaining symbol of the city’s past. Many said its destruction was like losing an old friend.

“To me, the El Mirador was Palm Springs. It was the heart and soul of the city,” said former Mayor Frank Bogert, who handled promotion for the hotel in the mid-1930s and lived in a guest room there for four years. “To lose it is like losing the family crest.”

“It’s one of those sickening moments when you realize a piece of your history is gone and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Janice Lyle, chairwoman of the Historic Site Preservation Board, which has fought hard over the past decade to save the hotel from demolition.

Culver Nichols, whose father-in-law built the El Mirador 62 years ago, called the hotel “the most splendid work of art in our community. It was an inspiration, and now it’s gone.”

Hazen said, however, that the hospital would proceed with the project and also rebuild the tower. She noted that pieces from the original--including a steel weather vane that sat atop it--had been salvaged from the fire.

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The El Mirador--roughly translated as “The Watchtower"--opened its doors on New Year’s Eve, 1927, and quickly became a mecca for Hollywood stars and the corporate elite. The 200-room hotel was built by a tubercular Colorado cattleman-turned-real estate investor named Prescott Thresher Stevens at a cost of $1 million--a staggering sum in that era--and was designed by Los Angeles architects Walker & Eisen, who also drew plans for the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

The hotel--built in the Spanish-Colonial Revival style popular in Southern California in the 1920s--featured lavish guest rooms with hand-carved furniture and sun decks. The signature feature was the bell tower crowned by a cap of colorful tile in a Moorish mosaic pattern. The tower had an imported Italian bronze bell later supplemented by electric chimes. The hotel would boast the Coachella Valley’s first golf course as well as tennis courts and stables.

Its Olympic-size pool had three diving boards and lured aquatic stars such as Esther Williams and Johnny Weismuller. And vast gardens teemed with a rich diversity of native desert plants.

Escapist Fantasy

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During the Depression, El Mirador kept showing up on newsreels as an escapist fantasy of carefree extravagance. Al Jolson and George Raft had laughs by the pool, and Weismuller did complimentary Tarzan yells. Guests George Burns and Gracie Allen went for bicycle rides.

The hotel’s fame in the 1930s was such that Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll--better known as radio’s “Amos ‘n’ Andy"--came out of the winter cold of Chicago for a visit. They came back for the next several winters to broadcast the most popular show of its time from what had by then become known as the “Tower of the Stars.”

Former Mayor Bogert, 79, arrived in town just as the El Mirador was being built. Between 1934 and 1938, he served as “publicity man” for the hotel and returned in 1952 as general manager. Bogert figures he met 300 stars during his years at the El Mirador.

“Doug Fairbanks, Ralph Bellamy, Shirley Temple--they all came,” Bogert recalled. “If you stayed at the El Mirador long enough, you’d meet everybody in the world.”

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Unlike the Hollywood stars, who would drive out for the weekend, businessmen and others from more distant cities would come for stays as long as two or three months, traveling by train and bringing giant steamer trunks.

“One of the most memorable guests was Albert Einstein, who came with his wife right when he was getting real famous,” Bogert recalled. “I’ll tell you he was the nicest little guy you’d ever want to meet.”

The hotel--and the Hollywood stars it attracted--helped establish Palm Springs as a resort. World War II ended the hotel’s glory days, but brought a new historical twist. Appropriated by the Army in 1942 for $425,000, El Mirador was transformed into Torney General Hospital. The hospital primarily catered to Gen. George Patton’s troops, who trained in the desert to battle Rommel.

The hotel that was built to serve 250 guests had 1,500 beds arranged in suites, ballrooms and corridors. When asked why the hotel was selected for hospital duty, Army officers explained: “The best is none too good for the American soldier.”

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After 10 years as a hospital, the hotel attempted a comeback after investors purchased the property from the Army and put $4 million into reconstruction. The hotel’s publicity machine was also revived, putting out photos of Clark Gable guzzling beer at the bar and Bob Hope ogling dancers. A lion--a real one--was placed in a cage outside the entrance. But instead of roaring, the aging beast preferred to sleep and swat flies with its tail.

Owners and management philosophies changed with the years. The 1960s brought lowered expectations and a row of motel rooms. Actor John Conte and his wife, an Oriental-rug heiress, bought it in 1968, and it became the El Mirador Hilton under an operating agreement with the chain. The Casbah Room featured such acts as Little Egypt and Frank Sinatra Jr.

In 1972, the Contes were forced to sell the property by federal bankruptcy court and it closed for good. Desert Hospital bought the property for $4 million.

Warren reported from Palm Springs and Harris from Los Angeles.

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