Before Las Vegas, Tijuana was Southern Californias glitzy escape
It’s dusk in Tijuana’s red-light district, and two bouncers are slouching outside a strip joint called the Chicago Club. A car rolls up, a window rolls down, and the American guy on the passenger side starts asking questions in awkward Spanish. Looks like business as usual.
But then I climb out of the passenger seat—that’s right, it’s me in the car—to make sure they hear me right.
“That sign across the street,” I say, pointing toward the towering words MOLINO ROJO in scarlet neon. “From what year is it?”
The guys look at each other. They have seen many things on this block, but an architectural preservation tourist, it seems, is not one of them.
“From the ‘30s?” I ask hopefully.
They squint across the street and scoff.
“Fifties or ‘60s,” one of them finally says.
Bummer. And welcome to the search for the Tijuana of the ‘20s and ‘30s—the city that was Vegas before Vegas was Vegas, the city that some Tijuanenses pine for and others treat like incriminating evidence. This bygone Tijuana lives on in tattered postcards and historical-society monographs, its casinos paying off in American silver dollars, its horse-track bettors forever tempted by the prospect of a nightcap at the world’s longest bar.
Looking for remnants of that place in 2007 is like diving for a Mexican Atlantis. Instead of checking out the hotels and fancy restaurants along the fast-growing Baja coast, you squint at history through a veil of border culture and discarded architecture, the whole scene scented with carnitas and beer.
The casinos are the key. If you persevere, you can learn why a Muslim mirage rises over the heart of Tijuana today and how two enduring trophies of 20th century high life, the Caesar salad and the margarita, were born or adopted here.
And you can wonder: What if Baja’s old casinos had endured? Would Vegas be Phoenix? Would the strip run from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas? Would Mexico be corrupted? (Oh, wait.)
By now the world takes for granted Tijuana’s reputation as a den of forbidden thrills (or, as Krusty the Clown on “The Simpsons” puts it, “the happiest place on Earth”). Yet until I came across a new book by Los Angeles writer and preservationist Chris Nichols titled “The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister,” I’d never thought much about the roots of that reputation or the Tijuana-Vegas connection. In the course of telling how McAllister landed the job of designing a long-lost resort called Agua Caliente—at the advanced age of 19—Nichols sketched a bigger picture that explained a lot.
From 1919 to 1933, alcohol and casinos and prostitution and horse racing were all forbidden or tightly restricted in California, and all were easily available in Tijuana. Because of that, great pleasure palaces were built, including the city’s fabled Agua Caliente casino, and countless Hollywood celebrities and their imitators crept south by car, rail, ship and small plane.
One Times reporter, surveying the Agua Caliente casino in 1929, concluded that “there isn’t another place on the continent, outside of a U.S. mint, where you can see so much money piled up before your eyes at one time. Its only rival in the world is Monte Carlo.”
That casino was the crown jewel of the era. It opened in 1928, tiled and stuccoed, Moorish and missionary, vast and self-assured. It lay six miles south of the border, covered 655 acres and cost about $10 million at the time, the lion’s share supplied by American investors. It was “one of the most opulent resorts ever to grace the Americas,” writes Nichols, “but more significantly, it was the inspiration for Las Vegas.”
Along with a casino offering roulette, baccarat and faro (but no windows or clocks), it featured about 400 rooms and bungalows, a horse-racing track, a golf course, a spa fed by natural spring water (hence the name), an Art Deco ballroom, various cocktail bars, tennis courts, a riding academy, a landing strip for small planes, a blue-tiled minaret and an iconic bell tower, a replica of which now stands at the beginning of Boulevard Agua Caliente.
Charlie Chaplin and Gary Cooper came to the races. Douglas Fairbanks sat on the board of directors. Jean Harlow tried the golf course. Bing Crosby and Clark Gable saddled up horses, and the showroom featured a teenage dancer, Margarita Cansino, who later changed her name to Rita Hayworth.
Architectural Digest gave it 16 pages in 1929. Hollywood gave it a movie—"In Caliente,” featuring Dolores del Rio and Pat O’Brien, shot on location in 1934.
But by then the cards had started falling another way. Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. The U.S. ended Prohibition in 1933. Santa Anita racetrack opened in Los Angeles County in 1934. In 1935, newly elected Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas banned casino gambling. (One of the leading casinos of that era, historians say, was a downtown venue called the Molino Rojo. A school replaced it, but as the sign I saw attests, another entrepreneur has revived the name at a new location.)
Tijuana kept attracting American thrill-seekers, of course, especially Navy guys from San Diego. And sports betting and several other kinds of gambling have endured. But once the high-end gamblers left, thousands of service- industry jobs were lost and the palaces crumbled, burned or were retooled.
I made two trips to Baja and enlisted three guides to help me find that lost Tijuana, all the while knowing that the star attraction of this journey would probably turn out to be a ghost.
At one point, as a guide and I waited in our car at a busy Tijuana intersection, a ball of flame erupted in front of us. Then another. Then I realized they were coming from the mouth of a roadside beggar. Between fiery bursts, he raised a jug of God-knows-what to his lips. And then the light changed and my guide hit the gas without even bothering to shrug.
“People breathe fire for money,” he said in the tone of an indulgent urbanite tutoring a bumpkin.
Maria Curry, an architectural historian who led me through downtown on another day, takes the opposite tone. “This is a magic place,” she says as we pass a workaday scene: the peppers and piñatas of the Mercado El Popo on 2nd Street. Then she explains its roots (in the market’s case, the late 1920s and 1930s).
Curry, who was born in Mexico City and moved to Tijuana in 1993 after graduate school at Cornell, now splits her time between here and San Diego. For several years, she and other Tijuana and San Diego academics and architects have been trying to get more respect and protection for Old Tijuana.
But it’s no easy job. Tijuana didn’t declare itself a city until 1889 and didn’t have 1,000 residents until about 1915, when its first horse-racing track opened. Most of the 2 million or 3 million people who live here now (estimates vary) have come from elsewhere in Mexico, and most of those hometowns can claim more history (and less feuding between drug cartels and law enforcement agencies) than Tijuana.
As we walk and drive the city, Curry traces the outline of unspectacular Old Tijuana, such as the stately brick walls of the hilltop Alta Mira Cultural Center, which was built as a schoolhouse in 1930, or Teniente Guerrero Park.
This park was the city’s first, founded just a few blocks from Revolución by a group of female activists in 1924. It served then as a haven for all social classes, from the wealthy merchants to the families of hotel and casino workers, and it’s not much different today: chess players, kids wrestling on the ragged grass, ancient shoeshine guys, moms pushing toddlers on the swings, and over by the west end, those swarthy guys standing around with hammers. (Relax. They’re freelance auto repairmen waiting for fenders to bang on.)
I move on to Hotel Caesar’s and Caesars restaurant, at 5th and Revolución, and order salad. The story is told in various ways, but the consensus west of the Mississippi is that the Caesar salad was created in Tijuana in the 1920s and popularized by hotelier and restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who brought his businesses to this site in 1930. The good news is that after changes in ownership and a lapse in salad-making in the early 1990s, the staffers in the restaurant still make a big deal of whipping up a salad while you watch. At $6, it’s a good value. Also, in the hotel they’re finishing a thorough renovation of the 46 guest rooms, which cost between $35 and $70 nightly.
The bad news is that they really renovated. Five years ago, a writer for Preservation magazine described the Hotel Caesar’s lobby and rooms as a scene out of “The Sun Also Rises,” full of atmosphere and reminders of the days when bullfighters bunked here. Not anymore. Just about every hint of the ‘30s has been obliterated from the hotel and restaurant, inside and out.
There’s nothing like gleaming modernization to get an architectural preservation tourist down. But then you come across something like the St. Francis Hotel, another ‘20s holdover that stands half a block from Revolución on 2nd. The two-story St. Francis, which features 29 rooms, a handsome manual typewriter in the lobby and a Don Quixote statue in the upstairs hall, was built of wood in about 1906—in Imperial Beach, across the border. Then it was trucked into Tijuana. For most of the 1920s it stood on Revolución. But apparently it got restless, because it moved again in 1928.
In a pinch I would pay the $28 it costs to sleep at the St. Francis; it seemed clean and quiet enough. But given its history, who knows where I’d wake up?
There’s no doubt that markers like these measure the distance the city has traveled since the ‘20s. But three other casino sites in northern Baja speak most loudly about the old days.
Taking them south to north, you begin 68 miles below Tijuana at a stately old property rich in Moorish and Mission flourishes, the buildings surrounded by gardens. This is the Riviera del Pacífico, formerly the Hotel Playa of Ensenada.
Completed in 1930 at an estimated cost of $2 million, it stood on the beach and counted boxing champion Jack Dempsey among its original supporters. William Randolph Hearst came, and Dolores del Rio, Johnny Weismuller, Lupe Velez and Myrna Loy.
But when liquor and gaming laws in the U.S. and Mexico started changing, the Playa began a long, bumpy ride, mostly downhill, until its last guests checked out in 1964. Today, it’s owned by the city, its guest rooms are demolished or repurposed, and a busy street separates it from the sea. But the casino building has survived, and what a specimen it is: wormwood beams from Florida, curlicued iron from Havana, a chandelier from Spain—and tiny slits in the main room’s ceiling, through which management could peep down upon gamblers below.
When rooms aren’t rented out for conferences and special events, visitors can wander at no cost through the idle spaces, imagining wild parties and big-band music. (Xavier Cugat played the opening.) You can wander the gardens too, but every time I strayed onto the lawn to take a picture, a keen-eyed groundskeeper with a whistle was there to toot and frown and wave me off. Inside, there’s a museum where you can peek through the slits above the casino. There’s also the Bar Andaluz, which claims to have created the margarita in 1948.
Of this claim I am suspicious. Venture just a mile or two north to Hussong’s, the peanut-shells-on-the-floor, mariachis-at-your-table cantina that has lubricated Ensenada gringos since 1892, and you will be told that a Hussong’s barkeep, Don Carlos Orozco, came up with the drink in 1941. (Margarita scholars, be advised: They go for $3 at both places.)
After the keep-off-the-grass stillness of the Playa/Riviera, I was looking forward to a little noise at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. But I was also a bit afraid. Founded in 1925 with 12 guest rooms, the hotel has done so much adaptation, renovation and expansion, I feared it might have evolved into a new species entirely.
And so it had. There are 231 rooms now—no casino, of course, because casino gaming is still banned in Mexico—and you have to hunt for hints of the old days. There’s the entry arch (where, says the decades-old lettering, the most beautiful women in the world pass by), the gardens, the tiled floors and the lobby murals from the ‘30s. The pool goes back to the ‘30s, staffers say, as do the upscale restaurant Chabert’s, the spa and the ballroom, all of which were part of the mansion of hotel owner Manuel Barbachano. The original guest rooms are now staff offices.
I may not be back for a while; the place is as shrill and garish as the rest of fast-expanding Rosarito. But it has survived, and co-owner Hugo Torres Chabert (who also is the mayor of Rosarito) is clearly as ambitious as his forebears were. In a so-far-unsuccessful bid to attract cruise ship traffic, the hotel added a pier in the 1990s. Now an 18-story condo tower is rising.
I ponied up $11 for the Friday-night buffet (passable) and stayed for a folkloric dance show full of thunderous music, stamping feet and flashing colors. But then I sneaked away. It was time to bear down on Agua Caliente.
The curtain was falling on Baja’s golden age by 1938, when the Agua Caliente hotel went out of business, and a new Las Vegas hotel would soon bill itself as “the Caliente of Nevada.” By 1939, a group of schools had taken over the Agua Caliente buildings, including the Salon de Oro, which housed countless classes, graduations, proms and other social events until a series of fires and campus renovations leveled nearly everything in the 1960s and ‘70s.
I started with a walk on the golf course, where tournament winners 80 years ago were coming away with 5,000 silver dollars in a wheelbarrow. (Today it’s known as Club Campestre, or the Tijuana Country Club.)
The next stop was the track, where Seabiscuit and Phar Lap made global headlines with their victories in the 1930s, where a fire took out the old grandstand in 1971, where the last horse race was run in 1992. For many years now, greyhounds have run outside on a track built upon a part of the old horse course, their finishes announced on the old racetrack results board.
Inside, satellite sports bettors and slot-machine players keep the machines humming. And for reasons surpassing my understanding, a handful of captive bears loll out front in cement-floored cages, the beasts so enfeebled that kittens roam among them as they doze.
Moreover, on the Friday night I turned up with guide Fernando Garcia, most of the grandstand was closed off and customers, about 200 of us, were routed to a blacktop area beside the track. Garcia, who worked at an arts and crafts store near the track’s entrance as a teenager—when the horses were still running—looked stricken. The dogs, lean and silent, ran with impossible swiftness behind a mechanical rabbit. I won $3.
This will not bankrupt track operator Jorge Hank Rhon, a multimillionaire who served as Tijuana’s mayor from 2004 to 2007 and in August lost a bid to become governor of Baja California. But given the condition of the property and the ease of reaping revenue these days from electronic bingo and satellite sports betting, I’m guessing Hank and company will be turning this turf to new purposes before long.
“It’s done,” Garcia says with a sigh. “It’s sad.”
So what about the casino itself, the epicenter of all that was grand about Tijuana so many years ago?
I approach by foot on a weekday morning, joined by Juan Saldaña, marketing manager for the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose grandmother worked at the old hotel. (The high school that uses most of the site allows tour groups to visit, Saldaña says.) We start with the dozens of guest bungalows, some now converted into school-adjacent private homes in varying states of repair. You can hear the echoes of the ‘20s, but just barely.
Then we advance to the old Olympic-sized swimming pool and a tiled arch, once a spa window, that frames a view of the resort’s most visible remnant: the 150-foot tiled minaret. Why? Well, if you’re building a lavish property with Moorish elements, it makes sense to include one of the scenic towers used to call Muslims to prayer. It makes even more sense if you need to hide a smokestack somewhere. The minaret was designed to carry away hot air from the boiler room.
As we circle the pool, Mario Ortiz Villacorta Lacave, cultural extension coordinator at Lázaro Cárdenas High School, explains campus programs. Hundreds of high schoolers lounge beneath towering palms and figs left over from the original hotel-casino landscaping.
The late President Cárdenas would be pleased; my old high school never looked this good. And even with the old buildings gone, it isn’t impossible to picture the high and mighty at play. I gaze up at the minaret and tell Ortiz Villacorta how strange it seems to me, this sudden turn the city took, this minaret left to preside over a city that’s 95% Catholic. He laughs and says it isn’t really so strange, historically speaking. Then he starts ticking off Spanish and Mexican words with Arabic roots:
“Azul. Alhambra. Alcohol,” he says. “Guadalajara. Guadalupe . . . “
I’m going to remember that moment for a while. In a flurry of renovation during the last four months, workers have refilled the swimming pool and put up more walls and arches as an homage to the old days. And on Sept. 8, the site was booked for the wedding of author Chris Nichols and Charlene Gould, in period attire. But on that summer afternoon, we were just three guys under an unholy prayer tower, a few miles from the world’s busiest border crossing, staring into an empty pool like soothsayers seeking meaning in tea leaves.
I couldn’t say what was happening in Las Vegas that afternoon, but I felt, all at once, very close to the place and very far from it.
TIJUANA’S PAST AND PRESENT
For all its curio shops and gringo bars, Avenida RevoluciÛn played a central role in the glory days of Tijuana in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Along the street, hints of its history can still be seen.
Before Prohibition, the corner of 2nd and RevoluciÛn was home to the Big Curio Store, a wooden shack of the Wild West variety. By the late ‘20s, it had evolved into a department store with a fancy clock out front, its design borrowed from Mexico City, which borrowed it from France. That exterior endures, and it now houses a branch of HSBC Bank.
The Mexicali Beer Hall, which stood near the same corner, is a more mysterious case. It boasted a 200-foot-long bar, the “longest in the world,” postcards from that era claim. Yet the bar has vanished, and in its place are a few retail shops and a grocery store parking lot. (A vast bar on Revolución couldn’t make money? How can that be?)
The Jai Alai Fronton Palace, at 7th and RevoluciÛn, which looms like a Moorish opera house, took 21 years to build (from 1926 to 1947). For decades it took bets on jai alai, a Basque game in which players use wicker cestas to sling balls off walls at high speeds. The Chiki Jai, a Basque restaurant, grew in its shadow and still thrives across the street. But the games ended in 1995. Though a Tia Juana Tilly’s restaurant is on the premises, the palace’s interior has been rehabbed as a venue for concerts and special events, and it’s as dull as the exterior is striking.
By car from Los Angeles, it’s 132 miles to Tijuana (and drivers need to buy Mexican insurance before crossing the border). Visitors can park in a commercial lot on the U.S. side, then walk across the border and catch a taxi. Or park at the Old Town Transit Center near downtown San Diego, then catch a 56-minute trolley ride to the border on the Metropolitan Transit System’s Blue Line ($5 for a day pass) and walk across. Or take a Mexicoach bus ($8 to $36 round trip, www.mexicoach.com) south from Old Town or the U.S. side of the border.
Guides Fernando Garcia (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Maria Curry (email@example.com) each offer customized historical tours.
Hotel Coral & Marina, No. 3421, Kilometer 103 Carretera Tijuana-Ensenada, Zona Playitas, Ensenada, (800) 862-9020, www.hotelcoral.com. Weekend rates $160 to $850; weekdays are usually 10% less.
Rosarito Beach Hotel, No. 31 Blvd. Benito Juarez, Rosarito, (800) 343-8582, www.rosaritobeachhotel.com. Rates $69 to $500.
Marriott Tijuana, No. 11553 Blvd. Agua Caliente, Tijuana, (800) 228-8290 or (888) 236-2427, www.marriott.com. Rates $110 to $170.
Chiki Jai, No. 1388 Avenida Revolución, 011-52-664-685-4955. Basque cuisine. Main dishes $9 to $11; $9.50 for paella.
Los Arcos, No. 1000 Blvd. Salinas, Colonia Aviación, 011-52-664-686-4757. Family-friendly seafood. Main dishes $11 to $18.
El Potrero, No. 4700 Blvd. Salinas, Colonia Aviación, 011-52-664-686-3626. Classic coffee shop. Main dishes $6 to $26.
Tepoznieves, No. 10737 Blvd. Sánchez Taboada, Local 14-15, Colonia Aviación, 011-52-664-634-6532. Gourmet ice creamery offering 113 flavors, from avocado to persimmon. $1.60 to $10.
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