US Grant Hotel, a Belle Epoque beauty in San Diego

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Before I was ushered into the elevator at the US Grant near downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter, the bellman asked me to gaze at the lobby floor. There, beneath a small, square plaque, lay the contents of a new time capsule containing parts of the hotel’s 96-year history.

But when I looked up again, I realized the plaque was too small. The whole hotel is a time capsule.

It’s not just the Belle E–poque d–cor in the modernized guest rooms, the Art Deco mahogany woodwork, the gilded Corinthian columns or the grand, Victorian scale of a place that radiates heritage. It’s not just that Charles Lindbergh and John F. Kennedy (and a dozen other U.S. presidents) slept here.

Take a short stroll around the lobby’s cultural center and you’ll quickly understand that the history here goes back 12,000 years. That’s when dozens of Native American tribes thrived in Southern California. A video presentation and lobby vitrines containing Indian artifacts tell the story of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and how the 156-member tribe came to own the US Grant, San Diego’s shining symbol of upscale urban renewal.

The hotel’s phoenix-like resurrection wouldn’t be as remarkable without its absolute authenticity. Even after the extensive renovation, the period details of the guest rooms and common areas are evident, which means windows are wide, hallways are narrow and ceilings are high.

From the moment you enter the lobby, there’s a sense of time suspended: A grand piano resonates, lush, silky carpets absorb your steps, and employees radiate a genuine, almost old-fashioned sense of pride in fine service.

There’s a pleasant sense of dislocation, particularly in the guest rooms. My compact but comfortable 375-square-foot room seemed as though it could be in the heart of Paris. The new design blends abstracted Empire-era furnishings with sleek modern accents, such as crystal lamps and bowl sinks.

Unlike at many European hotels, the bed here is firm but fluffy, thanks to down and light, high-thread-count linens. And unlike most hotels of any class, the Grant proffered two bottles of water, snacks and in-room coffee, all free. With the intricate molding, classic furniture and $9-million worth of original art, the rooms look European but, with the light, natural tones and textures, feel Californian.

It got even better.

On my first night here, a bellman escorted my companion and me on a tour. He explained that Ulysses S. Grant Jr. built the 11-story hotel in 1910 to honor his father, the nation’s 18th president. He pointed out the architectural delights that were uncovered during the 20-month renovation, including a carved alabaster banister, expanses of travertine, marble and terra-cotta flooring and a decades-old chandelier that was languishing in the basement.

As I walked beneath the glittery chandeliers and past the brocade wall coverings, I kept thinking that the hotel acquisition also represented a kind of restitution for the tribe, whose earnings from the Sycuan Resort & Casino in El Cajon funded the $43-million purchase and $52-million renovation.

Although the hotel is a poem to the past, its attitude is au courant, particularly in the historic Grant Grill. The restaurant barred women until 1971, but it now is a sophisticated spot where guests dine on contemporary fare and select from a growing wine list. It seemed fitting to toast the hotel’s rebirth with my companion’s Ch–teau Margaux and the chef’s special foie gras. The restaurant is an upscale addition to the neighborhood’s night-life options.

The resurgence of the Grant may signal that the Gaslamp Quarter can further expand beyond beer joints, steakhouses and chain hotels. It may be the magnet to lure other kinds of luxury experiences to an area that depends largely on conventioneers and sports fans. A 15-minute stroll south puts you at the gates of Petco Park, the downtown baseball stadium that opened in 2004. The San Diego Convention Center is about 10 blocks south, where a ring of towering chain hotels has captured much of the lodging business.

The US Grant is poised to command the celebration market with 33,000 square feet of event space. But without a pool, spa, sauna or steam room in the 2,000-square-foot fitness center, it’s not a place for kids or spa sybarites.

Although the Grant is beautiful and luxurious in all the right ways, the hotel’s location is still sketchy. A burly doorman would go a long way toward making the hotel more attractive to skittish travelers.

There are trade-offs when you’re an urban pioneer. Those wide, antique windows let in light, but they also let in the sounds of urban life — wailing sirens and vagrants, the hum of construction. All that aside, from the looks of things, the Grant may very well be another of the Sycuan’s gambles that pays off big.