Christmas Without Snow

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An Easterner named Alonzo E. Horton, for instance, arrived in Old Town in 1867, decided it was too far from the bay to be San Diego’s commercial center, bought a 960-acre tract closer to the waterfront, and called it Horton’s Addition. During the 1870s he developed much of the area, building Horton’s Hall, Horton’s Wharf, Horton’s Gardens, Horton’s Plaza. The one-man boom he started came to an end when a scheme to make San Diego the terminus of the Texas & Pacific Railroad fell through, but not before he had reshaped the city. Over time this section of town deteriorated just as Old Town did, but lately the area has been undergoing restoration. The tattoo parlors of just a few years ago are gone now, and the district is being promoted, genteelly, as the Gaslamp Quarter. On Fifth Avenue the handsome tin-ceilinged San Diego Hardware Company, in business on the site since 1892, proudly displays two photographs of its interior taken during the 1920s and captioned, “Some of these items still sit on these shelves.” Nearby is the new vertical shopping mall that has done more than anything else to revive San Diego’s downtown and which is named, in a fitting salute to the past, Horton Plaza.

While Horton was busy developing his addition, two visionaries named Elisha Babcock and H. L. Story were buying up desert acreage on Coronado, the sandy peninsula across the bay. In 1888 they opened the 399-room Hotel del Coronado, a rambling white Queen Anne building with a scarlet roof. Until quite recently visitors had to come by ferry; a ferry still runs from the Broadway pier, but today most people drive over a bridge that went up in 1969. In December the evergreen trees lining Coronado’s main street are decorated with Christmas lights, and the hotel puts up a large tree in the lobby—a tradition since 1904. Thomas Edison, the staff likes to say, was on hand to light up the tree that year, just as he personally designed the hotel’s lighting system back in 1888. Neither of these newsworthy events made it into the local paper at the time, which suggests that they were invented somewhere along the way. But the hotel does possess a genuine relic from the early electrical age—a notice that was placed in each room when the hotel opened: “This room is equipped with the Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with a match. Simply turn the key on the wall by the door. The use of electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep.”

L. Frank Baum supposedly looked at the Hotel Del lit up one night and invented the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz .

When the Great White Fleet anchored off the Hotel Del in 1908, every boat owner for miles around voyaged out to greet the armada, and residents delivered crates of fresh fruit to each ship. In 1911 Glenn Curtiss flew the first seaplane from the beach near the hotel and landed in the water near the USS Pennsylvania just offshore, and Marilyn Monroe filmed Some Like It Hot here in 1958. Photographs of these and other luminous moments in local history are displayed in a downstairs hallway. Travelers not registered at the hotel are made to feel welcome wandering the grounds. Overhead, planes continually roar by on their way to North Island Air Station. My husband, who grew up here, can still identify them when they’re no more than a buzz on the horizon. “That’s an S-3,” he’ll explain. “You can tell by the sound they make, just like a vacuum cleaner.”

During winter the sun sets early over Point Loma, Cabrillo’s landfall. Christmas lights come on at the hotel and at many of the houses lining the beachfront. L. Frank Baum is supposed to have looked at the Hotel Del lit up one night and invented the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz . True or not, it’s a sight that makes me wish some ancestor of mine had bought a few acres on Coronado when Babcock and Story were auctioning them off a century ago.

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP