Sprawled across the extreme southwest corner of the United States, just sixteen miles from Mexico, San Diego is about as remote as you can get from a traditional New England Christmas. But except for a dusting of snow, the city puts on all the trappings of the season. The temperature, which reaches the sixties during the day, falls to about forty at night, cool enough for hotels and restaurants to light fires in their fireplaces. And residents throw themselves into matters like outdoor lighting with uncommon zeal. On San Diego Bay, pleasure boats, Navy destroyers, and the three-masted Star of India are all strung with lights. At the San Diego Wild Animal Park, part of the city’s world-renowned zoo, giraffes and zebras constructed of lights stalk the grounds. And in residential neighborhoods houses and curbside palm trees blink and glow all night.
Getting into the Christmas spirit here is easier than feeling any immediate sense of the past. The city’s oldest structures—its original mission and presidio—are long gone, and outside of museums there are few reminders that the discovery of San Diego predates the settlement of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.
It was in 1542 that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer working for Spain, first came upon this great natural harbor, one of only a handful on the entire Pacific coast. There’s a monument to Cabrillo out on Point Loma, a fifteen-minute drive from downtown. Cabrillo’s statue, sculpted in 1939, isn’t much to look at but the panorama from the visitors’ center is. Signs identify much of what you can see: the Laguna Mountains to the southwest, the Coronado Islands offshore, the various types of naval vessels in the harbor. As recently as 1900 Chinese junks filled the bay, fishing for abalone and shrimp to take back home. Just across the entrance to the bay is North Island Naval Air Station. Charles Lindbergh’s historic New York to Paris flight began on North Island in 1927; his plane was built here by engineers at Ryan Aircraft. Standing on the edge of a continent, we all feel a little like heroes and explorers, even when the parking lot and other reminders of our ordinary lives are just steps away.
Driving back to the town, you glimpse stretches of the scrubby chaparral that covered the point when Cabrillo arrived. This dusty, unirrigated landscape helps explain why it took so long for civilization to take hold here. Lacking sufficient rainfall, isolated by desert and mountains, San Diego didn’t come into its own until this century.
In 1909, in an effort to put the city on the map, somebody suggested that San Diego host a world’s fair to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Organizers hired the Eastern architect Bertram Goodhue, who put up a baroque Spanish-colonial city in the middle of Balboa Park.
Except for New York’s Central Park, Balboa Park is the largest in any city in the United States. You enter by crossing Cabrillo Bridge—a dramatic, cantilevered span that arches over a steep canyon. At the far end is the Exposition’s memorial archway and the beginning of the wide treelined avenue called the Prado, flanked on each side with white buildings, some simple, some with arcades and domes, all wonderfully harmonious. Earlier fairs had employed the architecture of fantasy; San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition marked the first time fair buildings were designed using a regional style. Here in Balboa Park is the San Diego that might have been if Cabrillo’s discovery had been followed by immediate colonization and prosperity instead of hundreds of years of neglect. As one visitor to the fair put it, “It is as though one stood on a magic carpet, wished himself on the shores of Spain three centuries ago, and found the wish fulfilled.”
Now that it is in place, Spanish architecture seems the inevitable choice for this location and climate, but before the fair there was hardly a stuccoed wall or a tiled roof anywhere in town. The public buildings put up by Goodhue and his assistant Carlton Winslow—all museums now—were followed by private houses designed by Irving Gill and others until the Spanish Colonial style became the city’s architectural hallmark.
For all its pleasures this part of town is fiction, a stage set. For a more realistic picture of San Diego’s past, you have to go to the part of the city known as Old Town. The cluster of low, mostly wood-frame buildings at Old Town was the center of San Diego from about 1821, through the Mexican War and statehood, until about 1872, when fire destroyed many of the houses. Today the five-square-block reconstruction is crowded with shops and restaurants that make it feel more like a theme park called Frontier Village than an authentic survivor of the nineteenth century. But inside the visitors’ center is a scale model of the town more eloquent than the full-sized version. Looking at that flat, dusty, treeless miniature settlement, I was struck, as I so often am traveling in the West, with what imaginations pioneers had to have to see the potential here.
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.”
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.