The modern history of Coronado began in 1886 with the formation of the Coronado Beach Company, which for many years was the driving force behind the development of the peninsula as a town and a resort; but before that, it had been lived on for more than 10,000 years.
The first inhabitants, now called the San Dieguitos,were probably Asians who had crossed the Bering land bridge. They and their successors, the Diegue–o Indians and the La Jollas, left mounds of sea shells and nutshells, now buried 15 feet deep, as evidence of their early presence. Still in residence when the Spanish arrived in 1542, under Juan Rodr’guez Cabrillo, the Diegue–o indians greeted the visitors with arrows.
Cabrillo had actually been looking for the legendary northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Not finding it, he returned to Spain; and for decades the Coronado peninsula and the town Cabrillo founded, which he called San Miguel, were left to the original inhabitants. Their population is today believed to have been around 20,000.
Sixty years after Cabrillo, another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizca’no, arrived in San Miguel and renamed it San Diego, for the patron saint of his flagship, San Diego de Alcala. On Nov. 8, 1602, on the way into San Diego Bay, Vizca’no sailed past four islands that he named “Las Yslas Coronadas,” after “Los Quattro Coronati” (“The Four Crowned Ones”), four Roman stonemasons who were martyred on that date in A.D. 303 under Emperor Diocletian for refusing to make Roman images. The Coronado peninsula was named after these islands and not, as one might imagine, for the famed explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, whose vain quest for the golden city of Cibola took place a thousand miles to the east.
It was another 167 years after Vizca’no that the true development of San Diego and Coronado began. To discourage potential incursions by England or Russia, the Spanish had reluctantly claimed California and sent land and sea parties north from Mexico. Rather than wage a full-scale military operation against the local Indians to establish control, Spain instead lent military support to the mission priests, who attempted to make Christians of the Indians. In the process, they raised the flag of Spain. In 1769 in San Diego, Fra Jun’perro Serra founded the first of his 21 California missions.
The missions prospered into the 19th century; but in 1833, after long pressure from the Spanish-Mexican settlers of California, the newly independent Mexican government began parceling out the mission property to political favorites. One of these was Pedro C. Carillo, who received what is now the Coronado peninsula from the Mexican governor of California, Pio Paco, as a wedding gift. The land was then unoccupied, and covered with low-lying plants and shrubs, and a few trees. As the photo at the top of the page shows, the southern tip of the island was just a small sand “spit”, later to be enlarged through massive landfills. There was one water source, a spring on North Island.
In 1846, when San Diego itself had only 350 inhabitants, Cabrillo sold the peninsula to two Americans for $1,000 in silver. A year later, as part of the treaty ending the U.S.-Mexican War, California became part of the United States. The peninsula then changed hands several times before being bought in 1886, for $110,000 by a consortium of five men, Hampton L. Story, Elisha S. Babcock Jr., Jacob Gruendike, Heber Ingle, and Joseph Collett, who formed the Coronado Beach Company and started the construction of the Hotel del Coronado, pictured below near the turn of the century. Pictured above is the development plan created for the island, one of the west’s first “planned communities.”
This was the beginning of real estate development in Coronado. The hotel was built in 1888 at a cost of $1 million. John D. Spreckels, the sugar heir, invested heavily in San Diego (and eventually owned that town’s streetcar system, two of its three newspapers, plus most of Coronado and North Island), and bought a one-third interest in the Beach Company for $511,000 in 1889. He later took over the hotel when its builder was unable to repay a loan of $100,000. The Coronado mansion Spreckels built for himself is now the Glorietta Bay Inn, pictured at the top of this page on a postcard from 1911.
Spreckels and the Beach Company vigorously developed the island and the Hotel, promoting Coronado as a resort with swimming, fishing, tennis, polo, theater and dancing. They laid out a model city on a grid for residences; and in 1900 Spreckels opened a tent city for visitors; it lasted 39 years. One view of the tent city is shown to the left.
Squeezed onto a narrow peninsula, Coronado has struggled with issues of development throughout its existence. It has preserved its independence as a city despite enormous pressure to merge with San Diego. To the north, it has been host to the Navy, which has its own needs for real estate, since the first World War. Access to the peninsula has always been difficult; it was not until 1960 that a bridge was built to the mainland, and the idea of a tunnel to the mainland, first proposed in the Depression Era, is still being debated.
Real estate and tourism, with their attendant benefits of prosperity and problems of zoning, high-rise encroachment, traffic, and access remain preeminent forces in Coronado. And the same gorgeous surroundings of sun, sea, and sand that attracted the first inhabitants are still here for visitors to enjoy.
Within the next decade he owned all but five parcels of Coronado Island and North Island. Spreckels gave the city its library, several parks and its largest commercial building, the Spreckels Building on Orange Avenue.
It was on Coronado Island that Spreckels built his dream home on five acres of land overlooking Glorietta Bay across from the Hotel del Coronado. In 1906, Spreckels, 53, contracted Architect Harrison Albright to design and build the Mansion. The building, designed with the simple, classic lines of Italian Renaissance, was complete in 1908 with six bedrooms, three baths, a parlor, dining room and library at the cost of $35,000. At that time, Spreckels’ Mansion featured a brass cage elevator, a marble staircase with leather-padded handrails, skylights, marble floors and some of the Island’s most spectacular gardens. The home was built with reinforced steel and concrete, an earthquake precaution Spreckels insisted upon after living through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
In 1913, Spreckels, a dedicated musician and pipe organist, added a spectacular 800-square-foot Music Room with an enormous 41-rank Aeolian Pipe Organ. The horseshoe-shaped Music Room, which can be enjoyed today with its player piano and as the starting point of a historic tour of Coronado, boasts nine French doors which lead out to the breakfast patio overlooking Glorietta Bay and the Hotel del Coronado. A second addition that same year was the third-floor Solarium, which was used as an entertainment area until Spreckels’ death in 1926.
In 1928, the Mansion was sold to Ira Copley, the newspaper syndicate owner and founder of today’s San Diego Union-Tribune. Copley renamed the Mansion “Dias Alegres” – or “Happy Days”. From 1928 to 1949, Mr. Copley made only minor changes, including adding bedrooms and enclosing the third-floor Solarium.
In 1949, local Realtor Louis deRyk Millen purchased the Mansion. At that time, the estate featured two garages with seven car stalls, a gasoline pump and tank, a large plant house and beautifully landscaped grounds displaying a magnificent rose garden. Soon after purchasing the Mansion, Millen began renting out the rooms in the European bed-and-breakfast fashion, and the Mansion became known as Millen Manor. He then sold the property to Barney Padway, who started to add the surrounding buildings, which today provide 89 contemporary guestrooms. A real estate partnership owned the property briefly after Mr. Padway.
In 1975, the current owners, three San Diego businesspeople, acquired the facility and embarked on a major modernization and historic renovation. The partners decided to operate the hotel as an independent and unaffiliated Inn in order to preserve its character and provide a high level of personalized service.
The Music Room, which had become floor-to-ceiling storage, was restored to its original glory. Its copper-clad glass doors were re-hung, and hardwood floors refinished, and period furnishings along with a baby grand piano were put in place to bring the Music Room back to life.Today the room offers guests a relaxing and historically perspective place to enjoy a complimentary Continental breakfast and afternoon refreshment. The Music Room has a guest library, games, and is the starting point for Coronado Touring, a 90-minute walking tour of The Enchanted Island. The Breakfast Patio, hidden beneath plywood, also was restored. When add-on balcony sunrooms were removed, workmen discovered the original facade with cast panels, copper gutters and concrete detail from the Mansion’s glory days 90 years ago. The front Verandah Room took on its original porthole wall design with metal-framed picture windows fitted into the openings. The renovation became a true restoration as original details of the rooms were fully exposed and featured. Today the Mansion, which features 11 guest rooms, lobby and Music Room, looks as it did in the 1920s when Spreckels was at the height of his power in San Diego.
Along with renovations on the main level, the Glorietta Bay Inn’s Mansion rooms also received a face-lift. Located on the second floor, the Spreckels Suite was the living room, sunroom and bedroom of John Spreckels. With its panoramic views of the bay and ocean, the room has been converted into a luxury suite complete with an efficiency kitchen off the living room. At one time connected to the Spreckels Suite is the adjacent Sugar Baron Suite, which was Mrs. Spreckels’ master suite. The room now has a sleeping area overlooking the pool and Glorietta Bay. The Mansion Suite on the first floor was created from a large patio overlooking the tea gardens and the butler’s pantry. The suite now has a patio, bedroom and sitting area. The only other guestroom on the main level of the Inn was once the library. It still maintains the feel of the library with warm woods, a fireplace and peaceful location away from the reception activity on the first floor.
Six other rooms are located on the second floor, each one unique in its décor. These were the rooms of Spreckels’ children and grandchildren, who often spent their summers in Coronado. All of the rooms have kept the original light fixtures and, where possible, hardware and fixtures have been maintained or replaced with circa 1920 period pieces. A few rooms still have wall safes dating back to the early 1920s. The third-floor Solarium, which was Spreckels retreat for study and introspection, is now the Penthouse. With 1,000 square-feet of space, the Penthouse offers some of the best views from the Island.
In 1977, the Mansion was designated a Coronado Historic Landmark by the Coronado Historical Association. In 1997, Glorietta Bay Inn received the Golden Hibiscus Award from the City of Coronado for Excellence in Historic Restoration.