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A Tale of Two Hotels

By James Utt
By James Utt

Not too long ago, a friend and I decided to spend a weekend in Old Town San Diego. We selected the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel as our place of lodging. The original structure was built in the early 1800s, remodeled in the 1870s, when it became one of the most popular social spots in town, and was further restored earlier this century. Visitors can see historic reproductions and significant amounts of the original structure.

Charming does not begin to describe this small hotel. At the informal check in area, there is a chalkboard with the names of arriving guests and their city of origin. Each guest’s name is written in a different color. The rooms are large, with a small sitting room off the main area and a good-sized bathroom. Aside from a separate shower, there is a wooden bathtub and a toilet with a tank above it and a pull down chain. I did check to see if Clemenza’s men had hidden a gun behind the tank. There are no televisions or telephones in the Cosmopolitan’s rooms. Ah, the serenity.

In the center of the courtyard, there is a magnificent outdoor restaurant, which is surrounded by fruit and olive trees. We were served by an exceedingly friendly and efficient staff. Having stayed at fancy-pants hotels in New York, London, and Rome, I can say that the people that work at the Cosmopolitan take a backseat to no one in their attempts to make the guest’s stay as memorable and comfortable as possible.

Then, there is the Hotel Laguna. Oh, no, some of you might be saying, is he about to blaspheme one of our city’s most cherished landmarks? Well, yes, even though I read that it is soon to be closed and faces an uncertain future. Can’t we let it rest in rest? Well, no, it is too much of our city’s identity not to face the facts about what the hotel has become.

Our city’s first hotel, rebuilt in 1930 to its current early California mission style, stands in stately elegance on the oceanfront. What a building, what a location, what a Potemkin village. The term is used to describe something that deceives others into thinking a situation is better than it is. Something that looks impressive on the outside yet harbors disappointment behind its exterior.

The hotel boasted that in the past the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, and Charles Lindbergh stayed there. My own parents had their brief honeymoon at the hotel in 1947. That was then. I do not believe too many high profile celebs have bunked there recently. There are good reasons for this.

Last year, my house had to be tented as part of the never-ending war on termites. Where to stay while this was being done seemed a no brainer; it would be the Hotel Laguna. Rising early to take photographs around town is one of my passions. I could just walk out the hotel door and start snapping. The Hotel Laguna is also right across the street from Nick’s, one of my favorite restaurants. I could also walk to Bushard’s and see all the friendly faces, and buy more shirts from Tommy Bahamas.

But, had I to do it all over again, I might well choose to get a gas mask and stay in my tented home rather than board at the poorly maintained grand dame of Laguna Beach. Speaking of gas masks, the first thing I noticed on the second floor was the unpleasant odor. When I got to my room and wanted to enter the bathroom, the door hit the toilet seat rather than open all the way. The breakfasts were fine if you liked lukewarm food. Valets were not always around. There is more, but you get the picture.

I read that new owners may be on the horizon. It is my fervent hope that they will undertake a massive renovation. The beautiful building and its location are just too great to be dragged down by an inferior interior and mediocre service.

Could we not make the Hotel Laguna into a worthy rival of the glitzy and ridiculously expensive Montage? Which structure is more in keeping with the spirit and history of our town? Someone, somehow please save this once great place. Perhaps we could get some hats made and reword a slogan created by our current president, “Make Hotel Laguna Great Again.”


When it comes time to tent his home again, James Utt hopes to stay at a refurbished Hotel Laguna




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