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Trip of the Week

Good Old Days Return to San Diego

August 24, 1986|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

For a journey back in time, head to the historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. That's where you'll find a classic hostelry of yesteryear, the Horton Grand, which reopened this summer.

The moment visitors pull up in front of the hotel's bay window and brick facade, they are returned to the Victorian era. It begins with the young parking valet who steps up to the car wearing knickers and knee socks, garters around his shirt sleeves and a golf cap.

All hotel employees dress as in the previous century, even the chambermaids who don dusting caps and white pinafores over long skirts.

The revival of the Horton Grand is an impressive step in the ongoing effort to return 16 1/2 blocks of San Diego's original business center to its former glory. Now designated a National Historic District, the area has buildings dating from Reconstruction to World War I.

More than 60 of the structures are part of the Gaslamp Quarter restoration project that began more than a decade ago.

Already a number of vintage buildings in this decayed section of the city have been transformed into attractive restaurants, shops, art galleries and professional offices. The Horton Grand Hotel is the latest showpiece and new activity center in the old quarter.

State's Oldest City

Founded in 1769, San Diego is California's first city and its Spanish roots are planted three miles northwest in Old Town, now a state historic park. Almost 100 years later entrepreneur Alonzo Horton decided to create a New Town close to a wharf he was building in the bay.

Horton bought 960 acres and gave away lots to anyone who would immediately erect a commercial building. Within a year 20 buildings were up and the city had a flourishing business district along its new main street, 5th Avenue.

Over the years the town center moved north toward Broadway, leaving lower 5th and neighboring streets to become a red-light district called the Stingaree. One police raid in 1912 rounded up 138 women who were told to leave town.

The decline continued until 1974 when citizens formed the Gaslamp Quarter Assn. to clean up the area and restore its period architecture. Vagrants and seedy structures are still evident in the district, but there has been remarkable progress re-creating an authentic Victorian atmosphere for work and play.

To help visitors become acquainted with the area, the Gaslamp Quarter Council offers weekend walking tours and has a descriptive map if you want to explore on your own. You can even hire a horse-drawn carriage to see the district in relaxing old-fashioned style.

With the Horton Grand as headquarters, you can easily spend a day or two enjoying this once-forgotten section of the city that also has an intimate stage theater, a history museum, unusual stores and nearly 30 places to eat or imbibe.

Get there from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 to San Diego's downtown exit, Front Street (Civic Center), and follow it south to Market Street, recently renamed Martin Luther King Way. Go left four blocks to 4th Street, then right one block to Island Avenue and turn right again to the entrance of the Horton Grand Hotel.

Inviting Atrium

A sign says "Since 1886," but in its current reincarnation the 110-room hostelry is only 3 months old. An inviting glass atrium connects two century-old lodgings that were saved from the wrecking ball, taken down brick by brick and reassembled along the 300 block of Island Avenue.

Guests are treated to the comforts of a new hotel surrounded by memorabilia of Victorian times. For instance, you'll slumber in a modern queen-size bed with a canopied headboard that's an authentic antique. Also in every room, a vintage mantle piece adorns an instant-on gas fireplace. Just above it, gilded door mirrors hide a recessed television set.

Traditional American fare, such as Yankee pot roast with homemade apple pie, is served in the Ida Bailey restaurant. The restaurant is named for the madam of San Diego's most infamous brothel that occupied the hotel site at the turn of the century.

On Sundays a strolling musician serenades guests enjoying champagne brunch in the garden courtyard.

There's the friendly Palace Bar as well, complete with a grand piano for music at cocktail time. Afternoon English tea is served off the skylighted lobby. To honor the area's former Chinatown, another public room has been designated a Chinese museum and will soon host traditional tea ceremonies for visitors.

Accommodations at the Horton Grand Hotel are from $86 single, $94 double. Special packages are also available. For reservations call (619) 544-1886.

Across from the hotel at the William Heath Davis House you can pick up a guide map to Gaslamp Quarter, which ranges west to east from 4th to 6th avenues and north to south from Broadway to Harbor Drive.

sh Walking Tours

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