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Old Hotel Checks Out With a Bang

Thousands watch the implosion of a faded downtown San Diego landmark built in 1914.

April 16, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — With a series of thunderous explosions, a San Diego landmark was brought to the ground Saturday, a victim of advanced age and security concerns in the era of terrorism.

Out of curiosity and sentimentality, several thousand people watched the 8:05 a.m. implosion of the 92-year-old Hotel San Diego, once a showpiece but in recent decades a dowdy remnant.

The downtown site is to be used for a 22-story federal courthouse expected to be completed in 2010.

Thoughts of incorporating at least the facade of the seven-story hotel into the new structure dissipated amid new requirements that federal buildings be set back from the street to thwart terrorists. Earthquake standards were also problematic.

"It was the high-rise of its day, but its day was gone," said onlooker Karen Metcalf, 56. "It's sad. I wish it could have been restored, but that's progress for you."

The crowd was awash with cellphone cameras as spectators recorded the hotel's passing. "It's history in the unmaking," said Wilson Forbes, 64.

Like many residents, Forbes first came to San Diego in the Navy, in 1959. "Downtown was locker clubs, tattoo parlors, all-night theaters and the Hotel San Diego," he said. "Now it's all different, all modern."

The hotel was built by sugar baron and newspaper publisher John D. Spreckels in 1914 to accommodate visitors drawn by the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. Boosters hoped the exposition would bring world notice to the isolated city at the southwestern tip of California.

Over the years, the hotel had several owners, including a corporation that owned adult bookstores and tried to jazz up the hotel with a risque nightclub.

In its final phase, the hotel provided budget housing for pensioners before it was closed in 2002 by its latest owner, the federal government.

The hotel had been used by the military to house sailors and Marines between assignments. The rates were cheap and the location -- Broadway, between Union and State streets -- was close to military bases.

"It was a friendly place for sailors," said Jeffrey Metcalf, 49, who served aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. "It had a great steak-and-eggs breakfast for $3.95, and there was a tattoo parlor nearby."

Gregory May, 38, remembered staying at the hotel when he was in the Army in the 1980s, long after its heyday.

"Even though the hotel was run-down, you can tell it had once been grand, with that winding staircase and dining room," he said. "It makes me sick that it's gone. She was beautiful once."

Steve Carroll, 52, a San Diego firefighter for 32 years, remembered making emergency calls. "We put out some fires and saved some lives there," said Carroll, standing by the San Diego Armed Services YMCA building waiting for the implosion.

An effort in recent years among preservationists to save the hotel never caught fire politically. The federal government spent more than $93,000 to remove chandeliers, furniture and other artifacts, but the building was a goner.

The Hotel San Diego never had the same emotional pull on the populace as more architecturally unique downtown hotels, such as the El Cortez, the Horton Grand, the U.S. Grant, or, across San Diego Bay, the grande dame, the Hotel del Coronado.

"The hotel added to the character of the street, and hopefully the new building will do the same," said Mike Stepner, longtime city planner and city architect.

Some 900 dynamite charges were stuffed into holes bored in the hotel's columns by workers from Lakeside-based Clauss Construction Co. under a $3.1-million contract.

A certified blaster, with the appropriate California license, pushed the button and the explosions began.

The blasts -- in 20 sequences -- caused onlookers to cover their ears. The ground trembled and a cloud of dust puffed a hundred or so feet into the air, quickly settling. It was over in less than a minute.

"We're very happy," said Bill Musbach, Clauss vice president. "The building pulverized better than we hoped."

It is expected to take about six weeks to clean up the debris.

Most nearby buildings were draped for protection. One that was not -- and thus provided an excellent vantage point -- was the Metropolitan Correctional Center, although it was unclear whether any of the prisoners were watching.

The event was televised live, but many said it had to be witnessed in person.

"I hate to lose so many of the old structures, so much of our history," said Barbara Klein, 61. "But life goes on, even in San Diego."

Courtney Hansen, 11, was more interested in the spectacle than in the history.

"It's just cool to see," she said.

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