The Coronado Boathouse, built in 1887, actually predates The Hotel Del Coronado by a year. Thought to have been an exercise in building practice for what started out as a largely unskilled crew, the Boathouse was completed in 1887, before construction on the hotel commenced. Designed by the Reid brother architects – the same men who designed the hotel – the Boathouse became a diminutive Del and a visual masterpiece in its own right.
The Coronado Boathouse was also the first San Diego home for William E. Ritter’s marine research. In fact, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which Ritter helped found, can trace its roots back to the summer of 1903 and the initial research Ritter performed in Coronado.
Ritter, a visionary zoologist from the University of California at Berkeley, had made several forays to the California coast between the years 1891 and 1902. Ultimately, Ritter set up a temporary marine station in San Pedro, but in 1903 he was convinced to move the operation permanently to San Diego.
In fact, it was a prominent San Diego physician, Fred Baker, who helped put the deal together. Baker, who was an avid shell collector, offered to find a site and raise funds for Ritter’s work – and he succeeded at both. Not only did Baker raise $1,250 from the San Diego business community, he – along with Berkeley’s President Benjamin Wheeler – convinced Hotel del Coronado manager Elisah S. Babcock to let Ritter use the hotel’s Boathouse as a site for summer study. Babcock made modifications to the Boathouse to facilitate the oceanographic laboratory, and provided Ritter with the use of the schooner Laura.
As one historian has pointed out, the “elegant Hotel del Coronado Boat House must have seemed a dream come true to Ritter, his colleagues and students after roughing it at previous northern encampments. The hotel was one of the era’s most prestigious and attractive resorts, and was located near an undeveloped open seashore with ready access to the calm waters of Glorietta Bay.”
In the summer of 1903, the Hotel del Coronado was under the ownership of millionaire entrepreneur John D. Spreckels. Spreckels, who lived in San Francisco (he moved permanently to Coronado after the 1906 earthquake), brought a lot of big city sophistication to the “Lady by the Sea” (he oversaw the hotel until his death in 1926, at which time it was deeded to his descendants, who kept it in the family until 1948).
Under Spreckels’ ownership, the hotel reached its height of Victorian glamour, catering to wealthy patrons from the east and midwest, most of whom arrived by train, with servants in tow, to “winter” at The Del for months at a time.
Meanwhile, Spreckels was also developing “Tent City,” a fun-filled, camp-style vacation area just south of the hotel, which catered to America’s burgeoning middle class. These visitors escaped the summer heat of inland California, Arizona and Texas, preferring to stay in Spreckels’ airy tents on the Silver Strand, between the beautiful breezes of the Pacific Ocean and Glorietta Bay.
During the summer of 1903, Ritter and his wife stayed in the Hotel proper, where they had honeymooned in 1890. The graduate students and staff stayed in “Tent City.”
Tent City, as it turned out, worried Ritter, who was concerned about its “concerts, dances, performances by magicians and ventriloquists,” all of which Ritter characterized as a “host of tempting diversions for the most dedicated students of science.”
Despite his concerns, however, Ritter and his small group of marine researchers (nine in all, including two women) were able to successfully collect impressive specimens of plankton, soft coral, copepods and many other species of marine life. As a result, Ritter not only determined that the San Diego region housed a rich and varied sea life, but that deep-sea depths were accessible just short distances from the shore (at that time, the Boathouse was situated 80 feet out in the middle of Glorietta Bay, connected to land by a long dock). Based on this initial research, Ritter concluded, “There can be no doubt that a laboratory capable of great things for biological science might be built at San Diego.”
A display of Scripps Centennial artifacts is on view in the lobby.
Not surprisingly, Ritter’s work attracted the interest of many prominent San Diegans. Newspaper publisher Edward W. Scripps, along with his sisters Ellen and Virginia Scripps, were particularly drawn to Ritter’s work, developing a lasting friendship in the process.
Early supporters of Ritter’s work included George W. Marston, (one of San Diego’s founding fathers), U.S. Grant, Jr. (son of President Grant) and not surprisingly, John D. Spreckels. The first officers of the association included Homer H. Peters as president, Ellen B. Scripps as vice president, and E.W. Scripps as a board member. Ritter himself was named the Institution’s first scientific director.
Ritter’s work continued at the Hotel del Coronado’s Boathouse until 1905, at which time a larger site was secured at the Cove in La Jolla. In 1910, the Institution moved to the location it is today. Renamed in 1925 to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, it is now part of the University of California at San Diego, the UC campus it helped found in 1960. All of what Scripps Institution has done for San Diego, our nation, and the world grew from the small beginnings in Coronado’s Hotel Del and Boathouse 1887.
Fashioned in the Del’s Queen Anne Revival style of architecture (popular throughout the United States in the late 1880s), the Boathouse features a bellcast-hipped roof with a widow’s walk supported by brackets; a variety of dormers graces all four sides of the roof. Approximately 40 feet square, the Boathouse has three stories, and includes an exterior observatory area at its peak.
In the early days, the Boathouse featured a “Boathouse keeper,” someone who lived in the building and oversaw its upkeep and activities, as well as the upkeep of its fleet of pleasure and fishing boats. James Dunne held the job between 1895 and 1910, living in the Boathouse with his family, including a daughter born in the building, aptly named “Glorietta Dunne” (at least three other Dunne children were born there during their father’s tenure).
One of Dunne’s children, Gloria, would later recall the family’s private living quarters on the second floor, remembering that the third floor was used for guests or as additional play space. Recalls Dunne, “And, when there were races or fireworks later on, the other children and I would climb into the cupola with blankets and popcorn to watch.”
Gloria Dunne also described the first floor of the Boathouse, “It was done in a kind of nautical style, and I remember Papa gave the man who ran the counter a big stuffed fish to hang over it. The men could come in off the boats and get a drink of beer or a bite to eat.” (When James Dunne’s family outgrew the Boathouse – he had nine children in all – John D. Spreckels arranged for Dunne to supervise water lines at the Spreckels’ San Diego water company site.)
A sometimes colorful roster of boathouse keepers followed, including Alfred “Shorty” Redfern, who sailed to California from the east coast by way of Cape Horn, and doubled as a lifeguard at Tent City, as well as the bouncer at its dance pavilion.
Intimately tied to the hotel, the Boathouse was an important part of The Del’s early years. Here guests would gather to picnic, boat or swim. A two-story “bathhouse” was soon added (with 70 changing rooms), where guests could rent bathing suits and “bathe” in a protected bay enclosure. Only four feet deep (few Victorians knew how to swim), the covered bathing area was surrounded by a screen which prevented unfriendly marine life from bothering the guests.
In 1912, the Coronado Yacht Club established its first headquarters in the Boathouse, followed by an occupancy of the San Diego Yacht Club in the 1920s. In the ensuing years, this hotel landmark continued to serve the needs of Southern California’s yachting community. By this time, The Del’s John D. Spreckels had become one of Coronado’s premier yachtsmen (his luxury liner, the Lurline, was actually called into service during World War I). Eventually, Spreckels purchased a still grander yacht, the Venetian.
Besides attracting Coronado notables like socialite Wallis Spencer Simpson (for whom England’s King Edward VIII would later give up the throne to wed), The Del also appealed to San Francisco and Los Angeles elite, who often traveled down the coast in their own private yachts. And, in 1915, the completion of the Panama Canal helped ensure a steady stream of visitors from the Atlantic coast as well.
The Del’s Boathouse continued to play a key role in guest activities for hotel and Tent City visitors alike, well into the twentieth century. By the 1920s, the Boathouse offered a variety of recreational pursuits, including yachting, motor boating, rowing, canoeing, aquaplaning and “surf board riding.” Many yachting championships and other kinds of regattas were also based at the Boathouse. And fishing remained a popular sport – a 1940 hotel brochure boasted about the “catch of the day,” which could include tuna, yellowtail, barracuda, Bonita and marlin.
In 1934, the Hotel del Coronado purchased the snowbird class sailboats used in the Olympics. These boats – which came from all over the world – were outfitted with colorful sails and soon dubbed “The Rainbow Fleet” (there are still plenty of people in Coronado who can remember learning to sail aboard these brilliantly colored boats).
The Boathouse continued to serve the hotel – and the community of Coronado – until 1967, when the building was leased to the Chart House restaurant chain (at which time the Boathouse was moved closer to shore and renovated). Today, the Boathouse houses a new, locally-owned restaurant, Boathouse 1887.
Recognized as a Coronado historical landmark in 1973, the Boathouse, like The Del, attracts artists from far and wide, and is said to be one of the “most painted buildings in Southern California.”
Today, the Boathouse retains its original waterfront allure, as well as the hotel’s engaging architecture, testimony to its enduring relationship with The Del and to the heritage both buildings share.