For years after its 1927 opening, the El Cortez apartment hotel dominated San Diego's downtown cityscape, rising more than 300 feet atop the 175-foot-high Cortez Hill. The building also stood out for its unusual three-tiered shape, reminiscent of a traditional wedding cake. That impression was only strengthened by architects Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen, who gave El Cortez classical and ornate features: sculptural ribbons, stone foliage, columns, and crests.
Changes to the structure began just 10 years later. In 1937, the building's owners, the El Cortez Co., installed a giant neon "El Cortez" sign on top of the structure. The sign was redone about 60 years later but kept in the same location. Other additions included the Sky Room on the 15th floor, which was known for its 360-degree views of the city and and its luxurious lounging atmosphere during the '40s, '50s, and '60s. In 1951, wealthy businessman Harry Handlery bought the El Cortez and quickly made some distinctive additions of his own. According to the San Diego Historical Society, Handlery added a moving walkway (later removed) as a connector to another of his properties.
But perhaps Handlery's most famous addition to the property was the Starlight Express, an exterior glass elevator that jetted residents and guests to the Sky Room. The elevator, installed in 1956, was considered a technical wonder for its time and made the El Cortez a hot spot for tourists and local residents alike.
As time passed, other owners scooped up the property. During the '70s, the once-regal structure began slipping into disrepair and was eventually vacant for more than 20 years. In 1997, it was acquired by the J. Peter Block Cos., a historic preservation development firm, for about $23 million, according to San Diego Magazine.
The development firm restored most of the landmark's 1920s architecture, which meant stripping it of the exterior glass elevator. The El Cortez was recently converted from apartments into 85 loft and condominium units, ranging in size from 498 square feet to more than 2,000 square feet. There are both one- and two-bedroom units; all were sold out as of press time. Retail elements on the ground floor include a gourmet market, cleaners, hair salon, and cafe. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
–Abby Garcia Telleria is a freelance writer in Costa Mesa, Calif.