North America

Cosmopolitan Hotel – the Oldest Sleep in San Diego

The Whaley House in Old Town touts its reputation as a haunted house, but when the restoration of the Cosmopolitan Hotel was completed, it seemed likely to be an even better place for conjuring ghostly glimpses of San Diego’s past.  The minute I saw the ten second-story rooms, I lusted to stay in one, awaken early, and peer down at the plaza, free of tourists in the light of dawn. The scene should be nearly indistinguishable from what it was 140 years ago, I figured.

In August, when circumstances forced me out of our home for a night, I seized the chance to live out my fantasy. Results were mixed.

Cosmopolitan Hotel San Diego
We stayed in the last room on the right.

To my (admittedly inexpert) eye, the restoration seems impeccable. At a cost of $6.5 million, the restorers peeled back the cement and tile and stucco and discovered not only the original three- and four-foot-thick adobe walls but also fireplaces, stairways, and other antique features, which have been restored to structural soundness and architectural polish. Reportedly workers were able to use 98% of the original siding, doors, door trim, and windows in the upper veranda.

The hotel rooms were originally created in 1869 when stagemaster Albert Seeley bought the building from the heirs of the original builder, Juan Bandini. Seeley and his family lived in it and rented out the lodgings on the second story that they added. By the late 20th Century, the former hotel rooms were being used to store kitchen supplies for the Casa de Bandini restaurant.

With the hotel restoration, one concession to modernity is that all the guest rooms now have bathrooms. They still lack televisions and much in the way of floor and closet space. But while that might annoy someone unenchanted with the past, it didn’t bother us.

Instead, the biggest disappointment was the revelation of just how noisy Old Town is. Well after midnight, you hear the steady whoosh of traffic on nearby I-5 – something we’d never noticed amidst the clamor of visitors in the day and early evening.  It’s white noise, not disruptive of sleep but more than loud enough to shatter any illusions about leaving behind high-speed modern life.

Cosmopolitan Hotel San Diego
The view of the plaza from the balcony. Note that you can see Interstate 5 (just to the left of the flagpole) as well as hear it.

The hotel staffing also seemed disconcertingly skimpy. The same pleasant lady checked us in at the reception desk and acted as maitre d’ for the hotel restaurant. Since fewer than half the hotel rooms seemed occupied, that probably made economic sense.

But the next morning’s breakfast (included with the room) seemed to verge on stinginess. (How much would an extra tablespoon or two of jam have set back the management?) We had no such complaints about dinner in the building’s lovely central courtyard.  It was tasty, fresh, and reasonably priced.

I’d eat there again. I’d probably even recommend the hotel to someone ga-ga about early California history. I think it’s cool that someone poured all that money into bringing the old place back to life as it was in its prime. I hope it keeps going.

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