I always think it’s wonderful when you discover a little slice of history that’s been preserved. It’s much like the sort of triumph that accompanies taking the last slice of pie, or stealing the one remaining cookie from a jar that at first looked empty. The victory is all the sweeter in that you know how rare your prize is. Tucked away in Old Town, California’s state park, along wooden walkways and snarls of cactus sits the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Her covered porch, with it’s hand sculpted columns and shuttered windows may seem out of place in this city. The train station lies just a glance over your shoulder and the concrete cathedral of the freeway lies in tangles along the horizon, surely this relic of the past, this refugee from an old television western must be misplaced. Indeed she and the town that cradles her are remnants of a bygone era, but I instead see the Cosmopolitan as an oasis. Here is a refuge from the squealing of brakes, the boiling chatter of the streets. Here the smell of gasoline, which wafts on the air in spite of crystal azure skies, is replaced by the fragrances of fresh-pulled salt taffy from Cousin’s Candy shop, or the flat iron steaks sizzling in the house kitchen. The Cosmopolitan is a hotel unlike any other you are likely to find in the city. To spend a night in it’s rooms is to drift gently back on the tides of time itself.
Once Upon A Time
Perhaps the reason The Cosmopolitan feels so inviting is that it was once the family home of Juan Lorenzo Bandini, one of San Diego’s first settlers. He originally designed his home as a one story building, constructed between 1827 and 1829, in which he, his wife and his two daughters could live happily. The first incarnation of the home was a far cry from the building that stands today. Originally built using the Spanish colonial style of architecture favored in the area, the home had muslin ceilings and sturdy adobe walls. In the California heat, this style of building is an excellent choice because of adobe’s high thermal mass, or ability to keep the indoor temperature relatively stable despite the weather out of doors.
The Bandini family lived in this home until 1859, after which it passed to the hands of Emily and Albert Seeley. Albert was a stage master, meaning he saw to the needs of passing stage coaches and their passengers. In this time, people depended upon coach travel for transportation. Albert wanted to create a place where weary travelers on the dusty road could rest in luxurious comfort and enjoy a bit of entertainment to boot. By Autumn of 1869, the Bandini’s former home had been transformed into The Cosmopolitan Hotel. This makes it 19 years older than San Diego’s other landmark hotel, The Hotel Del Coronado.
Seeley added a second story to the original adobe structure. This new addition would be used for boarding passengers who came through. The second floor was embraced by a wrap around balcony, where guests could watch the hustle and bustle of the streets below.
He remodeled the Spanish style home to reflect a more East-Coast aesthetic, seen as more established and civilized, the Bandini home was remade in the Greek revival style. Now the building would show the proud columns and railings which are recreated for visitors today. Seeley also added on a bar and billiards room, which are still on the premises today.
In the hotel’s heyday, it also had a barber shop and post office on premises, but these amenities have since been remodeled. In Seeley’s time however, such a thing would have been a tremendous luxury indeed. After riding long hours aboard a stagecoach, men could stop in to freshen up with a quick shave and a trim before carrying on. Journeyers could stop by the post office and send word to loved ones, assuring them that they had made it safely thus far. We forget now a days, but travel by stagecoach was fraught with peril. Bandits were not above stopping a coach and looting the passengers inside to make their dishonest way.
Here’s The Well’s Fargo Wagon, a coach not unlike the ones that would have stopped by. You can see this stagecoach and others like it in the Seeley Stables in Old Town State Park.
Seeley extended an invitation to the Bandini daughters, Josefa and Ysadora, whose home the hotel had once been. He promised them that they would always have a room waiting for them should they return to town. He kept two rooms vacant in the event that the girls made a visit. These rooms are available for guests today. It’s hard not to marvel at the history brimming in every corner of these marvelous hotel.
In 1870, The Cosmopolitan Hotel was almost lost to fires that swept through Old Town. In 1888, Seeley eventually sold the property off. His once proud hotel would serve as an olive canning factory until 1900. Time wore away at the structure and eventually, the building fell into disrepair. It would remain in ruins until 1928, when Juan Bandini’s grandson Cave J. Couts Jr. would renovate the property and reopen it as a hotel and restaurant. Couts took great care to install all the modern amenities that guests would be accustomed to. The property was wired for electricity, gas and embellished with decidedly modern decor (for the time.)
In 1968, the hotel and restaurant would be purchased by the state of California, and become part of the newly established Old Town State Park. Old Town is an area of San Diego where the past is preserved, and the buildings of yesteryear remain, reminding us of where we came from. The State Park has sought to restore The Cosmopolitan to the way it might have looked while under Seeley’s ownership. Modern building codes have to be adhered to, so certain changes were made for the comfort of guests which would not have been present in the mid 1800′s. For instance, each room has a flushing toilet and bath or shower.
These things would not have been commonly available in Seeley’s time, but were not unheard of. The Tremont Hotel of Boston was the first to boast flushing toilets in 1840, offering 8 water closets for guests usage. It was considered quite a novelty back then, and would hardly have been the norm. In fact, to create this now expected convenience, existing rooms of the hotel were combined to create bathroom space.
The Hotel Today
I’ve had the good fortune to stay in both the Ysadora Bandini room
and the Josefa Bandini Room
on two different occasions. Both are beautifully appointed with recreation furniture of the mid 1800′s style.
There are no phones, no televisions or radios in the rooms, which I found a welcomed reprieve from the outside world. There are of course electrical outlets and free wifi, so bring your laptop along if you must. I prefer to bring a friend.
I should probably take a moment to mention that room 11, the Ysadora Bandini room is supposedly haunted by none other than Ysadora herself. To date, I have not had any experiences I could chalk up to haunting, but a journal is left in every room for you to write about your stay and make comments to help the staff. The journal in room 11 has many accounts of doors rattling, drapes moving and various other odd occurrences. Some say that Ysadora walks the balcony in a black dress, and you can see her through your window at night. My fiancé and I stayed there last Halloween, hoping to get spooked, but no such luck. If you are afraid of ghosts, not to worry, no one has ever reported unfriendly activity. If there are ghosts here, it’s likely because they love the hotel so much they just couldn’t bring themselves to leave.
The hotel offers a complimentary breakfast to it’s guests, served on the famous wrap around balcony. It’s one of life’s great pleasures to sit above the sleeping city, before the curls of smog tress the infringing freeway overpasses or the trains huff and rumble to the station, and watch the sun rise, with a plate of The Cosmopolitan’s renowned scones.
On my last stay at The Cosmopolitan, an unexpected guest joined my fiancé and me for breakfast. In testament to how absolutely decadent the Cosmopolitan scones are, a hungry sparrow happened upon a crumb that had flaked off our table. Soon there were two hungry sparrows, literally fluttering around the table, the way cartoon birds might around the head of a habitant to the animated world, whose received a smart concussive jolt. Upon seeing that we would not be readily sharing our scones, the birds made themselves at home on the lip of our jam dish, plucking seeds from the preserves within. Lesson learned, when breakfasting outdoors, do so neatly.
The Cosmopolitan restaurant sits on the ground which originally served as stables for stagecoach draft-horses. In Seeley’s time, rooms overlooking this area were sold at half price, because the fragrance of manure was inescapable, even behind closed doors. Today, the scents of that drift through this area are hardly of the variety one would seek to escape. The house restaurant offers hearty, home-style meals and drinks that would have been fashionable during the era. It also offers contemporary classics, such as hamburgers and burritos, assuring that every palate can be satisfied. If you have the good fortune to stay here, be sure to sample The Cosmpolitan’s churros for dessert. These tubular pastries, rolled in cinnamon sugar are an Old Town standard.
The Surrounding Town
While staying in the Cosmopolitan it’s impossible not to get lost in the past. The surrounding state park offers everything from rare and handmade candies, finely crafted leather goods as well as curios of all kinds. Step into Rust’s general store and sample some of the exotic confections to be found within. They have luscious cookies, candies and fudge that are just calling out to be tried. The purveyors of this old time general store also carry garnishes, sauces, soups and dry goods that you’re likely to never see beyond Old Town’s borders. While they’re not the official candy shop, they do have a towering wall of old fashioned sweets, many of which you may have never knew existed. My favorite are the salted black licorice fish, but I’ll admit they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
Speaking of tea, you can stop in for a spot of it or even a coffee at Old Town Coffee, Tea & Spice. Their walls are absolutely laden with every variety of tea and coffee you could imagine, but if you’ve got a sweet tooth, their specialty drinks such as “cake batter” will hit the spot. They also have a fine selection of spices and salts for those who tend towards the culinary. If you fall in love with a new blend, the shopkeeper will happily fill up a bag with it for you to bring back home.
At Cousin’s Candy you an watch taffy as it’s being stretched and pulled into shape by a machine specially tasked with this job. There’s a fine assortment of fresh fudge, in a decadent cornucopia of flavors. Part of the fun here is that there are always fresh samples waiting for eager fingers to pluck them up. It can get a little crowded in here, but once you’ve wrapped your tongue around their creations you’ll understand exactly why. This is a necessary stop for indulgence.
If you’re looking for more historical fare make a stop by La Casa de Machado y Silvas. This building is one of the original adobe structures, built by the Machado family for their daughter Maria Antonia and her husband Jose Antonio Nacasio Silvas.
Costumed volunteers walk the grounds, ready to share their knowledge of San Diego’s rich heritage with you.
La Casa de Estudillo showcases how wealthy Californicos would have lived. This house is much larger than the Machado y Silvas home. Originally owned by Lieutenant Jose Antonio Estudillo, this casa included servants quarters, work and storage rooms, living and dining rooms as well as a Roman Catholic Chapel.
Old Town offers an assayers shop with gem and mineral store. Here you can ogle jewelry or at certain times during the year, even pan for gold in a trough out back, just the way real gold rush prospectors might have.
The print shop is still operational. Being a writer myself I am absolutely dumbstruck at how intricate a process printing once was. Getting the written word out to the people used to require hours of labor by a print maker, who fastidiously placed a metal stamp with each letter to be marked in reverse, so that when inked and rolled with paper, the words appeared properly.
There’s even The Racine Laramie Cigar and Tobacco shop.
While smoking may be taboo today, such products were a staple for gentlemen in the mid 1800′s. Here you can see a museum of smoking utensils used in the past. Many of these pipes and cigarette cases are quite lavishly decorated, and really something to see.
All the clerks are well versed in the history of tobacco, and can tell you how they would have been used. Adults can purchase fine tobacco goods should they be so inclined.
This shop is not for youngsters however, as people do regularly smoke in this area.
Should you find yourself getting into the spirit of things, there’s the Johnson House, which specializes in vintage clothing and jewelry.
Strut down the street looking as if you just stepped out of a time machine.
If you are in The San Diego area and have the opportunity, why not spend a night in the historic Cosmopolitan hotel? It’s a once in a lifetime chance to immerse yourself in the past and bring a bit of history back to life.