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The El Cortez - A never-to-be forgotten view

The El Cortez hotel in San Diego, CA is one of my favorite iconic landmarks in the city and it's not hard to see why. Just look at this beaut.

El Cortez in San Diego, CA (2018)

Built in 1926, the El Cortez was the tallest building in San Diego and advertised an "ultra-modern apartment hotel" that was sure to be the "IT" place as one might say today.

And it was, for many years. As ownership changed the hotel evolved.

Signs were erected, expansions gave new life to the social scene, and the building even served as a point of military operation during WWII, but it wasn't until the '50s, when hotel mogul Harry Handlery, took over and brought the place to a whole new deliciously kitschy level.

He made your classic additions (extra rooms, ballroom, pool) but the most notable change was the outdoor GLASS elevator, an attraction that can only be experienced these days virtually. Hop on this newsreel and take a ride.

All Aboard the Starlight Express

San Diego was on that glass elevator train before glass elevators were cool (Willy Wonka). The elevator at the El Cortez was the second glass elevator ever made. It ran 15 stories high, dropping you off at the Sky Room, a swanky cocktail lounge at the top of the building. Just look at these old postcards - you can't tell me these don't give you FOMO...

Someone please transport me back to 1950.

The Later Years...

During a preservation phase in 1989, it was argued the hotel's late additions were too "fifties kitsch". The elevator was eventually removed and the building was restored to its original state.

As for the tallest building in San Diego, the El Cortez may have lost its bragging rights, but you can still find this iconic building overlooking the city, its neon glow illuminating the streets of downtown.


  • At 310 feet, the El Cortez was the tallest building in San Diego from 1927-1963.

  • Designed by the firm of Albert R. Walker (1981-1958) and Percy Eisen (1885-1946), the architects responsible for the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

  • Famous guests included U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford, and singers Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Roy Rogers, actress Jane Wyatt and bandleader Skitch Henderson. The hotel was featured in the 1963 film A Ticklish Affair.

  • Hotel entrepreneur Harry Handlery purchased El Cortez in 1951 and made numerous additions to attract more clientele. In 1956, he added the Starlight Express, the second exterior glass elevator in the world and the first in the U.S., transporting guests to the Starlight Room for cocktails above the city.

  • El Cortez was named a historic site in 1990, saving it from demolition.



702 Ash St, San Diego, CA 92101

Currently a condominium building

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