I want to write about the truly awesome hotel I stayed in while visiting Balboa Park. (I say visiting the Park, as opposed to visiting San Diego, because I barely saw anything of the city except the Park and this fabulous hotel.)
One of my dearest friends, who happens to be a gay guy, had told me I should aim for the Hillcrest neighborhood because it is artsy and cool. I didn’t much give any thought to his sexually oriented perspective, but this information landed me at what the concierge told me was the gayest hotel in “San Diego’s best gayborhood.” It was also a short walk to everything I wanted to see in Balboa Park. So I checked in.
From the outside it’s just a rather large brick building, looking like any old nondescript apartment building.
Apparently that’s a deserved look as the place started out in 1926 as a luxury hotel and apartment building called Park Manor Suites. It was designed by Frank P. Allen Jr. who was quite the impressive architect.
From SanDiegoHistory.org – (heavily edited text follows)
“Frank P. Allen, Jr., came to San Diego in 1911 to work on the Panama-California Exposition and left an indelible imprint on the architecture and landscape of the city. By profession, he labored as an architect, contractor, and engineer, as well as a sensitive self-taught landscape designer. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1881 to Frank P. and Mary Allen, Allen received early training in the architectural field under the tutelage of his father, a Michigan architect. In his early twenties, after a stint in the Spanish-American War, Allen and his father practiced architecture in Grand Rapids under the firm name of Frank P. Allen & Son.
Allen moved to Chicago in the early 1900s where he worked as a draftsman. He left Chicago in 1904 and headed west. He received a contract for the nine-story Perry Hotel in Portland, Oregon and completed it in unheard of time-two months and two days. He served as consulting engineer to Portland’s Lewis and Clark Exposition, held in 1905. His accomplishments in Portland led to his employment as the Director of Works for the Seattle exposition which opened in 1909. Seattle wanted “a man who could work fast and save.” Allen was given two and one half years to complete his portion of the work for the exposition. He finished it in one year and ten months. Allen was hired as the Director of Works in San Diego for the Panama-California Exposition in January 1911. His first order of business involved the topographical survey of the area which he felt needed to be completed. Allen found fault with the Olmsted recommendation of an exposition set along the Florida canyon site and proposed the actual site, “pointing out its advantages from a scenic point of view.” But exposition directors fought him, arguing “it would be impractical to build a bridge over the Cabrillo canyon, that the cost would be too great.” Allen demonstrated that his plans would be cost-effective, and in the end he won his battle. Allen “volunteered to shoulder the responsibility” for the exposition planting. He implemented an irrigation system for Balboa Park and devised a landscaping plan. The Cabrillo Bridge, built of reinforced concrete at a cost of $225,154, extended 916 feet across the canyon. With great ceremony, the bridge was dedicated April 12, 1914, and the first person to ride across it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Allen contributed his architectural, engineering, and horticultural expertise to a number of other Balboa Park and exposition designs.
Allen left San Diego in 1917 but returned two years later with thoughts of staying. He designed and built the Park Manor apartment building on the west side of Balboa Park at 6th and Spruce in 1925. Allen and his wife Mabel lived there until they divorced in 1931 and Allen moved to Los Angeles. He died an accidental death on July 5, 1943 at the age of 63.”
I’m unsure when the name changed to Inn at the Park but that’s rather irrelevant, yes? The canopy over the front door still reads Park Manor Suites, so I suspect it wasn’t that long ago.
The room I had was HUGE. I’m told each and every room is different. Mine had a large purple bathroom with a circular inlaid marble design on the floor. It also had a small but complete cooking area attached to a dining room with a stylish retro kitchen table. Opposite the massive and comfortable bed (with quality linens) was a large comfortable couch and an equally large glass deco coffee table. The closet was as big as the bathroom and both closet and bathroom had french doors stenciled with black and purple designs on the door’s inner panels. The whole color scheme was grey, purple, white and black. The art brought in splashes of yellow. It really was a joy to behold.
That said, when I first arrived I was conflicted and experiencing a love-hate relationship with the hotel. The only elevator was old enough that I would believe it if you told me it was original to the hotel. The hallways were kind of musty and smelled like a grandmother’s house. The Piano Bar downstairs was dark in a grungy way as opposed to dark in a pleasing way. I didn’t want to eat downstairs as it looked like only the most awful tasting food could possibly come from such a room. I do not know if that impression was correct. I never ate in that bar/restaurant. Instead I ventured out into the surrounding blocks for my nighttime eating. That first night I went to sleep considering that I might leave in the morning.
In the morning however, I was introduced to the true gem of this hotel. The roof top restaurant. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch as far as food goes, but it becomes a bar on Friday nights – but more on that in a moment. The views of the city and the park in the brilliant sunshine, and the planes landing at San Diego airport, skimming by so close you could practically reach out and touch them were truly glorious things to experience with my morning coffee.
So – coffee on the roof and the days spent walking through the park convinced me to stay.
My second day there was Friday. When I returned from the park my concierge friend told me there was a Friday happy hour on the roof. He totally warned me it was mostly gay men who attend. Mostly! Ha! If there was 3% women there I’d be surprised. And if more than .02% of them were straight I’d be even more surprised.
I met interesting men and their husbands. I met bankers and lawyers and broken hearts. And they were all in the 40-60 age range it seemed, so I appreciated that. Admittedly, this party was a big part of what makes me say that my stay in San Diego was great! Big hellos and shout outs to Dave and (separately) Angelo who were my two favorite people that I met that night.
But here’s the thing about the Inn at the Park and its Friday night Happy Hour on the Roof – it’s ending. This month. January 31st will be the last of these top of the city parties. The men I met were melancholy about this fact, as could be expected. This party’s been going on for over 20 years, some said 25 years. What’s causing this tragic winding down of an iconic neighborhood weekly party? It’s the fact that The Inn at the Park has been sold to Wyndham properties and they will be turning the hotel into a time share property. And the roof? That will be converted into a fitness room, a sales center and an owner’s lounge. Some men were admittedly angry that their beloved Friday scene could be so heartlessly ripped from them; angry that a corporation could just swoop into their neighborhood and dismantled what they consider an institution.
I have to admit it made me kind of sad too. This really was a splendid evening. It was a long-standing happening, important to the self perception of an entire generation of gay men in the area. I got a little drunk and I felt special to have gotten here to experience this fabulous tradition, this hotel, this roof top, these men, before the end. I didn’t even know the end was coming, but I managed to get here to see it in all its glory before it fades into memory. Mine. Theirs. And San Diego’s.
Ah San Diego.
I’m not going to make this blog post much longer or I’ll never get it posted, and I’d like to end on a more upbeat note so let me give a shout out to some of the awesome things I enjoyed in Balboa Park.
I loved the Spanish Village Art Center.
And the Botanical Building Designed with a lot of input by our esteemed architect Frank P. Allen Jr.
And the special exhibit at the Museum of Man – The Instruments of Torture.
Oh and the Timkin Art Museum – small but very worthy.
Maybe next visit I’ll actually check out San Diego….