CHAPTER 4: A LEAP OF FAITH
Christopher "Kit" Sickels had not forgotten the legacy of the hotel. He purchased the building in 1979 and, one of his first moves, was to provide protection from the bulldozer. Panoply from the wrecking ball came that same year, when Sickels succeeded in placing the hotel on the National Register of Historic Sites. Already a legend, this truly made her a landmark. No one could or would dare tear her down now.
Sickles was convinced he could return the hotel to its former glory. However, he was unable to bring in guests and keep the price of the rooms where he wanted it. Rather than turn a profit as he had anticipated, Sickels was losing money fast.
After using the hotel to accommodate inbound Navy sailors, Sickels recognized that a hotel of this caliber cannot subsist solely as a stopover for G.I.'s, and conceived bigger plans for his beautiful building. In 1983, he decided it was time to make them happen. He found backers and came up with the funds for the most spectacular renovation THE US GRANT had ever seen. The scope of the renovation would be more than merely fresh paint and new linens.
For the first time since opening in 1910, THE US GRANT closed her doors. A massive renovation, Sickels knew, would be far too expensive to keep the hotel operational while the drills and jackhammers were going. They were going to do earthquake retrofitting, move walls and restore long lost treasures.
The renovation began in early 1984. A project that was originally projected to cost $44 million began to spiral out of control. Due to financing and unforeseen costs, Sickels found himself saddled with a staggering bill of $80 million before the job was done.
Sickels was willing to pay such a price because he was ensured that the hotel post-renovation, along with the anticipated redevelopment of the city, would command a rate high enough to generate a profit. There were newspaper clippings, fanfare, and a grand opening day party to celebrate the completion of the project when the workers left in December 1985. The hotel re-opened, however, the rooms and suites still could not be filled.
THE US GRANT was always elegant and a hospitality leader. The city simply was not ready for the return of such a grand hotel. For downtown San Diego in 1985, change was coming, but its pace was painfully slow. Four months before Sickels' splendid new Grant opened in December 1985, the cornerstone of downtown's redevelopment opened across the street. The colorful, asymmetrical shopping enclave was a 26-square block redevelopment project dubbed Horton Plaza - named for Alonzo Horton, the "father of San Diego." Designed by Jon Jerde as "experience architecture" with jagged, modern art facades and staggering colors, the complex was an attraction in itself. By design, it was different from the monochromatic, planate shopping centers of the suburbs. 25 million customers browsed and bought from its stores in the first year.
The Center City Development Corporation took on a massive restoration project that returned the Gaslamp Quarter to its original lively past. After a two year delay, the San Diego Convention Center relocated to downtown in 1989, at a fabulous new location on Harbor Drive - the same spot where a very tired Alonzo Horton had arrived so many years before.
For Sickels, though, city redevelopment came too late. After pouring so much money into the Grant's refurbishment, it was financially impossible to command a room rate that would balance a return on his investment. He held onto the hotel as long as possible, but had to sell in 1989, handing the property over to Japanese-owned Sansei U.S. hotels.