Chapter 3: A Legacy through the Eras

In 1919, a dapper gentleman from Indiana by the name of Baron Long came to speak with U.S. Grant Jr. It was no secret that the dry days of Prohibition were looming. One year after Long acquired partial interest in the hotel, the Eighteenth Amendment and its bitter cousin, the Volstead Act - which reinforced the prohibition of alcohol, were passed.
In an operation that was hardly covert, the hotel's Bivouac Grill was converted into a speakeasy called the Plata Real Nightclub. There was music, dancing, and of course, there was booze secretly spirited into the hotel through the tunnels under downtown holding pipes for steam and salt water from the bay. In the earliest hours of Prohibition mornings, San Diego's finest citizens would stumble from the back doors and creep home. With Long at the helm, THE US GRANT was one of the most profitable places in town.
With pockets overflowing from profits, Long completed the hotel's famous lower level rooms, including the ornate new ballroom intended for private society, The Italianate Ballroom. This grand space included elaborate plaster work, a travertine floor and a hand-painted ceiling, much of it still existing in the room today (now known as the Crystal Ballroom).

In 1939, Long further improved profit margins, literally, by installing the largest radio towers on the West Coast on her roof. In an era where radio, not television, connected the nation with portals in every home and business, the new 11th floor space became the offices for radio station KFVW. It was a great coup when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of his first radio addresses to the nation from the hotel.
Towards the end of World War II, the hotel went through another ownership change. During the 1950s, the famous Palm Court, the hotel's second floor Garden Terrace and gathering point for local society, was enclosed to create the Palm Pavilion, and the 9th floor Grand Ballroom was converted into 9th and 10th floor guestrooms (today, this area holds the hotel's twin Presidential bi-level suites). One of the most influential decisions, however, was to build a restaurant off the lobby on Fourth Avenue - the Grant Grill.
From the moment it opened its doors, the Grant Grill was a hit. It wasn't just the mock turtle soup (allegedly prepared with a generous two fingers of sherry) that kept the plush mahogany booths full. One of the restaurant's most enticing features came from an unparalleled bastion of masculinity. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Grant Grill was the place to power lunch. Lawyers, bankers and newspaper editors frequented the sanctified room, which was guaranteed to be free of ladies until 3:00 p.m. 

In 1969, a group of local female attorneys notoriously, and successfully, staged a "sit-in" at the Grant Grill. Despite their "sit-in" and a changing society, a shiny brass plaque that forbade women until 3:00 p.m. stayed firmly affixed to the wall. For these attorneys, it was extraordinarily frustrating that women were denied entry to the Grant Grill. The attorneys, Lynn Schenk, along with good friends Judith McConnell and, soon-to-be Deputy Attorney General, Elaine Alexander, decided it was time enough that the plaque be removed and its policy revoked. McConnell and Alexander helped her devise a plan. Feeling intrepid, they had a male colleague call ahead and reserve them a table.
Schenk, McConnell and Alexander arrived at the Grant Grill at the predetermined time, armed with a copy of a New York State gender discrimination case and plenty of raw determination. The maitre d', entirely flabbergasted by the three young women loudly demanding a table, broke into a sweat. He tried in vain to steer them toward the Grant's other restaurant across the lobby, the Garden Room, claiming concern that the Grill's testosterone-heavy conversation would be offensive to their female ears. Desperate, he tried to force them from the room. The women waved the New York case in front of his nose. It was a successful move and they were seated.
Although they could hardly afford the food, the ladies returned several times over the span of a year. Finally, the staff of the Grant Grill realized that it had met their match in the feisty female lawyers.  The sign came down, and the Grill moved into another era.

McConnell, Schenk, and Alexander have been honored dozens of times for what has come to be called "The Grant Grill Invasion."  They have been lauded publicly and privately for the headway they carved for San Diego businesswomen..
As a tribute to these brave women, the brass plaque (the point of so much contention) along with the story of their movement is again on display outside of the new Grant Grill.



Chapter 4: A Leap of Faith

In 1979, the glimmering lights of THE US GRANT were dimming.  Guest rooms and ballrooms were sitting empty. The lobby furniture was faded, the carpets were worn.  There was talk of tearing the building down to make way for new development in the city.

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. 


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