La Valencia turns 90: Story of a 90-year-old ‘Pink Lady’ and the Village who loves her
Dec. 15 marks 90 years since La Valencia Hotel first opened its doors on Prospect Street in La Jolla, and like any relationship that has lasted so long — especially any love story — it’s had its ups and downs.
The Pink Lady will celebrate its 90th birthday by inviting the community to a Roaring Twenties Gala that will see its 9,000-square-feet of public and dining spaces transformed into a Gatsby-style mansion. With Prohibition cocktails, Jazz-age entertainment, flappers and a dance hall, the Lady V promises it can still party at 90 years old. Tickets are $290 per person.
Proceeds from the event, which starts at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, will go to the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS), because as the hotel’s managing director Mark Dibella explained, “As we were putting together our party, which really has been a yearlong celebration, we wanted to make sure the community benefits. The Historical Society made so much sense because we go neck-and-neck — we built history in La Jolla, they build history in La Jolla — it’s a great partnership.”
During its almost century of hospitality, wherein La Valencia has witnessed La Jolla grow from a sleepy village to a vibrant community, residents have loved the hotel with all their hearts, though at times they’ve also fought its changes and expansions with everything they had.
Dibella, who took over management five years ago, made some updates and faced controversy. “This is a community that is challenged by change,” he said, “and if you really do know La Valencia, it has changed constantly, I think for the good of the community and sometimes in spite of it, and I say that respectfully. If it hadn’t changed the generations that followed wouldn’t have been and wouldn’t still be so in love with the La Valencia they know.”
The year was 1926 when La Valencia hotel received its first guests. For two years it went by the name “Los Apartamentos de Sevilla” (The Apartments of Seville), and the original Spanish style building — which is only a part of the conglomerate that the La Valencia is today — was supposed to resemble a traditional southern Spanish home. With its tile work, pointed arches and original steel gate, today it resembles the typical patio home of the European country in certain details, but because so much was added to it over the years, that influence has been diluted.
What has stayed untouched is a tile work from 1928 by Ernest Batcheler, an American artist of Dutch descent, which portrays a Spanish lady wearing a pink traditional Sevilla dress with frills, a shawl with fringe and a headpiece known as “mantilla.” Dibella explained that most locals believe the hotel’s nickname “Pink Lady” comes from the color of its stucco, but the true origin is the tile piece. “(The hotel) was painted pink in the late 1950s, when the owners took a couple of vacations that year; they went to Hawaii and they stayed at a famous pink hotel in Waikiki.”
That same year, the hotel built its landmark tower and was rebranded “La Valencia.” Until then, it only accommodated long-term guests in luxury apartments, and by expanding the space, the owners hoped to host overnight guests. “The late 1920s is when the property started to get name recognition … and the owners thought that La Valencia marketed better,” Dibella continued.
During World War II, the La Valencia tower was used as an observation post. “From 1943-and-a-half to 1945-and-a-half, the U.S. Military used a few key spots along the coast, including the tower of La Valencia, as lookouts to keep an eye on the Japanese. They never sighted any, but it was one of four key (watch) spots along the San Diego coastline,” he said.
The late 1940s and ’50s is when the hotel experienced its biggest physical changes, Dibella said, while positioning itself for more overnight space. The three floors below the lobby were developed, the pool was built with a gym and a sauna. In 1956, La Valencia purchased the Irving Gill-designed Cabrillo Hotel nextdoor that was built in 1908. “That was its biggest evolution so far,” Dibella said.
In the 1960s, the hotel developed its eateries. “La Jolla didn’t have that many restaurants, so it got to a point by the early ’60s that there were five restaurants in the hotel,” Dibella said.
The 1980s and 1990s
In 1986, La Valencia embarked on another big expansion. This one incensed the community and didn’t materialize until the year 2000. Despite a report denying any traffic or environmental negative consequences of the proposed construction of more than 30 new rooms (known today as the Villas), the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) rejected the plans in 1987.
Hotel leadership found a loophole through the area’s Planned District Ordinance (PDO). As a historic site, the hotel was not subject to community regulation if there was an “economic imperative” for the reform. The hoteliers argued that expansion and remodel was needed to keep up with nearby accommodations, such as the La Jolla Marriot.
But that wasn’t enough, and after more than 10 years, the La Jolla Town Council voted again to appeal the still-in-the-works plans during a meeting March 12, 1998. (Fun fact: In that same meeting, two trustees were elected for the community advisory board whose names may ring a bell: outgoing City Council President Sherri Lightner and Congressmember Scott Peters.)
“They got past all that and developed the Villa complex and a much larger swimming pool, which is one of our signatures from a hospitality standpoint,” said Dibella. “It took 12 years for that to get through, which isn’t atypical of any major project in La Jolla.”
In 2011, the Collins family, which owned the hotel for 80 years, sold the complex to Pacifica Companies and Dibella took over as managing director. Since then, a few more changes have stirred up La Jollans, the most contentious was the closing of The Whaling Bar.
The Whaling Bar and Café La Rue opened on the Prospect Street façade of the hotel in the 1940s, and became a town-favorite. Playhouse co-founder Gregory Peck was known to host parties at the enclave, along other regulars such as mystery writer Raymond Chandler and the beloved Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).
“At the time we purchased the hotel from the Collins family, it was not successful from a business standpoint. It lost money for a number of years, and one part of that was due to The Whaling Bar,” Dibella said. “It was a hard decision for us to make on what do to with it, but we decided that its era was gone; the bar had become a novelty place to go once a year on your birthday or your anniversary.”
The hoteliers eventually demolished the wall that separated The Whaling Bar from Café la Rue and united both under the café’s name, opening it to greater street view and adding sidewalk seating. “We really wanted to reattach the hotel to the Village,” Dibella added.
The mural that gave name to The Whaling Bar, a depiction of a whale hunt that was painted on the wall, is stored somewhere in the hotel vaults, and Dibella plans to unearth it and showcase it in the next Board Room remodel.
Other plans include building a spa on the property that belongs to the hotel on the other side of the staircase that runs from Prospect Street to La Jolla Cove. The service, which will include use of the pool and the saltwater spa, will be open to the public.
When explaining his plans, Dibella can’t hide his excitement. “That’s when I get to change the name of the hotel again … to La Valencia Hotel & Spa,” he laughed. “Truly, the hotel keeps getting better and better. There will be some changes, but without change you can’t remain relevant to future hospitality and local guests. In 90 years of history, the hotel has had a total of eight managing directors, and I’m the eighth, which is quite an honor.”
IF YOU GO: Tickets to the Roaring Twenties gala are $290 each at (858) 454-0771 or lavalencia.com
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