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A ‘grande’ old haunting

Unexplained phenomenon at local landmark can make for a spooky shift

Every October, haunted houses pop up across San Diego County, staging terrifying supernatural scenes for hordes of Halloween thrill seekers. But it remains business as usual for the staff of the stately and stylish Grande Colonial Hotel, La Jolla’s real haunted house, with its year-round resident spirits and regular unexplained phenomenon.

“Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts,” said Terry Underwood, the general manager of the luxurious local landmark. “But if they do exist, a building that is 95 years old, like ours, would probably have a few.”

First opened in 1913 with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean from high above La Jolla Cove, the Grande Colonial has played many roles over the years: tourist haven, drugstore and soda fountain, military barracks, celebrity retreat, gourmet restaurant and, of course, haunted hotel.

One of the first recorded instances occurred in 1928. Late one evening, a night clerk spotted an unfamiliar couple in fine eveningwear promenading down a hall. Rounding the corner to inquire as to their presence, the clerk was faced with a quiet, empty hallway.

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The Grande’s North Annex and the nearby kitchen of NINE-TEN, the hotel’s top-rated restaurant, are also flashpoints of regular paranormal activity.

For years, both guests and staff have often reported heavy footsteps descending the staircase from the third to the second floor in the North Annex, accompanied by mysteriously swinging doors, but no evidence of human foot traffic.

Guests staying near a pair of apartments notorious for their partying occupants of days gone by have heard bangs, voices and footsteps coming from the rooms below late at night. On investigation, the rooms and the hotel bakery below were found to be locked and empty.

During renovations for the opening of NINE-TEN in 2001, kitchen staff found themselves seemingly surrounded by angry spirits. Pilot lights were snuffed out, burners seemingly turned themselves up or down, and cookware was inexplicably moved from one place to another.

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While things seemed to have settled down with the continuing run of honors and awards for the restaurant, not everyone is entirely pleased.

“We wish a ghost would come in and start helping out with the cooking,” a smiling but unnamed member of the kitchen staff said.

The Sun Room, with its magnificent view and wide fireplace, was once a temporary barracks for servicemen during World War II and remains a place of paranormal interest.

On June 6, 2004, the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, staff and guests reported the sound of shouting and the tromp of booted feet on the hardwood of the now-carpeted Sun Room, despite the room being completely empty.

Front desk supervisor and long-time employee, Peggy Derr, had heard many stories about the Grande’s “other” occupants but wasn’t convinced until she had an encounter of her own in the Sun Room. One evening in 2007, Derr unlocked and entered the Sun Room and spotted a smoky, indistinct shape inside the room.

“It moved quickly, up against the window louvers, and then disappeared,” Derr said.

Facilities engineer, Cesar Puentes, has had spooky experiences of his own.

“I was working alone in the bathroom of a suite when the exhaust fan turned on all by itself,” Puentes said. “I definitely felt a presence of some kind.”

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It was disturbing enough to send him packing for the day.

While The Whaley House and Villa Montezuma in Old Town get the bulk of the public attention for ghost stories in the county, the current crop of paranormal-themed television shows, such as “The Ghost Whisperer” and “Ghost Hunters,” are helping to bring stories like the Grande’s to a wider audience, creating a boost in “ghost-tourism.”

Despite the hotel’s recent award of the coveted Four Diamond status from AAA, there is nothing that speaks more highly of an establishment than the presence of return guests. By that standard, too, the Grande is doing very well. Even if some of those return guests don’t want to leave.