The Venerable U.S. Grant Hotel
San Diego and Indian cultural histories are fused as the grand hotel prepares for its centennial celebration
By Manny Lopez
For nearly a century, the U.S. Grant Hotel has stood as a symbol of San Diego’s ever evolving history. Opened on Oct. 15, 1910, when the city was just a sleepy little hillside town with less than 40,000 residents, the 11- story, Harrison Albrigh- designed hotel, was built by Ulysses S. Grant Jr. and named in honor of his father, the 18th president of the United States.
For the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, owners of the U.S. Grant since 2003, purchasing the famed hotel was more than an opportunity to invest in a landmark building on Broadway and Fourth Avenue. It was a chance to come full circle and return to the area peacefully inhabited by their ancestors for more than 12,000 years.
“We’ve come home to where the ocean is,” said Tribal Chairman Daniel Tucker. “This is where we lived, roamed, ate and raised our children. It’s part of our heritage and culture. It’s part of who we are.”
Ownership of the storied hotel also adds a nice touch of irony, since it was President Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War hero, who signed an executive order in 1875 confining the Kumeyaay tribes to a one-square-mile, mostly mountainous area that was unfarmable in East County about 35 miles from Downtown.
Tucker admitted that had the hotel been named after anyone else, the tribe would not have shown interest in the property. “This is an important symbol for us because we became wards of the state, someone’s servant,” said Tucker. “At the missions they took our children, they took our women and made them like slaves.” Tucker explained that the California Legislature in the early 1850s authorized over $1.1 million to reimburse citizens for killing Indians.
As the hotel prepares to celebrate its centennial, Tucker said that it’s important for the Sycuan Band to convey to people that they have been a part of San Diego’s history since before Alonzo E. Horton arrived from San Francisco in 1867 and exclaimed “I have found heaven on earth.”
“It’s a positive thing to be able to share our heritage and culture with visitors to the hotel,” said Tucker. “It’s not about money. It’s about respectability.”
Tucker added that many people did not expect the tribe to succeed in its quest to diversify into other businesses besides gaming. The tribe has owned and operated the Sycuan Casino & Resort on its reservation in El Cajon since 1983.
Larry Kinley, senior tribal adviser to the Sycuan Indians recalled conversations between the chairman and tribal members that took place in 2005, while the nearly 100-year-old hotel underwent a 20-month, $56 million renovation. In those discussions, Kinley said, questions centered upon how to tastefully inject the history and culture of the Sycuan and the Kumeyaay into the project and how far back in history they should go. Kinley said that while the group did not want to appear overbearing, they all agreed that it was important to emphasize that San Diego’s history started long before the construction of the U.S. Grant Hotel.
“What we leave here for our generations to come is that we’ll always be here and that we are part of this country, this city and this state,” said Tucker. “It’s a good feeling to know that today we have the opportunity to keep our language alive, to keep our bird songs alive and to keep our dances alive.”
San Diego attorney Lynn Schenk, the first female elected to represent San Diego in the U.S. House of Representatives, said that Tucker understands the importance of remembering the past, even if it is painful to make sure it is not repeated. In 1971, Schenk, a newly minted attorney, along with two other female lawyers, broke the gender barrier at the Grant Grill located inside the hotel, which never allowed women in for lunch. A sign reading “Men Only Until 3:00 P.M.” hung outside the famous eatery, described by many as the only place in town for a “power lunch.” Schenk said that the policy was humiliating to women and it kept them away from where the deals were done in the city.
After several failed attempts at being seated, the trio threatened management with a lawsuit, which Schenk admitted was baseless. The ladies kept coming back until one day the sign finally came down and the trio were seated and served. “That was the beginning of the end of that practice,” said Schenk, as she described how the three female attorneys were booed and given dirty looks by every man in the restaurant as they were escorted to their table.
“Things were very different back then,” Schenk said. “The Sycuan Indians have been really good at showing this part of San Diego history.”
Part historian, part storyteller, Russ Mitchell, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, pointed out that within every corner of the historic property, original artwork inspired by American Indian and Kumeyaay tradition has been incorporated into the décor, which he believes enhances the hotel’s period details and adds to its overall cultural and architectural integrity.
“I’m passionate about sharing the heritage of the hotel and knowing that I’m part of it,” said Mitchell. “We’re creating history with this hotel. Not just the U.S. Grant’s, but our own.”
Douglas Korn sees himself as one manager in a long line of general managers that have run the hotel’s day-to-day operations over its first 100 years. Korn said that it’s great to be a part of the hotel’s high point in history and a privilege to be the one ushering in the U.S. Grant’s centennial anniversary.
“It’s not just a big old building where people come stay and then leave town again,” said Korn, as he pointed out that 14 out of 44 U.S. presidents have been guests of the Four-Star, Four Diamond hotel. “When people walk in and hear the stories, it helps create a unique experience that many other hotels can’t offer.”