Cosmopolitan Again

Restoring one of California’s oldest hotels

For decades, the building at the corner of Mason and Calhoun streets in Old Town San Diego housed the popular Casa de Bandini Mexican restaurant. Few of the patrons sipping margaritas in the courtyard, however, knew that the restaurant's stucco and plaster walls concealed the bones of a lavish residence and hotel dating to the city's frontier past.

Juan Lorenzo Bandini built his seven-room adobe hacienda here in the 1820s. About 50 years later, Albert Seeley, who ran a stagecoach line between Los Angeles and San Diego, purchased the Spanish Colonial building, added a wood-frame second story, and opened the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Seeley operated the hotel until 1888, after which it declined because of poor maintenance. It made a comeback as a hotel in the 1950s, before the state of California purchased the site in 1968. 

Three years ago, with money available via grants and bonds, state officials (along with partner Delaware North, a hospitality management company) decided to restore the building. The $6.5 million project that followed stripped back layers added to the structure during numerous remodeling projects. "Once we peeled them away," says David Marshall, whose firm, Heritage Architecture & Planning, worked on the restoration, "we found an old adobe home with a second story built in a traditional early American Victorian style."

"The building had gone through so many transition periods that not even the locals knew what it originally looked like," says Bill Mennell, who works for California State Parks and served as the restoration's project manager. 

Workers removed 1930s cement pillars and rebuilt the wood framing. They carefully chipped away lime plaster and cement from the adobe walls downstairs and removed 1950s stucco from the redwood clapboards upstairs. Fireplaces were uncovered, as were remnants of an original stairway (now restored). And when 1860s flooring was revealed downstairs, plans were redrawn to accommodate the Douglas fir floorboards.

The greatest challenge, says historic design consultant Bruce Coons, was the kitchen. "We found that sections of the adobe walls had deteriorated to such a point that we almost lost them," Coons says. "It looked like the ant farm you had when you were a kid."

Rodents were to blame, Mennell says: "There were two- to five-foot holes, and of course we had guys doing major work upstairs and these walls were supposedly holding them up. You can see how that would be problematic."

The team of architects, archaeologists, historians, and state park employees carefully shored up the second floor, removed the damaged sections of adobe, and rebuilt the walls. "We also had to do seismic strengthening and find places for fire sprinklers and air-conditioning vents," says David Marshall, "and we had to do it all in a way that didn't compromise the historic fabric of the building."

Last summer, the Cosmopolitan, now filled with extensive antique furnishings, was reborn as a 10-room boutique hotel, with a restaurant downstairs serving oysters, suckling pig, and other dishes popular in the 1870s. "This was probably the most complicated project I've ever done, and it was a tremendous effort to save every square foot of this historic place," says Mennell. "But the little details made the work absorbing. It went beyond my expectations."

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