IN 1888, Grover Cleveland was in the White House and Wyatt Earp ruled Tombstone. On a spit of land across the bay from San Diego a magnificent wooden hotel was rising near the shoreline. The owners wanted the sprawling resort structure to be ``the talk of the Western world.'' One hundred years later, the Hotel del Coronado is definitely the last word in the grand style of Victorian hotels as it celebrates a century of welcoming guests. A cornucopia of cupolas, turrets, and carousel ballrooms, the ``Del'' is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. And in a year-long bonanza of bashes that rival any in its 10 decades, tourists, celebrities, and locals alike have been swarming to this hotel that echoes, creaks, and rings with history like no other in America.
``Thomas Edison is supposed to have wired the lights here, the Duke of Windsor met Wallis Simpson, and Charles Lindbergh roamed the hallways. What other reason do you need?'' says Florence Wright, a second-time visitor from New York, sitting in the enormous Central Courtyard.
Eleven Presidents have visited - some for state dinners, others for summits - and a host of movies have been shot here, most notably ``Some Like It Hot,'' in 1958. And, oh yes, L.Frank Baum wrote ``The Wizard of Oz'' here, allegedly basing his ``Emerald City'' on the hotel's looming spirescape.
Wearing a ``Coronado 100'' straw hat while a live Dixieland Band plays ``Chattanooga Choo Choo,'' Ms. Wright lauds the edifice for the ``overwhelming charm'' of its sweeping staircases, balconies, pillars, and stained glass. Those prime examples of first-rate Victorian craftsmanship and the long history - Charlie Chaplin and Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead and Greta Garbo were guests, too - have landed the hotel on the list of national historic landmarks.
Not surprisingly, the hoopla has made vacancies a scarcity. In the last few years, while San Diego hotels have averaged 75 percent occupancy, the ``Del's'' 700 rooms have been about 96 percent full.
``We signed up in January and still couldn't get into the old structure,'' says Wright. Eighty million dollars in renovation since 1963 has included 290 modern rooms in a separate tower, and a 1,500-capacity convention hall. The ``Del'' is the largest resort from Alaska to Acapulco and is the only national historic monument still operating commercially as a hotel.
One of the hotel's many boutique owners remarks, ``The richer, old-money people come during the week, and the families and teen-agers descend on weekends. It's a piece of living history that has something for everyone.''
It was railway tycoon Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story who purchased 4,100 acres of land in Coronado in 1885. They wanted to build a resort hotel that would be ``a cultural oasis for European charm and cuisine.'' The project was completed in 11 months with 2000 Chinese laborers.
The architect was James Reid, asking for tons of brick that had to be molded and fired on site for the foundation, chimneys, and fireplaces. (Many of the original fireplaces have been replaced with bathrooms.) It was something of a mega-engineering feet to construct the 10-story cupola over the main ballroom using ropes and pulleys. The original five-story structure remains, with each of the 400 original rooms continually renovated. When the hotel was built, it was the largest structure outside of New York City to be electrically lit. The power plant that was built to run the Edison-supervised lighting system also powered the rest of Coronado until 1922.
So novel was the inclusion of incandescent lamps, so the story goes, that cards had to be placed in each room saying, ``Do not attempt to light with a match. Simply turn key on the wall by the door. The use of electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect soundness of sleep.''
Ironically, a Chicago businessman, Larry Lawrence, planned to tear down the hotel when he purchased it for $10 million in 1963, just for the land. Instead, he fell in love with the structure on first sight. His renovations have led to more popularity both as a resort and as backdrop to movies, one of the latest being Oscar-nominated ``The Stunt Man,'' with Peter O'Toole.
Antiquated plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems have been replaced, and air conditioning, a spa, and solar collectors on the roof have been installed. Not to mention tennis courts and a sprinkler system so sensitive that the owner, Mr. Lawrence says, ``You'll drown before you burn.''
``Just being on the grounds is a vacation in itself,'' says Adys Tucker from Oklahoma City, who signed up a year ago May and couldn't get into the older structure, either. I just want to sit and admire the hotel.'' Besides the many historic rooms and the newly opened History Gallery, there is a full arcade of fine specialty shops, daily lists of full-family activities, not to mention spa, golf course, and a stretch of wide beach.
In 1963, the hotel took in $2 million a year. Now, says Lawrence, he can pull that much in over one good weekend.
And as one wanders the 33-acre beachfront grounds, there are other details to keep him occupied besides the many lounges, gazebos, and porches. The original Otis electric ``birdcage'' elevator still survives in quiet competence. A modern-day deli is carved from the cistern that once held the hotel's fresh water. And the Prince of Wales Grille is dedicated - with many original photographs - to the Duke of Windsor, who later abdicated the English throne to marry the American divorc'ee he is said to have met here.
Since the Coronado is something of a local and national icon, a normal reconnaissance in the many nooks and crannies is likely to provide an education just from overheard conversation.
``Kids come over here and look at this,'' says a man in Lacoste shirt and Reeboks, beckoning to son and daughter in the cavernous Queen Anne-style lobby of polished oak. He points to the ceiling of the famous ``Crown'' room and says, ``No nails.''
The 66-by-156 foot space, with 30-foot-high sugar-pine ceilings, is locked together with wooden pegs. It's a cherished example from a day when woodworking and finishing were at their peak.
This year's centennial activities began in full force the weekend of Feb. 19 with a three-day bash intended to equal or surpass any in its long history. A $5,000-per-couple event tried to raise $1.5 million for charity with an evening celebrating every decade since 1888. A ``Some Like It Hot'' speak-easy, a '40s nightclub, and a '50s diner were constructed.
Music and dancing in the giant ballroom followed a five-course dinner decorated with rose-filled arbors and tables arranged in long rows as they were during Charles Lindbergh's testimonial dinner in 1927.
A centennial pavilion has been designed to commemorate the famous 1902 Coronado Tent City. The modern counterpart is a 7,000-square-foot, 30-foot-tall structure that will host parties, charity balls, and guest receptions through the end of the year.
Those who manage to squeeze in before New Year's may find a bit more incongruity than those who merely visit. Halls are creaky and walls are thin. The enormous Central Courtyard is an acoustical soup bowl that multiplies sound - such as an early-morning rake.
Also, one is struck by the lack of uniformity in rooms, doors, beds, and furnishings - which reflect the eclectic nature of its sometimes helter-skelter architecture. One giant contrast, for instance, is the dramatic change from wood-paneled lobby with chandeliers to a third-floor hallway of vinyl wallpaper, mustard-colored trim, and wan fluorescent lights.
Nor is the Hotel del Coronado cheap - $125 gets you no view, $175 a view of the ocean, and $290 to $475 a bay-side suite. But a staff of 1,200 serves 250,000 guests a year, and most go away happy. .