Hotel Del Monte was a mystical forest hideaway

Jim Doyle

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

In its heyday, the Hotel Del Monte encompassed 20,000 acres of botanical gardens, mystical beaches and undeveloped forests on the Monterey Peninsula.

It was touted as California's largest resort complex and one of the world's pre-eminent luxury destinations for travelers and sports aficionados.

The fabled resort, whose original property covered portions of what is now the city of Monterey and all of Pebble Beach, drew Hollywood legends Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich, President Theodore Roosevelt, aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, and novelist and adventurer Ernest Hemingway.

The hotel, built in 1880 by railroad pioneer Charles Crocker as a wooden Gothic structure, was destroyed by fire in 1887. It was rebuilt, but it would burn again in 1924. Its latest incarnation in Spanish Revival architecture still stands - as Herrmann Hall of the Naval Postgraduate School.

The old Hotel Del Monte was the beginning and endpoint of a wondrous 17-mile driving and horseback riding excursion that passed Cannery Row and Pacific Grove before winding through deep groves of Monterey pines and cypress trees in the fog-ridden Del Monte Forest, and then along the rocky shoreline in sight of shallow tide pools to the exclusive Hotel Del Monte Park Reservation - the precursor to the Pebble Beach Lodge.

By 1915, the hotel had fallen on lean times. Samuel F.B. Morse, a former All-American quarterback for Yale University, was hired by the Pacific Improvement Co. to liquidate the hotel and other railroad properties.

Instead, he created an unrivaled sports empire with facilities for equestrians, fishermen, yachtsmen, golfers and race car drivers, along with tennis courts, polo fields and swimming pools.

Morse built the world-renowned Pebble Beach Golf Course and bought the Hotel Del Monte himself, with the backing of San Francisco banker Herbert Fleishhacker. He subsequently built more golf courses including Cypress Point and the Monterey Peninsula Country Club.

The Hotel Del Monte reached its zenith during the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties, and its popularity continued into the 1940s. Frequent guests included Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Ginger Rogers.

In the late 1940s, Morse sold the once-famous hotel and more than 600 acres of surrounding land to the U.S. Navy and focused his business operations on Pebble Beach, where he further developed the Del Monte Forest into an enclave of luxury homes.

The Naval Postgraduate School, formerly in Annapolis, Md., moved in 1952 to the old Hotel Del Monte site.

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This article appeared on page A - 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle