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Inside the Icon: El Cortez

Inside the beacon building above downtown San Diego

By Christina Orlovsky Page

Visit the Icon

702 Ash Street
Cortez Hill

Great Heights

The El Cortez was completed on Thanksgiving Day in 1927. It was the tallest building in San Diego.

Legendary Ground  

Designed by Walker and Eisen Architects in Spanish Renaissance style, the $2 million project was built atop the site of Ulysses S. Grant, Jr.’s former home.

Room for Rent

In 1928, El Cortez had 85 apartment suites, available to rent for $100 per month, and 32 hotel rooms for $5 per day.

Name in Neon  

Flashing atop Cortez Hill, the El Cortez neon sign was installed in 1937 to serve as a beacon for the U.S. Navy.

Social Status

The Sky Room was added to the 15th floor in 1940 and quickly became a hot spot on the San Diego social scene.

Military Ties  

During World War II the 12th floor was used as an anti-aircraft battery and radar station.

Elevator Speech

Hotel entrepreneur Harry Handlery purchased El Cortez in 1951 and made numerous additions to attract more clientele. In 1956, he added the Starlight Express, the second exterior glass elevator in the world and the first in the U.S., transporting guests to the Starlight Room for cocktails above the city.

A Brief Encounter with Evangelism  

In 1978, its allure faded, Handlery’s son Paul sold El Cortez for $7.5 million to Rev. Morris Cerullo, the head of World Evangelism Inc. Most of the hotel’s meeting and social spaces were gutted to accomodate ministry and evangelical training until 1981, when Cerullo sold it for more than $20 million.

Landmark Status

El Cortez was named a historic site by the City of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board in 1990, saving it from demolition. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.


El Cortez was purchased by the historic preservation firm J. Peter Block Companies in 1997 and restored to residential status. A grand reopening gala was held in June 2000.

Condos of Today

Today, El Cortez is home to 85 condo units and 11 commercial units. As of December, a 670-square-foot one-bedroom/one-bath condo was listed for sale at $299,000; a 2,000-square-foot two-bedroom/two-bath condo was more than double that, at $669,000. HOA fees top $620 per month.

Inside the Icon: El Cortez

Photo by Corey Miller

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