Graceful Aging

Jan Maguire Hotels & Resorts, Real Estate 0 Comments

Oh, if the old adobe walls of La Quinta Resort & Club could talk. Imagine the amazing stories they would tell. Perhaps an account of what Prohibition was really like, when guests in the spacious Santa Rosa Lounge discreetly mixed the contents of silver flasks with freshly squeezed orange juice, inadvertently creating a cocktail called the Orange Blossom. Or the details of a bawdy joke shared poolside by screen idols Errol Flynn and Clark Cable during the resort’s early Hollywood heydays. Or even a snippet of conversation between famously reclusive Greta Garbo and her on-screen/off-screen leading man, John Gilbert, who often vacationed there together.

If any resort could be called charismatic, it’s La Quinta Resort & Club. Whether as a celebrity getaway, dream honeymoon or vacation spot, or corporate meeting destination, the pristine resort with original 1926 Spanish-style casitas and 45 acres of lush, citrus tree-covered grounds continues to draw guests to its idyllic setting.

“There is a magic here — an intangible that’s really hard to put your finger on, says Garret Kriske, director of operations, adding that the resort’s lore and history contribute greatly to its allure. Its timeless appeal binds generations.

An elderly gentleman stopped by the front desk with a young boy and told Kriske that he had visited the hotel with his grandfather 50 years ago and had brought his own grandson to the resort for a visit. “That stay was meaningful to him — more than just a hotel stay,” Kriske says.

La Quinta Resort’s rich history is laden with colorful characters and stories. In the early 1920s, Walter H. Morgan, son of a wealthy San Francisco businessman, purchased 1,400 acres to create what he envisioned as a private, self-contained getaway. In 1925, he retained Pasadena architect Gordon Kaufman to design six adobe casitas, an office, lobby, and dining room. Total construction cost — which included more than 100,000 handcrafted adobe bricks, 60,000 roof tiles, and 5,000 floor tiles — ran about $150,000.

La Quinta Hotel opened in December 1926. Inaugural guests included prominent San Francisco banker William Crocker and President Taft’s son, Charles. Soon thereafter, Morgan set about to strategically promote the resort as a hideaway for the Hollywood elite. 

Thus began the hotel’s reign as a pampering refuge for film stars and business tycoons, among them Bette Davis, William Powell, Joan Crawford, Joel McCrea, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Montgomery, Ginger Rogers (who wed French actor Jacques Bergerac at the hotel in 1953), Richard Widmark, the DuPonts, and the Vanderbilts. The hotel was a favorite retreat for noted film director Frank Capra, who wrote many of his award-winning classics — including the 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town — from the sanctum of his private casita.

Diversions waned with the advent of World War II and rationing; in 1942, the hotel shuttered its doors for the duration of the war and the United States Army appropriated the property. According to a written historical account, members of Gen. George Patton’s staff reportedly used some of the La Quinta Hotel facilities.

Celebrities and sports stars still are drawn to the resort’s low-key atmosphere, hacienda-inspired accommodations, and first-rate service. Madonna, Britney Spears, Diane Keaton, Oprah Winfrey, Andre Agassi, and Kevin Costner are only a handful of the superstars who frequent the premises. “Here they’re not bombarded with autograph seekers,” says concierge Buck Edwards, who conducts history tours of the resort. “It’s just a place that’s always had a history of that relaxed privacy and atmosphere.”

On occasion, less-secret celebrity encounters happen — such as the time two teens wanted to play basketball on the resort court and half the court was already occupied by Michael Jordan and Joe Montana. The teens were “flabbergasted” when Jordan and Montana invited them to play two-on-two, Edwards says. “They even waited until the kids got a camera so they could take pictures with them.”

After the war ended, the hotel re-bounded to become a prime vacation retreat. From the 1940s through the 1970s, the hotel’s ownership passed through the hands of Chicagoans John Balaban and Leonard Ettleson, as well as Landmark Land Co. Each proprietor shaped the hotel’s growth, yet strived to retain its personality. Balaban’s connections re-newed Hollywood interest in the property; Ettleson and a group of his associates revitalized the hotel’s golf scene, developing La Quinta Country Club; and Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser Jr. of Landmark Land Co. were instrumental in creating the La Quinta Hotel Golf Club, comprising three 18-hole championship courses.

Throughout the 1980s and beyond, the resort added rooms and suites, honoring Morgan’s tradition of naming casitas for saints. Other expansions included the 17,000-square-foot Salôn de Fiesta Ballroom, two restaurants, an outdoor plaza lined with retail boutiques, and a 23,000-square-foot spa.

In 2005, the resort introduced Music Suites, featuring preloaded iPods and docking stations, and recently invested $1.5 million in new beds and bedding for all the resort casitas and suites. The latest upgrades include new carpeting, as well as 42-inch and 32-inch, flat-panel, high-definition televisions in the guest rooms.

Now part of Hilton Hospitality Inc.’s luxury Waldorf-Astoria Collection, La Quinta Resort & Club encompasses 800 guest rooms, 23 tennis courts, 41 pools, 53 hot tubs, seven restaurants (including the newly opened Twenty 6), and 90 holes of championship golf on five world-class courses designed by PGA legends Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, and Greg Norman.

One stop on the resort history tour is a confluence of rooms built in 1926, 1988, and 2000. “It’s great to show people that there is little difference between these three areas,” Kriske says. “A great amount of time, effort, and thought is put into making sure that we maintain a sense of place.”

At a Glance

Dec. 29, 1926
Walter H. Morgan, Desert Development Co., opens La Quinta Hotel on 1,400 acres.

Jan. 28, 1927
125 guests attend the hotel’s grand opening dinner-dance.

February 1927
A $50,000, nine-hole golf course designed by Norman Beth opens at the resort, with greens fees of $1 per day.

1920s and beyond
Hollywood legends such as Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Bette Davis, William Powell, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Montgomery, Shirley Temple, and Joel McCrea enjoy sunning, swimming, and socializing at the secluded resort.

Visionary owner Walter H. Morgan dies. Attorney and La Quinta Hotel investor B.J. Barder takes ownership.

Movie director Frank Capra and co-writer Robert Riskin pen It Happened One Night at the hotel. The screwball romantic comedy wins five Oscars in all of its nominated categories, including Best Picture. Thereafter, Capra returned frequently to his “Shangri-La for scriptwriting.” Other Capra classics include Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Capra and his wife, Lucille, lived at the resort from 1981 to 1987 in rooms 136, 137, and 138.

The hotel adds six tennis courts and a pro shop. The first tennis pro is Fred Renker.

Gas and tire rationing contribute to the hotel’s closure in the spring of 1942 for the duration of World War II. Gen. George Patton and his troops are housed at the resort and train nearby.

Chicago hotelier Arnold S. Kirkeby purchases the hotel, selling it three months later to John Balaban. After the war, the Hollywood elite return, and a private airstrip is installed on the grounds.

February 1953
Actress and dancer Ginger Rogers marries French lawyer-turned-actor Jacques Bergerac in front of the resort’s waterfall.

Late 1950s
Balaban sells the hotel to Chicago attorney Leonard Ettleson, who plays a pivotal role in the golf course expansion. The entire hotel is painted pink, because Ettleson’s wife likes the color.

Ettleson and his associates develop La Quinta Country Club golf course. Designed by Frank and Lawrence Hughes, the course is a hit with golfers and celebrities, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

La Quinta Country Club becomes a participant course in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

Ettleson contracts with golf professionals Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser Jr. of Landmark Land Co. to advise him on the creation of a golf course behind the hotel.

Landmark Land Co. purchases the hotel from Ettleson.

La Quinta Hotel Golf Club opens with two 18-hole championship courses designed by Pete Dye: La Quinta Resort Mountain Course and La Quinta Resort Dunes Course.

The hotel expands, adding 193 rooms and suites for a total of 269 rooms on 26 acres.

The hotel’s namesake, the City of La Quinta, is incorporated. It is the second American city to be named after a resort (Beverly Hills was the first).

PGA West opens Pete Dye’s TPC Stadium Golf Course, followed by the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course. Both are available for La Quinta Resort & Club guests.

The hotel begins a $45 million expansion that results in a total of 640 casitas, a 17,000-square-foot ballroom, two new restaurants (Morgan’s and Adobe Grill), and a central plaza.

La Quinta Hotel Golf & Tennis Club is renamed La Quinta Resort & Club.

The resort adds Spa La Quinta, a 23,000-square-foot retreat with 37 treatment rooms. The Spa Villas are also built, bringing the total number of guest rooms to approximately 800.

The addition of another PGA West course — the Greg Norman Course — gives La Quinta Resort & Club guests 90 holes of championship play.

Now celebrating its 80th birthday, the legendary La Quinta Resort & Club is considered one of the top resorts in the world.

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