“Glory Days at the Lafayette Hotel” by Alice Lowe

I arrived for my first day of work at the once luxurious but now derelict Lafayette Hotel in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood. The building echoed lifelessness as I walked down the empty hallway. What an odd location for a football team to have its offices—was I in the right place?

I was a “Kelly Girl,” having joined the ranks of the temporary staffing agency (now Kelly Services) in 1968. I’d been contentedly housebound for several months with my newborn daughter, but now I wanted and needed to get back into the workforce. Short-term stints would bridge the gap until I was ready for a fulltime position. My assignments were lackluster—a bank, a mortgage company, a defense contractor—so when they offered me a three-month gig with the San Diego Chargers, I jumped at the opportunity.

Bob Hope was the first guest at the Lafayette Hotel, called Imig Manor when it opened in 1946. A three-story red brick building in colonial revival style, with tall columns and an imposing façade, it comprised 250 guest rooms and apartments, four restaurants, a nightclub, a hair salon, a massage parlor, and other retailers. The pool was designed by Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller; Florence Chadwick trained there to swim the English Channel in 1950. Guest suites were named for Hollywood film stars, many of whom flocked to the fashionable getaway in its ‘40s and ‘50s heydays. Hotelier Barron Hilton bought it from the original owner in 1955, and in 1959 he acquired the football franchise that became the Los Angeles Chargers. Two years later he moved the team to San Diego and housed the administrative offices at his Lafayette Hotel, which had fallen out of vogue and ceased operations.

I was to work for the Chargers’ business manager, Irv, while his secretary was on medical leave. In the strange configuration of the club’s headquarters, his and my offices were on the ground floor, just off the now-deserted lobby. Everyone else—finance, marketing and ticket staff, coaches and scouts—was on the second floor, stretched out along a hallway on the other side of the building. There must have been an elevator, but I can’t recall where it was or ever using it. What I remember are the countless daily trips, across the lobby, up and down the stairs.

When Irv’s secretary returned, I accepted a full-time position—and a move upstairs—as clerical support for the coaches. They were an easygoing bunch and low maintenance, spending much of their time at the new San Diego Stadium where the team trained and played. I wasn’t a football fan (though I soon became one), so meeting the players wasn’t the thrill it might have been, but I knew I had a cushy job. And game tickets. The Chargers were still a winning team, coming off a league championship several years earlier. Their record would go downhill for the remainder of my tenure.

The staff was growing, and our allotted space was stretched to capacity. We didn’t have access to all the empty—and haunted, according to rumors—quarters throughout the building, so I was assigned to a small office with Bobby, who’d worked his way up from water boy and would become the next business manager, and Emil, a former player who looked like a Greek god, both, like me, in newly created positions. The hallways and other offices had worn and nondescript (probably beige) carpeting, but ours was a vivid grass green, like the artificial turf in the Houston Astrodome. Our own little garden of Eden. One day Emil came in and turned his freshly rinsed coffee cup upside down, shaking the remaining drops over the green tufts. “I’m watering the carpet,” he said, and from that day on, the three of us made sure our lawn didn’t get dry and brown.

The hotel still housed a popular steak house, the Red Fox, and the Mississippi Room, a ballroom rented out for special events, including as the film set in “Top Gun” where Tom Cruise sings “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” On Fridays at 5 p.m. we trooped down to the Red Fox for happy hour, occupying one or more booths, staying for one drink or one too many. A whiskey-and-cigarette-voiced alto played and sang at the piano bar, welcoming our requests and our tips. We gossiped and unwound, talked shop and talked trash. It wasn’t called networking then, but this was where I bonded with my co-workers. I excused my late and often tipsy homecomings by telling my spouse that it was a necessary part of the job.

I’d been there just six months when, at the end of the football season, we packed up and moved to our spacious new offices at the stadium (again strung out on a long hallway), where I stayed for another four years. The hotel property underwent restoration and resurrection in 2011 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows, it enjoyed renewed popularity, and the Red Fox Room once again became a local gathering place, though we had transferred our Friday-at-five festivities to the more-convenient Stadium Club.

Over the years I’ve passed the hotel frequently with barely a glance, but when I heard recently that it was closing again, awaiting yet another renovation by another new owner, I darted over to take a closer look and to revive my memories. It was already fenced off, a banner hanging from the portico proclaiming a rebirth in June 2023. I walked around the perimeter and drank in the still-familiar ambiance. The news coverage displays its former glory days—its chic clientele, bejeweled and fur-draped, descending from dark swanky sedans at the entrance—but it was its darker times, when it was a dismal shell, that provided such a rich chapter of my history.

Alice Lowe writes about life, language, food and family. Her essays have been widely published, including this past year in Big City Lit, Borrowed Solace, FEED, Drunk Monkeys, Midway, Eat Darling Eat, Eclectica, Fauxmoir, Idle Ink, Superpresent, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. This is her second appearance in Change Seven. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice lives in San Diego, California, and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.