You haven’t truly seen Coronado until you’ve viewed it through the eyes of Nancy Cobb.
She’s the historian and preservationist who leads informative, chatty and downright entertaining tours through this idyllic island-in-the-bay three times a week. With the flair of an E! documentary, the longtime Coronado resident tells intriguing and humorous tales of the island’s century-plus of history during 90-minute walking tours.
Cobb’s monologues take you from Coronado’s beginnings in the mid-1880s, when it was nothing but a scrubbed-covered haven for Jack rabbits, to present-day. She leads groups through neighborhoods which, in many cases, consist of modest, manicured homes sitting on million-dollar lots with billion-dollar views of San Diego’s skyline.
Oh, there are mansions on the beach, too – including that of the late Larry Lawrence, former owner of the Hotel Del Coronado and friend of President Bill Clinton who was extracted from his Arlington Cemetery grave because he had lied about being in the military. Lawrence’s former abode, a 20,000-square-foot Tudor brick edifice that he shared with his third of five wives, is the island’s largest.
Cobb also points out Coronado’s smallest homes — a matched pair of 500-square-foot bungalows on C Street — as well as the home of “Wizard of Oz” author Frank Baum and various residences that once belonged to members of the John D. Spreckels family. Spreckels saved the Hotel Del from bankruptcy in the early 1890s by infusing massive amounts of money, then finally bought it outright. The wealthy businessman owned just about every means of power generation, transportation and communication in the city of San Diego and Coronado.
Something immediately notable in Coronado is the variety of residential architecture. With such rich diversity, “everyone who visits can find a house that looks like the one they grew up in,” Cobb said. “Because the houses are so different, some people think that there is an ordinance that keeps you from building a house like the one next door, but that’s not true.”
While on my own after the tour, I spied a unique, 3,200-square-foot, historic Hawaiian bungalow on First Street, just across the street from bay-view homes. It has a spacious side yard, tropical landscaping, a solid bamboo fence and a price tag of about $3.1 million.
But back to the tour …
What had our group thoroughly intrigued was the soap opera that surrounds Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, the woman who changed history with the pursuit of her third husband, King Edward VIII of England. After they married, the king was forced to abdicate because the royal family deemed it unseemly to marry a twice-divorced woman.
The Coronado connection?
The then-prince and Simpson met in Coronado — or she at least got her first glance of him at a reception she attended with her first husband, an alcoholic Navy pilot. The story of the king who gave up his crown for the woman he loved includes a web of failed marriages, mistresses, wealth and lost wealth, trips abroad and family squabbles. Cobb dished out all the gossipy morsels with much relish and our group ate them up.
Coronado’s historian extraordinaire first came to the town when her father was stationed there.
“My dad was in the Navy and we had lived just about everywhere in the country except the middle,” she said.
She met her husband, who also was in the Navy, in Coronado, and when it came time to find a permanent home, “what better place to live?”
Cobb and another Coronado woman founded Coronado Touring in 1980. They wanted a job they could balance with the responsibilities of small children and both were involved with the Coronado Historical Association.
“We got a business license for $25 and that was it,” said Cobb, a frequent visitor to Oceanside where her mother has lived for 25 years.
While the tour’s route remains the same, the monologue continuously evolves because the people — and hence the stories — change.
“I come up with new gossip every year,” Cobb said. “I go out into the neighborhoods and see what’s going on.”
Cobb leads 90-minute walking tours at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, which depart from the Glorietta Bay Inn, across the street from the Hotel Del Coronado. Special arrangements can be made for each group. For reservations, call (619) 435-5993.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.