August 20th, 1922, Opening day
The Rio Hondo Hotel opened on August 20th, 1922 to much fanfare. Luxurious in extreme, marble floors lapped up to roja-paneled walls; brass fittings shown from every door and staircase; and the stained-glass skylight over the main ballroom was said to be the finest in California. On the western shore of the newly created Lake San Gabriel, its owner - Cyrus Gates - hoped to turn the newly built hotel into the premiere upper-class vacationing spot of Los Angeles county.
Unfortunately, this was not to be.
Lake San Gabriel proved to be highly erratic in volume, its surface area varying as much as 500% between wet and dry years. Now, the Rio Hondo was by one of the deepest parts of the lake, with the steepest shoreline, so the water rarely moved more than a few meters forward or back, but during the dry season, literally hundreds of acres of insect ridden mud-flats could come into being around most of the rest
of the lake's shores. And at the height of summer, the combination of insects, the smell of rotting plants and fish, and the simple fact that - as scenery - mud-flats just do not make the grade, left the hotel without patrons for up to three months at a time.
Still, the hotel limped on into the thirties, surviving mostly on the winter tourists from the United States and New England, until the Great Quake of 1933 on March 10th
. In spite of its high-varnish appearance, beneath the roja-paneling, the hotel had originally been built "on the cheap," with the thought that the expected future revenues would allow for rebuilding and reinforcement. Unfortunately, as the revenues had barely been maintained at a subsistance level, such reconstruction had never been done. During the quake, the great central tower literally dropped down within the hotel to the lobby, killing seven guests and three of the front desk personel. The hotel was evacuated and - ten weeks later - condemed by the county engineers.
The loss broke Cyrus Gates' heart. In early June of 1933, he suffered a major heart-attack and died before reaching the doctor.
Over the years, the interior was stripped of every thing even vaguely valuable. The shell of the abandoned hotel remained a dangerous eyesore until the flood of 1949, when over the course of three days the rising waters of Lake San Gabriel, trapped behind the jammed sluce-gates at the dam, slowly washed away the foundations of the main building. On that third day, the remains of the hotel collapsed in on themselves. Early the next year, the county finally stirred itself enough to haul the pile of rotting wood and plaster away.
Now, only the small "Conference Building" (at the left of the main hotel in the picture) remained. In 1959, it was bought (for two dollars!) by the Los Angeles County Trainspotters Club, which over the years has restored it and converted it into their clubhouse. While private property, tours of this last remnent of what tried to be one of Los Angeles' "Great Hotels" are given on every third Sunday of the month.