Jack Dempsey's Ensenada Casino
By Greg Niemann
When I was a kid, I was in awe over the large white castle on the
beach, a hybrid of Spanish and Moorish style with tile roof and wondrous
gardens. It was a strong focal point in Ensenada, dwarfing all other
buildings in the post-World War II Baja village by the sea. Like most
imposing structures, it was filled with history and intrigue.
Our family used to camp down the beach a ways and I tried to
imagine what the fancy hotel might look like inside. It had to be for rich
people, as I remember hearing that Hollywood stars used to frequent the
place. I’d look for movie stars when we’d drive by, but I didn’t see any.
Known today simply as the Riviera, the Hotel Playa Ensenada (as it
was known when it opened on October 31, 1930) was an elegant hotel with
a gambling casino said to rival that of Monte Carlo’s. To help attract the
Hollywood and international set to Ensenada, world famous heavyweight
boxer Jack Dempsey, one of the most recognizable names on the planet at
the time, became part of the developing corporation. A huge villa was built
for Dempsey, just to the south of the main building. It is rumored that
gangster Al Capone was one of the corporation’s silent partners.
Work had begun on the Riviera in 1928, two years before the
opening, by James L. Miller, contractor. The elaborate building’s architect
was Gordon E. Mayer. And the inspiration was purely Hearst Castle, a
similar-looking structure built earlier about 400 or so miles up the coast.
Big Names In Ensenada
During the early-1930s, the hotel flourished, and not only did the
Hollywood crowd come but royalty as well. The opening act in the hotel
ballroom was Bing Crosby who was accompanied by the Xavier Cugat
A local Latin singer named Margarita Cansino, who would later
find fame in Hollywood as Rita Hayworth, sang and danced at the Hotel
Playa Ensenada. She and her father also entertained the tourists at the Agua
Caliente Casino in Tijuana.
When prohibition was finally repealed in the United States in 1933,
attendance started waning as fun-seekers no longer had to leave the country.
But the final death knell came five years after that when Mexico outlawed
casino gambling in 1938. The place closed down.
The beautiful building sat vacant until 1941 when it was used by the
military. In 1942 a newly-renamed Riviera del Pacifico reopened under the
management of Jerome Hutley and Marjorie (Margarita) Plant.
While the invention of the Margarita cocktail is claimed to have been
invented in several places and at different times, one claim is that it was
invented at the Hotel Riviera del Pacífico and named for owner Margarita
Plant. ¿Quien sabe?
What had been one of the most prestigious and luxurious hotels in
Baja California finally fell victim to the times, a white elephant that had lost
its major attractions and never really reached its potential. The hotel closed
its doors in 1948.
While there were several openings and closings under the name
Riviera del Pacifico, the huge building eventually fell into disrepair. By the
1960s even squatters had occupied the formerly opulent Dempsey Villa, by
then windowless, doorless and stripped of furnishings.
During the 1960s it floundered, and by the ‘70s a group that wanted to
destroy the building had organized and if nothing else, caught people’s
attention. By then another street had been added in front, essentially moving
the Riviera off the waterfront. The Mexican federal government stepped in
and began restoration in 1978. A couple of years later the state of Baja
California took over and completed the restoration.
The Riviera Cultural Center of Ensenada
For the past 34 years the Riviera has become the Centro Social,
Civico y Cultural Riviera de Ensenada, in short the Riviera Cultural Center
of Ensenada. The Cultural Center is part of the Instituto de Cultura de Baja
California (ICBC), and Ensenada’s Centro Estatal de Las Artes (CEARTE).
And it is used regularly by the people of Ensenada, dispensing
knowledge and art and pride to a degree much more beneficial to a society
than one-armed bandits fleecing tourists from another country.
Once while attending a Seafood Competition among Ensenada
restaurants, I wandered the ornate hallways, replete with inlaid tile,
gorgeous chandeliers, painted ceilings and beautiful murals. The three
courtyards with potted geraniums and bright billowing bougainvilleas are
refreshing and restful. The compact timeless Bar Andaluz off one courtyard
is a hideaway respite.
Nowadays the cruise ships that make Ensenada a port of call offer
excursions to the Riviera, and tourists wander the courtyards looking for
bargains among the displays of local artists and vendors.
One wing of the Riviera has a library with text books, history books
and novels. People studying or poring over old books are seemingly always
in evidence, and late one evening I noted a chess club had commandeered
the library for some head-to-head matches.
Before it moved to a different location in the former carcel (jail)
downtown, a museum (el Museo de Historia de Ensenada), which features
the history of Baja California and some of the finest photographs of the Baja
missions I’ve ever seen was upstairs.
A Convention Center by the Sea
The greater part of the building is reserved for weddings, parties,
classes, and exhibits. The Riviera has been home to both national and
international conventions, bringing added importance to the former fishing
There’s always some type of event happening at the Riviera: concerts,
festivals, benefits, dancing and music shows. Early in 2014 the center’s
Galeria de la Ciudad featured 30 works of the state’s most talented 5-12 year
olds. At the same time the Artani School of Drawing and Painting offered
an exhibit of fine art in the International Art Gallery at the north end of the
Much of the center is used for various classes. There are classes for
kids, and classes for adults on how to raise kids.
Budding ballet stars and artists and folkloric dancers come and go all
afternoon. Cars pull up to the side entrance to drop off their children in tutus
and regional dance costumes.
During this past summer there were photographic exhibits and a
movie festival. In September I noticed Tango classes were offered, creating
a South American tempo in Baja’s port city. Later that month, on September
28, 2014 the 14th annual International Jazz Festival was held in the Riviera plaza.
Suffice it to say, there’s an ongoing cultural tapestry being painted
these days at the Riviera. It's importance as an architectural icon and cultural renaissance for a
growing city has also been noticed by others. In January 2014 the Riviera
Cultural Center of Ensenada was named a World Heritage Site of the State
of Baja California.
It turned out my dreams about the building for rich people were
accurate. But the richness is far more substantial than the surface glitter for
which it was originally intended. It took a while, but the Riviera has realized
its dreams of wealth with its vast richness of culture and art and history.