Al Nicholson: A Mind Behind the Magic at the Disneyland Hotel
When Al Nicholson—a WWII vet turned architect— and his partner designed the Marie Antoinette apartment on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, he had no idea that the building would forever change not just his career, but his family as well.
When the Disneyland Hotel was built in 1955, all of the buildings were two stories and wooden framed. It wasn’t until the hotel’s owner, Jack Wrather, saw the multi-story, steel-framed Marie Antoinette and hired its architects, Webber and Nicholson, that this changed. “He contacted myself and Webber, and we went ahead and discussed what should be done, and we followed it through for 25 years,” said Nicholson in an interview with élite Magazine. While all of the hotel buildings designed by the original architects, Pereira and Luckman, have since been demolished, this tower (now known as the Sierra Tower) is still in use today.
Over the next two and a half decades, Webber and Nicholson designed the interior and exterior of the Disneyland Hotel’s first tower, but worked on a number of projects for the hotel as well, such as the hotel marina, which has since been removed, and the hotel’s Monorail Station. But they also paved the way for future additions. For example, when designing the path between the Disneyland Hotel and the Monorail Station, Nicholson ensured that the space between the two buildings be left open so that guests could admire the orange trees on their way to Disneyland. This space later became the path from the hotel to Downtown Disney.
However, Nicholson’s connection to Disneyland goes beyond that of the hotel. He was also a member of Club 33 for roughly twenty years. Club 33, founded in 1967, is a famously exclusive dining club located in New Orleans Square, Disneyland. Nicholson had a number of meals at the club before ending his membership due to rising prices, with one particularly life-changing dinner standing above the rest.
One night, while having dinner at Club 33, a good friend, a practicing physician, and Nicholson were discussing family values and their opinions of the matter. At this dinner Nicholson mentioned how he wanted to start a family. This would be a life-changing conversation for Nicholson soon after. The doctor called Nicholson a month later and mentioned that he had a patient who was considering giving her child up for adoption. A few months later he welcomed home a beautiful baby boy. His son, Mark T. Nicholson, has since married and has adopted a child of his own.
“Eventually I sold my interest to Webber after 25 years, because I was interested in doing something in Hawaii and Aspen,” said Nicholson, regarding his departure from the hotel. But while Nicholson stopped working for the hotel in order to pursue other projects, he still considers it the greatest job of his life. And while his contributions to the Disneyland Hotel may not be as well-known as that of Disney and Wrather, they nonetheless inspire wonder and excitement in guests even decades later.
Al Nicholson has since been honored by Disney for his contributions and spends most of his days in the Santa Clarita Valley, his second home, with his grandchildren.