News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Camilla Cohee, Santa Barbara News-Press, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 24, 2004 - A multimillion-dollar renovation is under way at the San Ysidro Ranch and owner Ty Warner is seeing to the details as if in his own home.
The Beanie Babies creator, who purchased the 540-acre Montecito ranch and hotel in 2000, is hand-selecting oriental rugs, antiques and artwork, arranging knickknacks on bookshelves, even advising on color schemes and where towel racks hang in the bathrooms.
Considering that all 38 cottages are distinctly decorated, that's no small task.
So far, three of the romantic retreat's white clapboard cottages have been upgraded, at a cost of about $500,000 apiece.
Rates are increasing with the improvements.
"You're not just renting a room when you come here," said Marc Appleton, hired by Mr. Warner to lead the architect and design team on the renovation. "You're renting the experience, the privacy, the romance, the seclusion, the history, all in your own little house."
Mr. Warner's vision is to return the ranch to its golden era, which emerged in the 1930s under owners Ronald Coleman, the Hollywood actor, and hotelier Alvin Carl Weingand. Both were part owners of the famed Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood when they purchased the San Ysidro Ranch in 1935.
Through the late '30s, '40s and '50s, their links to Hollywood put the ranch on the map as a discreet getaway for luminaries like Gloria Swanson, Jean Harlow, John Huston (who finished his script for the film "The African Queen" during his three-month stay), Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Aldous Huxley and countless dignitaries and political heavyweights, including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson and former Gov. Jerry Brown.
Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier married there in 1940; John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned there for a week in 1953.
These days, the ranch is used by locals as much as it is by Hollywood types looking for a escape from L.A.
Julia Roberts and new hubby Danny Moder honeymooned there last summer. In December, Gwyneth Paltrow wed beau Chris Martin in a secret wedding on the grounds. And Oprah Winfrey reportedly is putting up some of her guests there for her 50th birthday bash later this month.
Guests today are already enjoying the recently renovated two-bedroom Gardenia Cottage, which goes for $1,495 per night, up from $899. The cottage blends modernities like heated bathroom floors and plasma TVs with the rustic touches, like an antique salvaged barn-wood door and wood-burning masonry fireplace.
Another upgraded suite, the Jasmine Cottage, now costs $795 a night, up from $599.
Along with all the expected amenities of a fine resort -- Frette linens with down bedding, wood-burning fireplace, high-speed Internet connections -- this cottage is the only one, so far, that offers a glass-enclosed indoor-outdoor shower that leads to a tiled hot tub and deck with views to a gurgling San Ysidro Creek.
Talk about setting the mood.
The ranch's tradition of customizing the stay of each guest, and other special touches -- like the side-by-side massage offered to guests and their pets and exclusive in-room doggie menu (mini-New York steak and salmon are favorites) -- will remain in place.
"On the outside, it's unpretentious and rustic, but on the inside, the ranch caters to a really well-heeled clientele, and they don't want to rough it, they want to enjoy it and be catered to," said Mr. Appleton.
To be carried out in phases over the next two to three years, the project includes upgrades to the kitchen and restaurant, new electrical and plumbing throughout, the creation of private courtyard gardens for each cottage, and improvements to the ranch's breathtaking gardens, filled year-round with eucalyptus and citrus trees, rose-covered trellises and vibrant bougainvillea.
Also in line are restorations of many of the cottage exteriors, bringing them all in line with the California ranch cottage style found there in the late 1800s, when the ranch was a booming citrus farm with its own packing house -- now the Stonehouse Restaurant and Plow and Angel Bistro, where Mr. Warner is said to enjoy rib night on Mondays.
Mr. Warner wouldn't have had a legendary San Ysidro Ranch to buy had it not been for John Harleigh Johnston, who in 1892 followed a hunch and ordered that several cottages be added to his land. Following an advertisement in the Santa Barbara Morning Press, the first paying customers showed up in 1893.
But the ranch's reputation for hospitality dates back much further: It served as a way station for Franciscan monks throughout the 1700s.
Its 1825 adobe, deemed a county historic landmark, still stands on the property, serving as a private dining room.
Just up the way from the adobe, past the wedding gardens where Ms. Leigh and Mr. Olivier exchanged vows in a moonlit ceremony 60 years ago, a rock-rimmed cottage awaits amendments as well.
Inside, cans of paint are strewn about and furniture is shifted out of the way for workers.
But even in its state of disarray, the private cottage where JFK and Jackie honeymooned oozes romance and elegance. A stay at the suite includes JFK's favorite dessert delivered to the room. It goes for $1,875 per night, and that's before the renovation.
But if you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it.
"The Kennedy cottage will be in our last phase of renovations. With that one in particular, considering its history, we're going to pay very close attention, be very sensitive to maintaining a lot of the old familiar furnishings," said Mr. Appleton, who splits his time between his architectural firms in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica.
He said it was clear that the ranch has survived on its reputation for quite some time, because the rooms themselves were in need of repair. Some cottages added over the years look more like "Orange County condominiums than California ranch" he said. In other cases, "the plumbing is shot" and "termites are holding up the place."
There's a musty odor in some of the older cottages. The renovated ones smell more like day spas.
"The ranch has had its good days and not-so-good days, depending on fluctuations in ownership. Some owners sold off ranch property, let the rooms go," Mr. Appleton said. "We've gotten to a point where all of the cottages are really in need of upgrading and improvements that will hopefully bring it back to the understated, rustic elegance that Mr. Warner and we appreciate about the ranch."
Mr. Warner, who also owns the Four Seasons Biltmore and Coral Casino, purchased the ranch from Claude Rouas and Bob Harmon for an undisclosed price, but according to industry insiders, the deal exceeded $100 million.
County permits for the renovation project were already granted under the previous owners, Mr. Appleton said. Each phase of the process, the next of which is set to begin in April, is presented to the Montecito Board of Architectural Review for approval.
Mr. Warner is also conducting a national search to hire a new manager. After 10 years as manager, Janis Clapoff left two years ago to run the Simpson House Inn. Michelle Taylor managed the ranch most recently, leaving in late 2003 to pursue other opportunities.
On a recent chilly night, a stroll around the blossom-laden gardens ended in the only place it could -- the warm, and packed, Plow and Angel Bistro, where former owner Johnston is said to have perfected the art of making wine from oranges more than 100 years ago.
The bar honors the namesake of the ranch, San Ysidro, the patron saint of farmers, who is always shown surrounded by a plow, oxen and an angel.
Mr. Warner said he wanted to honor the long and storied history of the ranch, which he describes as "natural and effortless.
"Our focus was on simplicity, charm, comfort and a harmonious connection with the outdoors."
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(c) 2004, Santa Barbara News-Press, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.