The Value of Retaining Historical Character in Hotel Design
By Scott Lee President & Principal, SB Architects | March 15, 2020
Swiss architect Peter Zumthor said, "If you have an awareness of history, it comes to be part of the now," a sentiment that hints at a gentle rather than heavy-handed approach in retaining historical character in design. Vestiges of the past have a way of emerging through the emotional terrain of a site, city or surrounding landscape. It's our job to dispel the ego and discover, through studying the history, culture and community and surroundings of a locale, an authentic sense of place, and to stay honest to this sensibility throughout the design process.
Hotel design that captures the beneath-the-surface story and spirit of a place can both inspire an awareness of history and elicit emotionally resonant experiences for guests, placing them in the present and connecting them to the resilience of a site and its inimitable character.
Why is this important? Discerning travelers seek inspiration beyond overtly themed hotel experiences and can quickly sense misguided efforts to replicate a historic style or mimic the past; instead, they desire engagement in spaces shaped by a site's nuanced qualities and designed in harmony with its surroundings.
Over the last 20 years, hyper-localized design has become our sweet spot; we design new builds, as well as renovate and refresh existing hotels, without disrupting the local fabric of a community and the historical legacy of the place. An authentic connection to the locale instills a deeper appreciation and sense of curiosity in hotel guests, creates a long-lasting impression and contributes a sense of timelessness to the property.
Setting Sets the Tone
Tucked into the private canyon on a 157-acre site marked by ancient oaks, majestic hills, a rock-hewn stream, and private lake, the Upper Napa Valley site of one of our seminal projects was the source of great historical character and a draw for visitors seeking respite in pristine natural surroundings. It both beckoned and challenged us to design a resort that treads lightly on the land. A challenging project for the entitlement process and existing zoning constraints, Calistoga Ranch, an Auberge Resort, trained us to allow the site itself to be the resort's most important amenity, a valuable lesson we've since applied in preserving the character of a place and integrating the surrounding landscape into the guest experience.
The site at Calistoga Ranch provided an opportunity to create a private luxury resort on one of the last available parcels in the Napa Valley, where it had long been zoned for campground use and carried a strict limit on stick-built construction. Instead of attempting to change the existing zoning, we innovated within the framework while honoring the primacy of the natural setting and the site's campground legacy.
The Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley, California
When a site has historically been regarded as a sanctuary, the goal becomes a minimally invasive design approach. Allowing the heritage oaks and property's roots as a family-owned campground to inform the "bungalow in the woods" concept, we worked to save built elements integral to the site's history, such as preserving stone walls and using them as feature elements. The rustic material palette of cedar shingles, dry stacked stone and copper roofs evoke the natural passage of time and were chosen for surfaces that will become beautifully patinaed, adding to the character of the resort by blending it into the woods and giving guests a chance to enjoy a connection to the natural surroundings unique to the valley.
Key to allowing the past to seep into the present is embracing a degree of unpredictability, which in the case of Calistoga Ranch, took the form of materials with surfaces susceptible to patina and tree growth through decks and bungalows that we designed so that each guest could encounter a unique experience based on the living environment surrounding their lodge. At the recently opened AMARA Hotel located in Cyprus, on the historic Greek settlement of Amathus, dating back to four centuries BC, an outcropping of history became an unpredictable part of the design when excavating and clearing the area for construction.
Entrance of the AMARA Hotel in Cyprus
Remnants, including a 50-foot section of an ancient wall and a spring well, were uncovered and we worked to protect and preserve the local relics, integrating and encapsulating them within the design as a unique feature in the spa. These efforts to weave unexpected discoveries of the past, along with the tactile experiences, indigenous building materials and vegetation meticulously incorporated throughout the resort, bring the region and its history to life for guests in an authentic and surprising way.
A 50-foot section of an ancient wall and a spring well at the AMARA Hotel in Cyprus
By creating each lodge at Calistoga Ranch with a series of prefabricated modular units set upon pier foundations, and placing them so as not to disrupt the environment or necessitate the removal of trees, we created a space where the past could gracefully extend its reach in the present. In responding to the zoning restrictions and trying to disturb the site as little as possible, we created the guest and owner lodges as pre-fabricated modular units, connected by wooden decks, trellised walkways and large outdoor deck/living areas; set upon pilings, rather than on traditional slab or perimeter foundations, the lodges both nestle into the land's historical character and hover above the landscape, allowing unrestrained root growth and natural drainage patterns within the sensitive setting.
It is challenging to navigate such an intricate mix of parts and pieces, but Calistoga Ranch is now a five-star resort deeply rooted in fulfilling a timeless need: shelter from the noise and haste of the day-to-day world through nature's solace.
Contemporary Touches to Well-Established Heritage
At times, efforts to retain a site's history, charm and character take on greater importance when designing a hotel in an area distinguished by its tight-knit community and long-established 'look-and-feel'. When tasked with a two-part hotel renovation as part of a multi-faceted rebranding and refresh of the 22-acre The Estate Yountville, we had to ensure our efforts to renovate Hotel Villagio and Vintage House were complementary instead of intrusive to the local culture and environment, remaining harmonious with the hamlet's quaint human-scale buildings and restaurants yet adding stylish, contemporary touches.
The hotel redesign upholds Napa Valley's rustic heritage through a modern lens that exercises restraint and manages to remain true to locale. Rather than trying to capture a single architectural period, style or influence, which can be off-putting and prevent an authentic experience of place, we looked to the surroundings as design inspiration for the hotels, instilling a modern wine country aesthetic that isn't so contemporary that it compromises Yountville's pedestrian-friendly and charming "small town" feel.
Revising Vintage House's brick façades to achieve a California modernist country feel, we added a large gable and white exteriors as contemporary touches on country farmhouse style architecture, reflecting a departure from the former French country aesthetic that existed when the hotel was referred to as Vintage Inn. In updates to the exterior at Hotel Villagio, which reflected a formal Tuscan style when it was known as Villagio Inn and Spa, we rooted the property in its agrarian surroundings by replacing the terracotta tile roof with sleek standing seam metal roofing and installing rustic wood posts in place of neo-classical Roman detailing and columns.
Another effort to stay true to Yountville was made with the light-filled Main House lobby at Vintage House, which harkens back to the surrounding landscape with the remodeled interior creating a visual connection back to Washington Street, Yountville's main pedestrian corridor. With an upscale but less formal feel, we recast the lobby at Hotel Villagio, which seamlessly blends farmhouse and industrial elements, large-scale light fixtures, and high ceilings outfitted with wooden beams. A contemporary, dark and moody palette featuring stone, brass elements, and dark iron detailing beckons both travelers and locals to enjoy moments at a stylish pool table and lobby bar.
Within the design of these upscale environments, feelings of warmth and inclusivity balance newness and chicness, delivering a sense of casual elegance and approachability that suits a modern farmhouse aesthetic and the surrounding locale.
Beyond Preservation and Hotel Brand Demands: Design Led by Experience
Channeling history in hotel design often entails balancing the preservation of historic elements with elegant design that meets the standards of the hotel brand and the demands and expectations of guests. Yet the pendulum finally rests on the journey the guest will experience. Aiming to bring Anguilla's first hotel property back to the forefront of exclusive, luxury destinations in the Caribbean, we approached the renovation of the iconic Malliouhana with a focus on showcasing the 360-degree views of the sea and strengthening the hotel's connection to the site immediately upon arrival.
While the parallel tasks at hand were to capture, in a new hotel, the original glamour and sophistication of the Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s, while elevating the experience to meet the five-star standards befitting an Auberge Resort, we discovered we could achieve both by tapping into surroundings that gesture beyond limits – the dramatic cliff-side and sweeping views of the Caribbean.
The iconic Malliouhana resort in Anguilla, Caribbean
To translate the warm, welcoming atmosphere and gracious hospitality of the historic hotel into the design, we brought the inviting blue water front and center. By terracing the contours of the cliff-side restaurant, we gave each diner a view of the sea. Architectural elements that separated guests from the water were removed, replaced with an enhanced arrival experience that creates a seamless journey from the entry straight through to the water view.
While we made changes such as framing vistas, we preserved iconic design elements such as the white buildings to reinforce timeless luxury and echo the striking vastness manifested in white sands and stretch of ocean visible in all directions. In this way, we preserved the historical character of the hotel while maximizing the site itself and surrounding water as the greatest amenity -- and the greatest source of luxury in a hotel experience.
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