Redesigning a landmark is risky business, no matter your zip code. But in Santa Barbara, it’s a particularly dangerous endeavor. In the land of red-tiled roofs, if you dare mess with tradition, you’d best mess with it perfectly. So to say that a lot was riding on the Orient-Express purchase and remodel of the nearly century-old El Encanto hotel, an iconic spot cloaked in nostalgia and teeming with memories and the ghosts of Santa Barbara past, is putting it lightly.
And, it’s worth saying — given the track record of other recent, lengthy resort/hotel turnovers and promises made, and delayed … and delayed (see: Miramar) — that the fact that the renovated El Encanto reopened for business in a mere seven years is something neighboring on a miracle. It seems particularly so when you consider the economic rollercoaster of those years, what the redesign entailed, and the goal: nothing short of recapturing the glamour and romance of the spot whose very name means “The Enchanted” while retaining its original character, ultimately, restoring the place to the grandeur of its heyday.
And what grandeur: While the grounds themselves — seven eucalyptus-studded acres draped over Santa Barbara’s Riviera with sweeping views of the city and the ocean — are magnificent, the spot’s rich history is even more compelling. It attracted plein air artists and catered to the carriage trade from the East Coast. And it’s said that in its prime — which spanned, depending on whom you ask, some portion of the 1920s through the ’50s — El Encanto was a playground for the rich and powerful, once hosting president Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy Jr. and serving as a frequent retreat for the stars of Hollywood’s golden age, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Hedy Lamarr. Even as it became dated, its charm remained appealing: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gwen Stefani, Barbra Streisand, Wolfgang Puck, and Leonardo DiCaprio have all been guests. Those are big bungalows to fill.
Beyond the name-dropping (fun as it is), the lore of the hotel is often sweetly personal, particularly for Santa Barbarans. Perhaps this is true for no one more than Kerin Friden, widow of Eric Friden, a Santa Barbara–based hotelier who bought the hotel in 1977, and El Encanto’s owner prior to the Orient-Express. “What I love about it so much is almost anyone who has lived here for any period of time has a memory of the hotel,” she said. “A special occasion or even just drinks on the terrace — everyone has a special story about it.”
Friden has her own special memories. Before she and Eric were involved romantically, she was living in Oregon and came to Santa Barbara for a friend’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party, which was held that year in El Encanto’s downstairs banquet room. Kerin wanted to check it out in the daytime, so she and a friend returned the following day for drinks on the terrace. “I said, ‘Oh, this place is just so special!’ I loved my career in Oregon, but I said to my friend, ‘I want to move here and be the sales and catering director of this hotel — and I have no idea where that came from!’” she recalled saying of the strange wish she’d just spoken aloud.
The strange wish came true: On her flight home, the pilot gave the Oregon weather report (dismal), and Kerin made the decision to move right then and there. Soon enough, she was the sales and catering director. “It goes to show, sometimes you just have to put your intention out there,” she said with a laugh. “Turned out I didn’t like sales and catering much, but I loved the hotel.”
She started working at El Encanto in 1982; she married Eric at the Lily Pond in 1993. After his death at 61 — caused by a tragic polo accident in 2003 — Kerin held his memorial service there. And then, in 2004, she let it go, entrusting it to the Orient-Express.
The Folly That Wasn’t
El Encanto’s rich history was spawned from humble enough beginnings. The land on which the resort sits was part of a 123-acre parcel of the Riviera called Rockland, which was purchased by the Storke family in 1877 for $153.75 in a legendary deal mocked as “Storke’s folly,” as, at the time, there was essentially no infrastructure in terms of water or access on the land. Ten years later, though, the rail line arrived, and Storke turned around the property at a tidy profit, selling it to an investor from San Francisco named Walter Hawley for $25,000. Since then, the hotel has changed hands a number of times. (And at considerably tidier profits.)
Most recently, Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., a worldwide, ultra-luxury hospitality brand that includes a small collection of exquisite hotels, restaurants, cruise, and train properties, acquired El Encanto in November 2004, a year after Eric Friden’s death, for $26 million. Friden’s company FHC Hotel Management had purchased the hotel in 1977, and, prior to his death in 2003, Friden spoke of his desire to restore El Encanto to its earlier splendor. A restoration that was clearly overdue: Current El Encanto GM Laura McIver, who previously worked as the GM of the Canary Hotel, recalled that, while at the Canary, “I’d ask people where they’d stayed before; [El Encanto] was frequently on the list, and it sounded like everybody’s ideal romantic spot, but had gotten very rundown and tired over the years, but everybody had really fond memories.”
Friden’s vision was a five-star boutique hotel, and he’d begun to lay the groundwork; ultimately, Orient-Express took that baton and made for the finish line.
“Before my husband died, we’d been in the process of getting the permitting to do a massive renovation,” said Kerin. “After he died, I wanted to continue that and bring the dream to fruition, but it just wasn’t the same without him; I didn’t have the heart to follow through. And I was familiar with Orient-Express (O-E), had traveled and visited their properties around the world, and knew that they always honor the history of the property … I felt like a parent whose child had been accepted to an Ivy League school: I was just really proud and happy.”
Once the sale was complete, initial announcements had the hotel closing for renovation in 2005 and reopening in 2006. These things being the way they are, the closing didn’t even happen until 2006. Then, while O-E worked with the Historic Landmarks Commission and the Santa Barbara City Council to develop its plans — and realized that many of the structures (in particular the main building that now houses the lobby, restaurants, business rooms, and spa) needed much more work than originally thought (at much greater expense) — the economy, not to mention the hospitality industry, took a dive of epic proportions.
So, what does one do when the economy’s in the crapper and one is left holding the bag on a multimillion-dollar property in need of some pretty heavy-duty updates? If one is the Orient-Express — and the property in question is Santa Barbara’s oldest, most iconic hotel, and O-E’s first West Coast property — one holds tight, does a lot of research, revises one’s plans, and somehow secures the financing needed to turn one’s spare-no-expense vision into reality.
This took some time. But in 2011, the final plans were submitted, additional financing and permits were secured, and work began; $134 million later (that includes the purchase price), El Encanto reopened in March of this year.
Despite the extreme makeover the grounds and structures received, those who spent time at the former El Encanto will still recognize their favorite spots. Take, for example, the Lily Pond and the Arbor that sits beside it: The 40 columns that constitute the Arbor were dismantled, brick by brick, before being reconstructed with a new foundation and core, using the original bricks. As for the wisteria vines that climb the arbor? They, too, were coddled like the heirlooms they are: The wisteria was pruned back during its dormant period, scaffolding was constructed, and the fresh growth on the old vines was trained onto the scaffolding until its more permanent supports were finished.
The original bungalows were treated similarly: They were raised in order to install new foundations, which allowed O-E to bring them to code and make other improvements. So, while they still look as charming as ever, today you’ll find 21st-century creature comforts like, for example, heated bathroom floors. Today, there are 92 rooms and suites total, some Mission style, some Craftsman; 30 of those are brand-new additions to the property, and the remainder were upgraded and given the full O-E treatment.
In all likelihood, many who call S.B. home may never see the inside of an El Encanto bungalow but will experience the hotel only at the bar, the restaurant, or the spa — none of which deserve to be prefaced by the word “only.” The lobby opens up to the terrace, where guests can take in drinks and dinner, as well as those trademark expansive views of the city and coastline. The spa is magnificently appointed, complete with signature lemongrass-sage oils and complimentary Prosecco for those waiting in the Serenity Lounge, and the restaurant’s chef Patrice Martineau (read more on p. 45) is a star in his own right (and, in yet another nod to tradition, has put his own modern twist on the hotel’s famed Floating Island meringue and crème anglaise dessert, which dates back to 1920). Featuring select works by Charles Arnoldi and commissioned pieces by Damien Hirst, the artwork has been meticulously curated, and Hirst’s “Psalm Print: verba mea auribus,” which hangs at the restaurant’s entry, was created using diamond dust.
Friden, who is currently working on a book about her beloved hotel’s history, has visited the new and improved El Encanto several times already. “I go and say, ‘I hope you guys don’t get sick of me!’ … It’s always hard at first; I think it’d be like going back to your childhood home — you want to walk in and have everything just the way it was, so there was an adjustment, having been involved in my life for so many years, to walk in and see everything new, but I’ve really gotten used to it,” she says of the spot that’s meant so much to her. “It’s just so lovely … Everything is really well done.”
She trailed off for a bit and then added, “It’s just so wonderful to see it open and vibrant again after so many years. When they had taken the main building down, I remember driving by and crying, and having it be closed so many years, it just broke my heart. But the first night it was open to the public, seeing all the lights on and people, all active again, it just warmed my heart. Now it will be a new place for other people to have memories.”
El Encanto is located at 800 Alvarado Place. For more information, call 845-5800 or (800) 393-5315; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit elencanto.com. Kerin Friden is still collecting stories, anecdotes, and pictures for her book and would love to hear from you. Email her at email@example.com.