L’Auberge turns 25

L’Auberge turns 25
Standing in L’Auberge Del Mar’s outside restaurant area are Jim Watkins, left, and General Manager Mike Slosser. When Watkins built the inn 25 years ago, there was no ocean view from the lobby, a change Slosser made during a 2007 renovation. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — Like the fine wines poured for its guests, L’Auberge Del Mar seems to get better with age, continuously attracting celebrity, local and international visitors.

With the iconic ocean view resort celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, many still remember the efforts to rebuild the landmark inn nearly failed.

The property on the corner of Camino del Mar and 15th Street was originally home to the Stratford Inn, built in 1909 for approximately $75,000.

Its unique features included the two-story enclosed “plunge” with heated ocean water and the lobby’s brick fireplace inspired by Shakespeare.

The Tudor-style hotel underwent a $250,000 remodel in 1925 and was renamed Hotel Del Mar a year later.

Since its opening, the inn regularly attracted the wealthy and the famous. But that trend exploded in 1937 when Hollywood celebrities Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien brought horse racing to the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds.

A short list of those who frequented the hotel includes Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante, Jackie Cooper and Liberace.

Like all good things, however, prosperity at Hotel Del Mar eventually came to an end. When the doors closed in 1963, the inn fell into disrepair and was eventually condemned by the city and torn down in 1969.

The 5-acre lot remained vacant for 20 years.

Resident Jim Watkins, a resort industry pioneer, had moved to Del Mar in 1967 and had thoughts of restoring the site to its original glamour.

He first bought the property in the early 1970s, but traded it in a real estate deal with his partner, who ultimately lost it in bankruptcy.

Watkins repurchased the land in 1986.

“My dream was to build a great hotel for my hometown,” Watkins, now 83, said. “So I went to great hotels all over the world and took pieces from each of them and made them appropriate for Del Mar.”

Unfortunately the locals didn’t share his enthusiasm and nostalgia. Hearing strong opposition to the hotel from residents, City Council members decided the project should be approved by voters.

“I would stand on a street corner with my model, talking to everyone in the community, spending half an hour telling them why this would be a wonderful thing for Del Mar,” Watkins said. “My opposition was across the street.

“People would go there and in 30 seconds or less all they heard was that I was going to build a high-rise and the place would be filled with tourists,” he added. “We had the election in 1987 and we lost by 11 votes.”

George Hochfilzer, whom Watkins had hired to “create the ambiance” for the proposed hotel and work as its first general manager, remembers it as an “incredibly difficult project.”

“I went from being a hotel manager to a campaign manager,” said Hochfilzer, a lifelong hotelier who comes from an Austrian innkeeper family. “For me that was very unusual. We were trying to create a place for people to have marriages or meet after church or temple.

“It was going to have a charming little village feel,” he added. “That’s what we were trying to get across to the people. We wanted to bring back this charming seaside inn and create an environment where the people would love to go.

“But at that time it was a really divided community,” he said. “We went back to the drawing board.”

But other than reducing the number of proposed timeshare units, the plans were essentially the same when the project went back on the ballot “one year and $1 million later,” said Watkins, who also donated $500,000 to the library.

The project won approval by 200 votes. What made the difference?

Watkins said instead of trying to sell a hotel concept, he focused on the lobby fireplace, which was in the original plans. It had been designed and built to replicate the one in the Stratford Inn. “That helped portray the building as cozy and not as fearful as a big hotel,” he said.

Watkins said he originally planned to call the new hotel The Inn at Del Mar, but the name was too similar to the nearby Del Mar Inn, so he opted for L’Auberge, the French word for “the inn.”

At a cost of about $36 million, the vacant lot was restored to its original glory, opening in June 1989, in time for the start of the racing season.

Watkins and Hochfilzer remained at the helm until Watkins sold the property in 1994 and Destination Resorts took over management duties.

Fast forward almost 10 years, when Mike Slosser was named general manager. Not long after he came onboard in 2003 Slosser began planning a renovation.

“I saw an opportunity for this hotel to become a high-end, sophisticated beach property, modernized and transitioned into the 21st century,” Slosser said. “I wanted it to be more intimate and robust, quiet by day but lively at night.”

After three years of planning, the hotel shut down in November 2007 and underwent a $26 million renovation, reopening 10 months later.

“There was not a piece of square footage that wasn’t touched,” Slosser said. “It was just an overwhelming success from the beginning. Before it was heavy and dark. Now there’s a brighter coastal feeling. It’s like you’re walking into someone’s giant beach home.”

Guests still include well-known celebrities — Barbra Streisand, Michelle Pfeiffer, Shaquille O’Neal, Peter Frampton,  to name a few — but Slosser said its appeal to the locals is what has made L’Auberge a success.

Still managed by Destination Resorts, the 120-room inn was sold in December 2012 to LaSalle Hotel Properties for almost $77 million, a record-breaking transaction at the time in San Diego.

To stay current, Kitchen 1540, the onsite restaurant, creates special seasonal menu items and cocktails, especially during the racing season. The spa offers themed services as well, such as a mint julep scrub for the upcoming fall race meet.

A few years ago, the hotel began hosting an after-party on opening day of the races. Special anniversary deals are being offered through the end of the year.

Slosser was recently promoted and will no longer serve as general manager, but he will continue to provide input at L’Auberge. He said room upgrades are planned for 2016.

Watkins, who lives in an onsite condominium, is also not shy when it comes to offering his opinion.

“I was ready to kill him,” he joked, referring to Slosser and the renovation. “All the dark brown beams in the lobby that I had had hand painted were white. But it was designed for the market today and they did a great job.”

The fireplace was removed to make way for a bar, but that’s a change that didn’t bother Watkins.

“From an operational standpoint, it never should have been there,” he said. “It had to go. Plus, we already had the votes.”

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