An Aging Pink Lady Gets a Facelift

An Aging Pink Lady Gets a Facelift

La Jolla’s La Valencia Hotel gets an update that stays true to its historic roots

By Irene Lacher 09/01/2014

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For a beachy example of California style, look no farther than La Valencia. The iconic La Jolla hotel designed by Reginald Johnson opened in 1926, when the nation was still aflame with passion for Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. (The style was popularized by Caltech architect Bertram Goodhue, who introduced it at the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 in San Diego, where he was lead architect.)   


 La Jolla still has its “Pink Lady” (one of La Valencia’s nicknames), much as Beverly Hills has its “Pink Palace” (better known as the Beverly Hills Hotel). But decades hugging the splendid La Jolla Cove, where sea lions bask on rocks in the sun, have not been kind to the buildings. When Pacific Companies Chairman Ash Asrani bought the hotel in 2011, “I said to him, ‘You bought 80 years of deferred maintenance, so open your pocketbook,’” says Mark Dibella, La Valencia’s managing director, who also oversaw the recent renovation of San Diego’s historic U.S. Grant Hotel. “It requires extensive constant upkeep, and there’s nothing like wrought iron next to the ocean. It needs a lot of paint.”


Fortunately for La Valencia, Asrani did open his pocketbook wide enough to bankroll a renovation tab of $11 million (and still counting). Indeed, just repainting the salt-air-battered façade cost a pretty penny. “It cost $250,000 to paint the old girl,” Dibella says. The color? Frazee Paint’s La Valencia Pink, of course.


If you detect a note of affection for La Valencia in Dibella’s remarks, you wouldn’t be far off. Even the owner saw his $42 million hotel purchase as more than an investment. “He said to me 2½ years ago, ‘I’ve been looking across the bay for 30 years, and I never thought I’d be successful enough to buy it,’” Dibella recalls.


Of course, updating a historic site, as La V has been designated by the California Coastal Commission, is practically oxymoronic. “What I realized is important to consider and blend into every decision is what part of the design and the property’s legacy is still going to be relevant enough in its future,” says Dibella, who guided a team of architects and designers. “There’s also what you inherit from a property that’s almost nine decades old — it’s deciding what to throw out, what to keep and what should be new.” 


The commission bars changes to the exterior that aren’t approved by local officials, but no one wanted to alter the signature pink façade, which former owners painted in the late ’50s, inspired by their travels to Florida and Hawaii. Also preserved is the other “pink lady” in the garden — a Dutch artist’s tile portrait of a Spanish lady in a pink dress, installed for the hotel’s opening in 1926 — and the outdoor pool opposite the cove, although it’s scheduled for a conversion to eco-friendly saltwater next summer.


Perhaps the most noticeable changes are in the public areas. The dark Whaling Bar, where La Jolla Playhouse founder Gregory Peck entertained his casts, has been completely reimagined as a sunny French bistro. The casual new Café la Rue (so-called because of its sidewalk tables for people-watching) was inspired by three large paintings inherited from the Whaling Bar — primitive portraits of Paris in the ’20s by Wing Howard (a local artist who lived at La Valencia for five years and sometimes paid his way with his paintings) seeded the Art Deco design scheme.


The hotel uncovered the sweeping Spanish arched windows designed by the original architect, which had been shuttered for 66 years. New high-gloss terrazzo floors were hand-poured in Deco patterns, and period chandeliers were hung from the ceiling. Of course, no bistro would be complete without leather banquettes, which circle a central bar with a barrel-dome glass canopy. 


“It’s a respectful way to edge the legacy,” Dibella says. “We wanted to make sure it meant something to the property.”


The hotel’s formal restaurant, The Med, also underwent an overhaul, designed to create intimate gathering spaces to offset the room’s generous size. Dibella wanted to avoid a sea of dining tables and chairs, so Los Angeles designer Linda Snyder laid a huge area rug on top of the distressed hardwood floor, to warm up the room and “evoke a great room in a villa,” he says. Three different types of seating — elegant settees and club chairs upholstered in various champagne-colored fabric patterns and dining chairs with teal-leather seats and wooden backs custom-carved in Indonesia — break up the room into cozy clusters.


Perhaps the biggest design challenge was La Valencia’s largest public room, the massive La Sala Lounge off the main lobby. The ocean-view room is dominated by six large plaster beams, which were hand-painted to look like wood. To lighten up the dark and heavy look of the beams, the hotel engaged La Jolla native Emma Wright to create a new lighter design inspired by the large original medallion over the picture window, while the ceiling fields between the beams were restored to their original design. 


“You can literally tell areas that have been enhanced, and that’s what we wanted,” says Dibella, a stickler for subtle details. “It shouldn’t look like a brand-new ceiling. It shows its many years of experience.”


Patterns repeat throughout the hotel. The 112 guest rooms, which had all been decorated in different styles, were regarbed in earth colors. The furniture, designed by Paul Darrell in L.A., has detailed inlay that mimics the main tower’s tile inset in a cross-hatch pattern typical of ’20s architecture; the cross-hatch design is also worked into the carpet pattern. 


The jewel of the renovation will be two new 10th-floor Tower suites with 180-degree ocean views, previously the province of a small restaurant called The Sky Room. The suites, which will have walls of uninterrupted glass and living room windows that fully open, will be designed to connect to each other to form a mega-suite of 2,500 square feet. Individually, the suites will measure 950 square feet and 1,550 square feet, with high-season nightly rates of $1,900 and $3,000, when they’re completed. 


“I’m shooting for New Year’s Eve,” says Dibella, who has managed to keep the hotel open during renovations. “I’m going to pop a bottle of champagne in my office.”    


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