Design Special Pt 2
Fairmont SONOMA MISSION Inn & Spa
Sense of Place
A thoughtful redesign of The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa offers enticements for each of the five senses.
By Andrew Braithwaite — Photos by Grant Harder
The lobby of The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is the property’s beating heart. It was designed to charm the senses. From the inviting caress of its majestic leather armchairs, the fire in its limestone fireplace tickles the skin with warm licks of air; a swirl and sip of Stag’s Leap S.L.V cab sauv suggests blackberry bushes in late summer and sends silky tannins dancing across the tongue; and throughout the grand space, between Spanish Mission-style archways, there’s the gentle buzz of like-minded visitors comparing tasting notes at the hotel’s nightly wine hour.
Everything that taste, touch, sight, smell and sound might desire, it turns out, is right here within this room. So when it came time to renovate the Inn last year, there was no doubt that this particular space would play a leading role. The challenge was in refreshing the beloved gathering place without altering its classic, sensory appeal.
Sonoma is often thought of as the unpretentious side of California Wine Country, and any perceptive guest wandering the pathways and corridors of the Fairmont will feel this comfortable charm, as well as a strong pull between past and future. For hundreds of years the area has attracted visitors in search of its healing thermal waters, leading to the first hotel established on the grounds, built by H.E. Boyes in 1900.
Since then, the property has lived many lives, reinventing itself after fires (however extensive the renovations, its iconic water tower remains), surviving the Great Depression and serving as an R&R site for the Navy during WWII.
The current Mission Inn is composed of more than a dozen separate buildings – including a 40,000-square-foot spa still fed by the warm, mineral-rich waters. In 2013, Historic Hotels of America named the Inn to its prestigious register of properties that have “faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity.”
So when Fairmont hired two California design firms to update the buildings – BraytonHughes Design Studios of San Francisco began work on guest and meeting rooms in 2011 and L.A.’s KNA Design tackled the lobby and connected dining spaces starting in 2012 – the designers had a tall order.
“Our job was to update these spaces without reinventing them,” explains KNA principal Kirk Nix. The result is a minimalist approach to modernization, with 21st-century touches overlaying the hotel’s historic character. “We were always mindful of maintaining that California-Spanish feel wherever possible,” says Rachel Fischbach of BraytonHughes.
The lobby, says Nix, “is where every visit begins and ends, so we treated it a bit like the hotel’s living room.” The goal, he explains, was to “animate the space,” with its broad floor plan and dramatically high, wood-beamed ceiling providing an ideal canvas.
An open front porch was glassed in so that the concierge desk could be moved next to the entryway and out of the room’s center, a gentle suggestion that the room is for much more than checking in and out. In its place: soft chairs and sofas by L.A.-based A. Rudin, arranged in intimate clusters to further draw in guests. Two taller communal tables, set beneath rustic iron-and-glass lighting pendants by Holly Hunt, frame the room and encourage conversation between strangers. “We wanted people to linger, to say ‘Sure, I’ll have that second glass of Russian River Pinot because I’m having a good time,’” says Nix.
That grand old limestone hearth required a bit of sandblasting and a fresh coat of paint and now the hotel staff keeps the fire stoked behind a new screen, an iron gate dotted with colorful, cross-cut geodes that was designed by metal artist Philip Nimmo. To complete the refresh, KNA commissioned British-born artist John Rose to design an abstract art showpiece for atop the mantel: “Vibrations,” a bright red fluid form inspired by strands of DNA (pictured left). “It’s eye candy,” says Nix. “A bit of bling, for lack of a better word.” Along with the striking backdrop for the concierge desk – a sparkling cacophony of copper and terra cotta-glazed porcelain tile – the lobby provides both a warm welcome and a lasting impression.
Set to the right of the fireplace is an entirely new addition: the wine bar 38º North. Its name is a reference to the 38th parallel that runs through Sonoma Valley as well as other global wine regions, including Calabria in Italy and Alicante in Spain. It’s a clever way of linking the evolving region (and the property) to the world at large.
While the wine bar’s amenities are thoroughly modern – high-tech wine coolers deliver fresh by-the-glass pours from some 50 labels (including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle) – the room succeeds in feeling imbued with history. The flooring is a marriage of old-new: An engineered European oak hardwood features zigzag patterns in two dark tones of hard-wax oil treatment, but the fine-sawn finish also gives the surface underfoot a distressed feel normally earned with age.
Hovering above the black granite bar is a long, glass-and-iron chandelier, its heavy metal and warm light suggesting a candelabra, a contemporary take on something you might see in a Spanish Gothic tavern.
Even the menu at 38º North reflects a modern twist on tradition, with gourmet versions of comfort food and bar snacks. Order the Grown-Up Mac and Cheese and you’ll be rewarded with pasta shells spiked with morsels of lobster, fragrant black truffles and Fontina from the Italian Alps.
A heartier appetite receives its reward at Santé, the hotel’s flagship for fine dining and a sensory journey unto itself. The Michelin-rated, prerenovation Santé struck Nix as a space that didn’t quite reflect the ambitions of its kitchen. “It felt like a place where you could just as easily be serving breakfast,” says Nix, “but Santé is only open for dinner. So we tried to make it a little more dramatic.”
Cinematic lighting sets the tone as you enter. A custom LED chandelier composed of five slender rings finished in hand-rubbed bronze hovers overhead. LEDs also dot the wall-length wine cooler, illuminating bottles visible inside this tempered glass box.
“Guests enjoy watching you pull out the exact bottle they’re going to drink that night,” says
sommelier Marc Irving. He was brought in from Las Vegas to rebuild the wine list and ended up adding 45 new labels to the California-focused cellar.
With the theatrical new lighting in place, KNA deepened the tone of the walls so that the focus was squarely on chef de cuisine Andrew Cain’s works of culinary artistry, exhibited atop the white tablecloths for diners to admire before their first bite.
In Sonoma, there is always something fighting for your attention: the smell of lavender, the sun setting over the vineyards. The trick to enjoying it all is balance. In that way, The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is the perfect base for exploring the region, for enjoying a feast of the senses – even before you have left the lobby.
Stay Tempt your senses in California wine country at The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. The historic property originally attracted visitors for its natural mineral hot springs, which still feed the resort’s pools and the 40,000-square-foot (3,700-square-meter) Willow Stream Spa. Discover a mix of minimalist design and mission-style architecture in recently renovated rooms, Wine Country suites and common areas perfect for socializing. fairmont.com/sonoma
Dine For haute bar snacks and 50 different wines by the glass, take a seat at 38˚North in a lounge just off the main lobby. Book a table at Santé Restaurant for chef Andrew Cain’s fine dining menu built around locally sourced, seasonal cuisine.
Do In addition to wine tastings at the Inn, ask the concierge for information about regional wine tours and for a map to the best vineyards in Sonoma (and neighboring Napa Valley).
Ask the concierge about guided hikes and bicycle rides starting off from the property, as well as playing golf on the resort’s championship 18-hole course.