How L’Auberge was built, part II


Presented by Joe Jelley

L’Auberge Del Mar and the Del Mar Plaza projects were made the subjects of a plan that defined view corridors. After seeing what Mission West had proposed for the site, developer David Winkler, who was behind the Plaza project with Ivan Gayler, wanted to protect the blue and white water views of the ocean.

Winkler worked with L’Auberge developer Jim Watkins to determine where the hotel would be situated relative to the condos west of L’Auberge, lining the hotel up with the condos so that the ocean view between the buildings could be seen from the Plaza.

Despite Winkler’s and Watkins’ efforts to make the project more attractive to the community, the revised project was not approved. Meanwhile, a group of citizens started circulating a petition for an initiative known as Measure B. Still on the books, Measure B requires any project of more than 25,000 square feet of land or 123,000 square feet of improvements to go to the public vote.

In 1986, democracy was flourishing in Del Mar, but Watkins’ dream remained on the drawing board. So he took his case to the streets.

“I made up a model of the hotel and stood on the street corner in a tent with this model for about six months, showing people what it was and how it was going to bring back the feeling of the old hotel,” Watkins said. “So I’d take half an hour to explain all this and on the other side of the street was the opposition, with big signs that said ‘We don’t want hotels and massive traffic jams’ and in 10 seconds they could put a picture in the voter’s mind. They frightened people by making those statements.”

Winkler got busy too.

“We realized for our Del Mar Plaza project to be approved we had to have a consensus behind us, so we met with a number of community members and got support for it,” he said.

After final adjustments were made to the hotel plan, both projects were approved.

Watkins’ $40 million dreamboat opened in the summer of 1989, with more than 120 rooms, nine meeting rooms for business conferences, tennis courts and a ballroom that sought to recreate the glory years of the Del Mar Hotel, where stars such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin could be found “not as paid entertainers, but as guests — and they’d entertain in the lobby,” Watkins mused.

On one such occasion, Watkins remembers he was told: “We’ve got a pretty good piano player coming down but he needs a grand piano.”

The nearest grand was in a hillside house, we “they dragged it down and put it in the lobby,” Watkins said. “Before the pianist sat down to play, he found a candelabra on the mantelpiece and placed the candelabra on the piano. That became his trademark.” The pianist was Liberace.

Editor’s note: This article, written by Richard Arcello, is reprinted from the “Del Mar Picture Book,” published by Joe Jelley. Contact him at