Although L’Auberge Del Mar has been a staple of the community for 25 years, the story of the landmark hotel’s historical site stretches back more than a century.
“It’s an important anniversary because you get to look back on what was, what is and what it’s going to be,” said Mike Slosser, who has been the hotel’s general manager for more than 11 years. “This truly is one of the unique boutique hotels in the country.”
Opened in 1909 for about $75,000, the Stratford Inn originally stood on the corner of Camino del Mar and 15th Street. In 1925, the Tudor-style hotel underwent a $250,000 remodel. It was renamed Hotel Del Mar a year later.
The hotel attracted the rich and famous from the moment it opened its doors. It became an even hotter spot for celebrities, however, when Bing Crosby brought horse racing to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Despite a long list of Hollywood guests — including Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante and Mickey Rooney — prosperity declined and the Hotel Del Mar closed in 1963. With the building in disrepair, the city condemned it and tore it down in 1969.
For 20 years, the five-acre lot sat vacant.
Developer Jim Watkins, an Oklahoma native, moved to Del Mar in 1967. It was his dream to restore the historical site.
Watkins first purchased the property in 1971, but traded it in a real estate deal with his former business partner, who later lost it in bankruptcy. He repurchased the property in 1986.
“My dream was to build a great hotel for my hometown,” said Watkins, adding that he traveled to hotels all over the world for inspiration before drawing up the site designs. “The hotel was so important to the history of Del Mar. I wanted to bring it back.”
When the project was placed on the ballot, however, community members didn’t share his dream. Locals voted against the project in 1987.
Having lost by only 11 votes, Watkins went back to the drawing board, reducing the number of proposed time-share units. “One year and $1 million later,” he said, the project — a 120-room hotel and 12 timeshare units — went back on the ballot, winning approval by 200 votes.
“The first vote was a real blow, because this was my dream,” he said. “In the second one, it was extremely gratifying to see the community finally embrace the concept.”
L’Auberge Del Mar opened in June 1989. The $36 million hotel restored the glamour of the original inn, even re-creating the Stratford Inn’s lobby fireplace.
“It’s a design that will be around forever,” said Watkins, who lives in an on-site condominium but sold the property in 1994 to Destination Hotels & Resorts.
“Twenty-five years from now, it will have just as much presence and just as much importance as it has today. It’s here forever as the heart of the community. That’s really gratifying.”
Nearly a decade after the sale, in April 2003, Slosser was named general manager of the hotel. Almost immediately, he spearheaded plans to renovate the site.
After nearly three years of planning, the hotel closed in November 2007 and underwent a $26 million renovation, reopening eight months later.
“You don’t shut a hotel down,” said Slosser, who noted that the hotel retained its 31-person leadership team during the remodel. “We shut it down because the change was so dramatic. It was a lot smarter to do it that way, even though it cost us more.
“When we opened, it was a prideful moment, because we knew we had something special.”
From the guest rooms to the lobby, every part of the seaside resort received a facelift.
Now headed by Chef Brandon Fortune, Kitchen 1540 replaced the outdated J. Taylor’s Restaurant. The hotel also opened a 4,500-square-foot spa.
“It’s been an overwhelming success for everyone,” said Slosser, who said the hotel employs 227 people.
The fireplace was also removed to make room for a bar during the renovation.
“I was about ready to kill them,” joked Watkins, who said the wooden beams in the lobby were also painted white during the renovation.
“It was a marvelous fireplace. I couldn’t have gotten approval without that fireplace. But they did a great job, and they did some things I could not do,” he added, pointing out that the lobby previously hadn’t had an ocean view, another change Slosser made during the renovation.
Recently promoted to vice president and area managing director for Destination Hotels & Resorts, Slosser will still oversee L’Auberge Del Mar, but Shaun Beucler has been named general manager of the hotel.
“L’Auberge Del Mar has done a lot right under Mike’s guidance, leadership and tutelage,” Beucler said. “My responsibility is to maintain and cherish all the traditions that have been established over the years and look for opportunities for creative, new enhancements.”