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Reincarnation by Redwood

Lauren Murrow | September 28, 2016 | Story Architecture National

Skinny-dippers, spiritual seekers, swingers, philosophers: For over 50 years they’ve converged at Esalen, the redwood-steel-and-stone retreat overlooking the craggy coast of Big Sur. The institute has achieved mythical status since its founding in 1962, from inspiring Boris Yeltsin’s 1990 resignation from the Communist Party (the birth of so-called hot tub diplomacy) to finally granting our tortured hero Don Draper nirvana. But when Ian-Michael Hebert was hired as Esalen’s project manager three years ago, he found the once-grand site groaning at the seams.

Originally constructed in 1939 and amended in 1976, Esalen’s lodge had issues: Its redwood floorboards were buckling, its trusses sagging, its lights flickering. Upstairs in the historic Huxley meeting room, black plastic bags covered west-facing windows. “It was just so tired,” Hebert sighs. In the fall of 2013—the last straw—the dishwasher plummeted through the kitchen floor.

Luckily, Hebert, a contractor with degrees in psychology and community mental health, was uniquely suited to spearhead Esalen’s architectural revival. He enlisted David Arkin and Anni Tilt, cofounders of Arkin Tilt Architects, a firm known for its ecological approach to design. The architects were confronted with a unique challenge: to restore a decades-old, passionately protected building to its former glory without ever closing its doors.

Esalen’s lodge serves three meals a day to 200 guests, year-round; it shutters just five days a year. The architects called the constant flow of foot traffic during the 15-month overhaul this project’s “fourth dimension.” To handle the deluge of guests, engineers tunneled beneath the collapsing kitchen foundation to temporarily reinforce the floor while a new wing was being constructed.

The iconic 1939 wing of the lodge features a pitched gable roof that sweeps upward toward the ocean. To the east, a 1976 addition contained the kitchen and the Huxley room. Arkin and Tilt worked to preserve the shell of the building while tacking on a new kitchen and café, nearly doubling the lodge’s footprint.

Retaining the original Esalen aesthetic was vital, says Tilt: “Our aim was to revive the heart of Esalen, not rip it out.” Ancient redwood doors, laser-cut metal detailing, wood paneling, and café windows were all salvaged.

New materials meeting Esalen’s stringent standards—a story in every slab of steel and richly grained beam—supplemented the old. Live madrone tree trunks from Palo Colorado Canyon became structural beams in the dining hall. Redwood originally hewn in the 1880s and since salvaged from Wisconsin pickle barrels was transformed into acoustic panels for the new Huxley room. (Though the scent of vinegar has faded, the staining from the salt brine remains.) Benches outside the lodge were built from Esalen wood that was originally used as bridge timbers, then pool decking.

As the architects redesigned the building in phases, they emphasized the site’s innate connection to the outdoors. A new pair of 20-foot glass-and-steel garage doors roll up to create an open-air dining area. Arkin and Tilt doubled the number of south-facing windows, highlighting expansive views of the Big Sur coastline. On the second floor, sun streaming through a new 8-foot-wide skylight is filtered through a fabricated steel screen by David Date. Its interwoven “flower of life” pattern is evident in sacred architecture around the world. The circular design is mimicked in etched copper door handles leading to the new Huxley room on the same floor.

To view the lodge’s most striking new feature, though, one needs to be patient. (Not a problem here, where mindfulness is practically a prerequisite for attendees.) On Huxley’s west wall, porthole windows facing the Pacific are positioned to align with the summer solstice, winter solstice, and equinox sunsets. As the sun hits the horizon, a beam of light illuminates an etched copper marker on the east wall, bathing the redwood room in a golden glow.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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