24 May 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
Sign up for FREE ezine

Spa Business
2023 issue 4

View issue contents

Leisure Management - Added value: Golden Door and Mohonk Mountain House

First person

Added value: Golden Door and Mohonk Mountain House

Mary Bemis takes a peek at the revamped Golden Door and Mohonk Mountain House, two iconic US spa destinations

Louie Schwartzberg has created a new moving healing visual wall photo: Tanveer Badal

Bathhouse renovations at Golden Door
Bemis (left) with Golden Door COO Kathy Van Ness / photo: Mary Bemis

How do you renovate an iconic spa in this age of technology, yet keep its authenticity? This was the biggest challenge Kathy Van Ness – chief operating officer and general manager of Golden Door – faced with a US$5 million (€4.6 million, £3.9 million) overhaul of the 2,550sq ft bathhouse at the heart of the Californian property.

I was eager to see the result. Golden Door had been on my mind because its 101-year-old founder, the equally iconic Deborah Szekely, had recently regaled me with stories of the Hollywood starlets she had invited to put the place on the map.

Zen aesthetic

Originally revealed in 1958, Golden Door was the first to introduce Zen architecture to a western spa and owes a debt to Szekely’s travels and vision. Before opening, Szekely and her architect embarked on a pilgrimage to educate themselves about Japanese bathing culture by visiting 21 inns in 25 days. It takes its aesthetic from the country’s honjin, or inn, and bamboo forests, koi ponds and Japanese gardens abound – as does an incredible (and very valuable) Asian art collection she amassed over the years.

This was my third stay at the property in 15 years, my second under the discerning eye of Van Ness, who has guided it through a series of upgrades since its acquisition by Joanne and Bill Conway in 2012 (see www.spabusiness.com/kathyvanness). Remarkably, the Golden Door is even more chic nowadays but the modernised bathhouse, reimagined by San Diego-based designer Kristine Smith, remains true to its Japanese roots.

Digital art

In a quietly radical move, Van Ness brought in time-lapse nature filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg to create “a moving healing visual wall”. A focal point of the bathhouse, the large digital screen is positioned in front of a hydro pool with a backdrop of elegant black bamboo tiles and a small Oriental rock garden. The area is enclosed by authentic Japanese screens to create a secluded, yet social, area within the limited footprint.

“People can gather and pause [there], have the quiet energy of other guests, but also have a space to lower their energy,” explains Van Ness. “And if you can combine warm bubbling water with slow-moving visual imagery, a Japanese raked garden and a private space, you will absolutely change your pace.”

Every day, I stared at the new digital images trying to decide how I felt about them

This healing space is where I spent my time each morning and evening. Every day, I stared at Schwartzberg’s images, trying to decide how I felt about the new addition. They are breathtakingly beautiful, but did I want to be digitally transported from simply soaking in the bathhouse at the Golden Door? I admittedly am a purist. I don’t really want the distraction. But I was most definitely in the minority on this one. A 50-something fellow guest suggested that digital art has been introduced because younger guests are so accustomed to screens. And, sure enough, the demographic here has changed, skewing younger. Yes, there are those loyal grande dames who have chalked up 40-plus visits in their day, but over the past 10 years, there’s been a shift towards professional women aged between 35 to 55.

New additions

But back to the bathhouse. Three treatment spaces, dedicated to the classic and deservedly legendary herbal linen wraps (created at Rancho la Puerta in the 40s), are joined by a new Lightstim LED therapy area (guests had been asking for modalities to address inflammation, noted Van Ness) and much-needed rebuilt sauna and steamroom. A chic little space with shimmering walls of metallic gold tiles features a black stone soaking tub for both ice-cold plunges and hot aromatic baths, while a wet room boasting a state-of-the-art Vichy shower by Kohler concludes the update. And it’s this last addition which was a delightful and nice surprise to this spa purist.

The ‘incredible and valuable’ Asian artwork still remains / photo: Tanveer Badal
A chic space with gold tiles features a black stone soaking tub / photo: Tanveer Badal
Mohonk Mountain House spa refresh
Robert Henry oversaw the spa refresh / photo: Robert D Henry Architects

A couple of years ago, while watching the hit series Upload, I saw a futuristic version of heaven on earth and recognised it immediately. That virtual ‘heaven’ was Mohonk Mountain House, the very real Victorian-era resort 90 minutes from New York City. Recently, I learned that its spa had been refreshed and I was curious – how do you improve a natural paradise?

Nature has always guided Mohonk Mountain House. Founded in 1869 by Albert K Smiley – a lover of the outdoors who led guests on meandering trails – Mohonk, still family-owned and now run by the fifth generation, has managed to stay true to its founder’s mission. That 154-year-old mission? To provide opportunities for recreation and renewal of body, mind and spirit in a beautiful setting.

In 2005, this National Historic Landmark resort and Historic Hotel of America debuted its 30,000sq ft, three-level spa wing at a cost of US$14 million (€12.8 million, £11 million). “It was designed to bring the outside in, to complement and extend opportunities for guests to enjoy nature,” Nina Smiley, director of mindfulness programming, shared with me at that time. And it did just that in spades.

Outdoor sanctuary

Lakeview Summerhouse and subtle refresh, I was touched by nature in marvellous new ways.

Architect Robert Henry, a regular Mohonk visitor for more than 30 years, worked in collaboration with its Rustic Crew to craft the pavilion in keeping with the property’s other 120 historic summerhouses. “You have the perfect person to respect and honour nature,” says Barbara Stirewalt, vice president and general manager. “Robert gave us some really good insights. Combine that with our Rustic Crew’s awareness of what nature was going to do to the structure over time and you have a wonderful conglomeration.”

The 240sq ft Lakeview Summerhouse, set on a cliff overlooking the majestic glacial lake, is constructed from local wood and serves as an outdoor sanctuary where guests can connect with the healing power of nature as they enjoy their treatment. “It’s simple, but impactful,” states spa director Margaret Lora.

Touch of magic

My signature massage began with a quiet guided amble out of the main spa and up and over a rustic hand-crafted boardwalk through the woods to the new pavilion. The views are breathtaking and being given extra time outside while I had a hydrating hand treatment helped me get into the rhythm of nature.

Inside the open-air summerhouse, sheer billowing drapes add a touch of magic. I loved the private-label oil used in this treatment. Created by Tara, it’s a luscious combination of cedarwood, fir and bergamot notes. The massage left me feeling both relaxed and reinvigorated by the skilled hands of the therapist and the fresh mountain air that circulated throughout.

Smiley, a Princeton-trained psychologist, also leads mindfulness sessions in the summerhouse. Joining her on a forest bathing wander she quoted Lao Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished”.

Subtle refresh

And speaking of accomplished, the refresh to the main spa is just right and includes an update of furniture, fixtures and textiles. Working closely with Lora, Henry has chosen an organic earth-tone palette and lots of natural wood and stone features. I loved the Calacatta green tile that adorns the walls of the showers and steamrooms, the green marble countertops and the flooring – a green Vermont slate tile.

“Another impact that Robert made is really thinking through the guest experience from start to finish. That led to us paying a lot of attention to the treatment room hallway,” enthuses Lora, adding that it’s an area that’s neglected quite often, but it’s the first thing a guest sees. I was particularly pleased to find that the spa’s custom lily pond carpet which I fondly remembered from my past visits has not been done away with.

Salon overhaul

Additionally, the salon has been completely transformed. Of special note are three pedicure stations that have been “lifted almost like stadium seating to get a clear view of the beautiful lake”. Men’s and women’s changing rooms have been refurbished with showers and steamrooms completely gutted and rebuilt.

The iconic rocking chairs on the verandas and in the solarium have been reupholstered in lush green velvet and updated stone and wood refreshment stations feature throughout.

On top of this, a new treatment room showcases both a steam and cold rain shower for contrast bathing therapies.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Pietro Simone is now a supplier and enjoyed its Repair and Restore Facial with a unique cotton thread exfoliation and dry facial massage. Other product lines include Eminence, Naturopathica, Seed to Skin, Swissline by Derma Lab, Om 4 Men, Innersense and Dazzle Dry nailcare. There’s also a Tara Well Bar that is quite popular with guests.

While Stirewalt doesn’t disclose the cost of this latest project, she does tell me that millions are invested annually in the upkeep and improvement of the historic property. And that investment is clearly evident.

“Enhancing nature is what it is all about,” Henry concludes. “This project – the vision, the history and the intent – is as good as it gets. In wellness design, nature is salve and you need to be humble and learn from it.”

This project – the vision, the history and the intent – is as good as it gets
A reinvigorating massage was given by a skilled therapist / photo: Mohonk Mountain House
Nina Smiley leads mindfulness sessions
The Victorian era resort is only 90 minutes from New York City / photo: Mohonk Mountain House
Earthy tones and fresh furniture enhance the 2005 spa wing / photo: Mohonk Mountain House
Billowing drapes in the open-air pavilion add a touch of magic, says Bemis / photo: Mohonk Mountain House
The Lakeview Summerhouse is a purpose-built addition / photo: Mohonk Mountain House
The understated update of the spa is “just right” / photo: Mohonk Mountain House

Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 4

Published by Leisure Media Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | © Cybertrek Ltd