Sonoma Mission Inn
Project Site History
The Sonoma Mission Inn sits on the site of a natural hot spring in an area that is known for its geothermal features. Four large Native American villages were once located in Sonoma Valley and these local peoples used the hot spring as a sacred and curative site, maintaining a sweat lodge in the vicinity for many generations.
In the late-1840s, Thaddeus M. Leavenworth was deeded a land grant by Mexican governor Juan Bautista Alverado that comprised the property around the spring. Doctor Leavenworth was an Episcopalian minister and physician, originally from New York, who came to San Francisco in 1847 as chaplain of Stevenson’s First New York Volunteer Regiment in the Mexican-American War. He then served as alcalde (mayor) of San Francisco from 1848 to 1849 (Leavenworth Street is named for him). Calling his Sonoma property Agua Rica Farm, Leavenworth built a house there in 1849 and improved the springs with a small bathhouse and a water storage tank. Local folklore states that Leavenworth, after a heated argument with his wife, torched the bathhouse and back filled the springs with dirt, rendering the resort inoperable. He then sold Agua Rica Farm to Captain Henry E. Boyes in 1883.
Captain Boyes hailed from Hull, England and had served in the Royal Navy. He retired from military life in 1872 to manage an indigo plantation in India. There he married, but his wife fell ill and the Boyes couple moved to California in 1883 for its temperate climate. Boyes was acquainted with Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who lived in Sonoma and recommended the local hot springs for Mrs. Boyes’ health. Henry Boyes ended up buying 75 acres from Leavenworth and, knowing geothermal resources were located in the area, set out to locate and develop the springs.3 On March 18, 1895, workers digging on the Boyes property struck a well of 112-degree water and natural gas at a depth of 70 feet. They soon after discovered an underground stream of hot mineral water that “burst up through a seven-inch pipe to a height of several feet above the ground amid a vapor of steam.” The flow was estimated to produce 100,000 gallons a day. The discovery spurred an influx of other entrepreneurial bathhouse owners to the area, including Dr. Nordin, who located a nearby spring and opened the Agua Caliente Springs Hotel, and Emma Fetter, who established Fetter’s Hot Springs.
Henry Boyes rebuilt Leavenworth’s resort qualifying it as the oldest developed geothermal springs in Sonoma Valley. The Boyes Hot Springs name was lent to the small community that grew up around the property, which originally included a smattering of summer homes along the banks of Sonoma Creek. Initially, the resort was modest, including only a small wood-frame, whitewashed building containing three bathtubs. However, Boyes quickly attracted the interest of investors A.E. Parramore and R.G. Lichtenburg and with their financial assistance was able to improve the facilities with a rustic two-story hotel, a small theater, and a club house. Small cabins also dotted the property. The resort hosted picnics, vaudeville performances, concerts, and garden parties. It became a popular destination for socialites from San Francisco and the East Bay. In 1896, an estimated 1,600 bathers came to the resort and by 1899, 4,085 were in attendance.
In 1902, the name change from Agua Rica to Boyes Hot Springs was made official and Boyes incorporated the Boyes’ Hot Mineral Springs Company, so that when he retired two years later he could leave management of the resort in the hands of the organization. Boyes retained 15 acres of the property for his own use and built a home there that he called El Mirador. In addition to the bathhouse and hotel, the resort grew to include cottages, tent cabins, a large swimming pool, tub baths, and a bottling works where the spring’s mineral water was bottled in both still and carbonated forms. The bottling facility remained in use until the early 1960s.
In 1923, a fire started in the area by workers burning out a hive of bees spread to such an extent that it destroyed the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel and much of the surrounding community. The property sat in ruin for some time before being purchased in 1926 by the Sonoma Properties Company, Inc., which announced that a new resort would be built on the same site as the old. By March 26, 1927, headlines stated that bidding would open for the new hotel.
The hotel building, which still stands today, was designed by architect Joseph L. Stewart of San Francisco and built by Roscoe W. Littlefield of Oakland. It was intended to replicate some of California’s most iconic pieces of architecture – the Spanish Missions – with its bell towers, arcaded entrance, beamed ceilings, and red tiled floors. Unlike the Missions, however, the resort featured a glass-enclosed swimming pool (considered the “largest mineral tank in the world”) and tennis courts, as well as electric lights, running water, and a fire sprinkler system for future protection from the sort of disaster that seemed to plague the property. The inn’s 100 rooms each featured an attached bathroom and many incorporated sleeping porches. The hotel was wired for telephone service that included two pay stations with the most fashionable booths. While the hotel was under construction, the resort hosted golf and polo tournaments, swimming meets, ball games, and other athletic contests on the property.
The new hotel opened on August 6, 1927, with a celebratory dinner and dance. A newspaper article stated that the “$500,000 hotel at Boyes Hot Springs... has been pronounced by all who have seen it as the last word in modern and beautiful hostelry.” In addition to the amenities described above, it also included a reception room, grand lobby, a grill and modern kitchen, and landscaped grounds. The swimming pool, baths, and theater of the resort’s earlier iteration were revived and an 18-hole golf course was created nearby on land belonging to Bigelow Ranch. Water for the entire property, supplied to bathhouse and fire protection system alike, was provided by the natural springs and held in the water tower behind the hotel.
Once again booming as a resort destination, the local newspaper regularly published a hotel directory and train and ferry schedules to assist visitors in getting to the resort. Definitely considered to be upscale lodgings, the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel charged $6 to $7.50 a night for a room, while inns on the Sonoma Square only charged $1.25 to $1.50 a night. Six months after opening, the name of the resort was changed to Sonoma Mission Inn in order to capitalize on the romanticized local history of the El Camino Real and its northernmost Mission located on the Sonoma Square.
Up through the 1920s, people would travel to the resort by train. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad maintained a branch line that extended as far as the small community of El Verano, one mile south of the resort. Here visitors could catch a horse-drawn stage, and later an autobus, that would take them to the inn. Eventually, the prevalence of private automobiles diminished train travel and allowed people to go to many other destinations aside from those served by train. Boyes Hot Springs subsequently experienced a drop in clientele that was exacerbated by the economic hardships of the Great Depression.
In April 1930, just before the resort’s darkest days, the local paper announced the opening of the season at the Sonoma Mission Inn, promoting its big pool, which was the largest and only filtered mineral pool in Northern California. This heyday was short lived, however, as the Depression caused the resort to pass into receivership. Shut down and neglected, the hotel and other buildings on the site fell into disrepair while the nearby summer cottages were relinquished by their owners to become permanent residences for less elite families. This kept the community of Boyes Hot Springs alive, but did little to support the resort business.
In 1933, the property was purchased by Emily Long, who was already the owner of the Bret Harte Inn in Grass Valley. The resort revived and prospered under her management, once again becoming the fashionable place to hold banquets, dances, wedding receptions, and conventions. This festive atmosphere was only briefly interrupted during World War II, when the resort was leased by the U.S. Armed Services for use as a rest and recuperation center for military personnel on leave from the war front.
In 1945, the resort was purchased by a group of investors headed by George T. Thompson from San Francisco, who was the manager of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and owner of the Eureka Inn, Ranch Rafael, and the Benbow Inn. Thompson eventually bought out his partners and ran the Sonoma Mission Inn himself with the help of his wife, Vee. After Thompson’s death in 1963, Vee carried on management of the hotel. The Thompsons were successful in reviving the glamor of the resort that had existed during Long’s ownership and hosted visiting dignitaries, sports stars, actors, and military brass. Top sports teams like the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Detroit Lions occupied the resort whenever they had games in the Bay Area.
For a short time at the end of Vee Thompson’s ownership, the resort became a quasi- retirement home, lodging many elderly guests on a permanent basis, as they were drawn to the fully-supported lifestyle and the quiet atmosphere that the resort offered. Eventually, Thompson sold the property to Richard Bristol, who was a Sunset magazine executive. Bristol only owned it for a short time before selling for $2.5 million to Edward J. Safdie, a New York real estate developer with experience “flipping” houses in San Francisco. Safdie had grown up in San Francisco and developed a familiarity and fondness for the Sonoma Mission Inn when he was a young boy traveling through wine country with his family. Thus, his purchase and revival of the resort has been called a labor of love. Under his ownership, a $4.5 million restoration was undertaken that included interiors by renowned interior designer John Dickenson and the creation of a European style spa that comprised a bath house, exercise equipment, a pool, and a beauty salon. Around this time, the Big 3 restaurant building at the edge of the resort property along Highway 12 was acquired and remodeled to serve the resort. Despite the massive renovation, however, small historic details like the building’s original steam heat system and radiators were preserved. In 1981, rooms went for $75 to $100 a night. The affluence of guests was reflected in Safdie’s expectations that visitors would typically arrive by private airplane at one of the local landing strips and then be chauffeured to the inn in the resort’s restored 1953 Mercedes convertible. In 1985, Safdie published a book called Spa Food - Menus and Recipes from the Sonoma Mission Inn. This book launched a craze for spa cuisine that spread throughout California and beyond, encouraging wide spread recognition of the Sonoma Mission Inn.
In 1985, the resort was purchased by RAHN Properties of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This group undertook additional improvements to the property, including the addition of a restaurant, bar, kitchen, and country style market, seventy new guest rooms and suites, remodeling of the Big 3 Fountain, and expansion of the conference facilities. In 1993, a new source of thermal mineral water was discovered 1,100 feet below the inn, which produces water of 135-degrees. The resort is now considered to be the only luxury resort in the western United States with natural hot artesian mineral water. In 1996, the resort was purchased by Crescent Real Estate Equities and thirty new guest suites were added. The following year summer rates were quoted at $170 a night. In 1998, the nearby Sonoma Golf Club was reacquired (having been part of the resort in the 1920s), making Sonoma Mission Inn the “only complete destination resort experience in Sonoma Wine Country.” In 2000, the resort saw the addition of a new 40,000 square foot spa facility, new meeting space, and thirty new suites. Two years later, it was incorporated into the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts family.
Architect & Builder
Joseph L. Stewart was an architect based in San Francisco, who appears to have been most active in the 1920s. He maintained an office in the Claus Spreckles Building. In a number of instances, his work was featured in architectural journals such as Architect & Engineer. From these sources, we know that he designed two large commercial garages “of unusual design” in the Romanesque and Neoclassical styles in 1920. One was located near Market and 9th streets, the other, designed for Mortimer Fleischhacker, was at Market and Brady streets. Stewart also designed the Classical Revival style Star Garage at 150 Turk Street in 1921, which features a monumental fanlight on its upper facade. The year 1921 saw Stewart designing the Moss Glove House building at 1st and Mission streets in San Francisco, and a large apartment house in Santa Monica. In 1922, Stewart’s design of the Crest View Apartments, an eight-story building on the northeast corner of Gough and Washington streets in San Francisco, was featured. He is also known to have designed a house at 610 Coleridge Street in Palo Alto, which exhibits the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The date of this design is unknown, but stylistic parallels can be drawn between it and Stewart’s 1927 design of the Sonoma Mission Inn.
The Sonoma Mission Inn was built by contractor Roscoe W. Littlefield. Littlefield’s business was based in Oakland, and he appears in census records with the occupation of contractor in 1900 and 1930, but little additional biographical or professional information was found about him.
California Office of Historic Preservation. Technical Assistant Series No. 7, How to Nominate a Resource to the California Register of Historic Resources. Sacramento, CA: California Office of State Publishing, 4 September 2001.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Knopf, 2003.
United States Federal Census records.
Newspapers and Periodicals
“$4 million love affair,” Press Democrat, 8 June 1980.
Architect & Engineer, December 1920.
Architect & Engineer, January 1921.
“Ponce de Leon missed this spa,” California Traveler, June 1967. “Revisiting Sonoma Mission Inn,” Sacramento Bee, 26 February 1981. Sonoma Index-Tribune, 11 April 1930.
Sonoma Index-Tribune, 4 September 1987.
“The lady who ran ‘the small country inn’,” The Press Democrat, 8 June 1980.
Western Architect & Engineer, September 1922.
National Park Service, The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties
State of California, “California Environmental Quality Act”, https://dtsc.ca.gov/california-environmental-quality-act/, accessed 31 August 2007.
Up From the Deep, “Lower Turk,” http://upfromthedeep.com/2011/07/17/lower-turk/.
“Capt. Boyes’ memorable discovery,” unknown publication, n.d., Sonoma League for Historic Preservation files.
Havens, Paul L. Untitled article, n.d., in Sonoma League for Historic Preservation files.
“Historical Uses of Thermal Mineral Water and Sonoma Mission Inn,” Sonoma League for Historic Preservation files.
“History of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa,” n.d., in Sonoma League for Historic Preservation files.
“Sonoma Mission Inn – A History,” n.d., in Sonoma League for Historic Preservation files.