Text by Lisa McEwen I Photos by Steve Cory
riving north on Court Street in downtown Visalia, does anyone else wish for a red light at Center Street?
If the traffic signal grants your request, it means an extra few minutes to gaze at the beauty that is The Darling, the city’s newest hotel. Or you can be like one of the designers on the project, Audra (Ainley) Wyngarden and stand across the street from the entrance, marveling at the painstaking transformation that the building has undergone in the past two years.
“The exterior really makes a statement to me,” Wyngarden said. “Stepping back and looking aesthetically at the building, the details that come out in the original architecture are really beautiful.”
For those who appreciate historic buildings and the quality craftsmanship they contain, a stay at The Darling, or a meal at its rooftop restaurant, Elderwood, is required. With incredible consideration and attention to detail, the original Art Deco design elements of the 1930s-era building are honored and, in some cases, tastefully updated to function in today’s hospitality environment.
“I love that guests can drive a short distance to get a big city historical feel without having to travel far,” she said.
“I think that is unique for the special events that come up in life; there is no venue quite like The Darling.”
Like thousands of others in the city, Wyngarden admits that she drove past the former peach-colored Tulare County Courthouse Annex thousands of times over the years and didn’t give the building a second thought.
But that all changed in 2017 when her brother, civil engineer Matt Ainley, his wife Janelle, and a group of investors bought the building from the County of Tulare. The investors are Lance and Jamie Mouw, Ed and Erin Largoza, JR and Kinlee Robertson, and Bob and Kristin Ainley. The building previously housed Tulare County Social Services.
Wyngarden, who worked for several years at a nationwide design firm in Chicago before moving back to Visalia, was asked to join the project to oversee purchase and procurement.
“It unintentionally became quite the family project,” she said. “Although the name has a fun ring to it, it is also in honor of my mom, Darlene, who passed when we were little.”
The story goes that several years ago, Matt Ainley’s daughter, Reese, looked at the building one day and jokingly told her dad that they should make it a hotel so she could live on the top floor. “The joke came to fruition in a sense,” Wyngarden said. Reese’s middle name is Darlene, and the play on words became “The Darling.”
Their approach to the aesthetics of the 32-room hotel is unmistakable, from the original ornate lobby ceiling, restored light fixtures and handmade front desk to the gorgeous black-and-gold geometric wallpaper in the elevator. And that’s before guests even enter one of the guest rooms. “It’s all in the details,” Wyngarden said.
Specifically, those details are typical of the era — distinctive sharp-edged looks and stylized geometrical patterns.
Art Deco, short for Arts Décoratifs, is characterized by rich colors, bold geometry and decadent detail work. It reached the height of its popularity in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, according to Architectural Digest. Famous buildings created in this style include the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building, both in New York City, and the Eastern Columbia Building in downtown Los Angeles.
The style still brings in glamour, luxury and order with symmetrical designs in exuberant shapes. And those traits pop in every room of The Darling — from the guest rooms and hallways, stairwells to the elevator (which is original, by the way, just updated to meet state building codes).
To achieve this, TenOver Studios in San Luis Obispo developed the look for which the hotel is noted — Art Deco with a modern twist. Wyngarden stepped in to coordinate on several levels, from procuring hotel furnishings to selecting draperies and answering functionality questions in every corner of the building.
It is one of the only hotels located in a historic building in the Central Valley. Wyngarden said the Padre Hotel in Bakersfield served as inspiration for The Darling. “It really is quite unique to the Central Valley, and that is what makes it a big draw,” she said.
Artwork, selected and installed by Carli Brown Gonzalez and Jan Nelson, gives a nod to the roots of Visalia and environs, including several impressive pieces by artist Matt Rangel. The Tulare County Historical Society was consulted and helped procure topographic maps that help guests visualize what Visalia looked like almost 100 years ago when the building took shape and, most importantly, irrigation maps that reveal where water flows and why.
“We have guests who will stop and stare at these maps for an hour,” said hotel manager Michael Seaward.
Renovating a historic building is hard enough without the curveball of a pandemic. Yet the owners and investors, craftsmen and construction crew soldiered on throughout the winter and spring of 2020. Fortunately, most of the furniture ordered for the hotel cleared the Port of Los Angeles just before global commerce shuttered. Items that did arrive were stored in a downtown Visalia warehouse until it was time to put all the pieces together for a toned-down grand opening, which was held July 1. Janelle Ainley coordinated the off-site warehouse.
To get the hotel ready for its opening, Wyngarden said it was all hands on deck for installation of pieces; investors and owners, cousins and a variety of family members assembled bed frames and furniture, putting in sweat equity to open the doors on time. “It was a community effort to get it all installed and open,” she said. “It was definitely a unique approach for a project of that size, and coming from a full-service firm, it was a bit of a different approach than I am used to, but it was fun having everyone involved!”
Enter Seaward, who was hired in June 2020 as general manager. The hospitality industry has taken a gut punch, and Seaward was straddling two properties this summer: Silver City Resort in Mineral King, where he worked seasonally for 10 years as manager, and The Darling. Both properties were coping with the effects of an altered reality due not only to the pandemic but massive wildfires that closed national parks and Forest Service land, drastically reducing their clientele.
During a private tour with Seaward, Lifestyle Magazine was able to view every aspect of the property, from the heated pool on the first floor to the rooftop restaurant named Elderwood, which acknowledges the local farming and ranching heritage.
“The vision was to restore the building, to bring it back to life and create something the community can be proud of,” Seaward said.
To that end, the pandemic has offered a silver lining. Opening the property was actually made easier in terms of protocols and procedures: staff were trained with COVID-19 precautions in mind. “We were able to ease into it and didn’t have to adopt all new procedures,” he said.
Foremost to The Darling, pandemic or not, is customer service. “We treat every guest like our friend,” Seaward said. “All our staff are local and have a passion for the community, so guests receive a more personalized stay.”
Those guests have overwhelmingly been locals: couples and families eager for a getaway in the midst of recommendations to stay close to home. “The support from the community has been amazing,” Seaward said. “There is no way we could have stayed open without their support.”
To see guests posting photos and comments on social media about their hotel stays and meals has been heart-warming to Wyngarden. The Darling has 9,000 Instagram followers, the Elderwood more than 7,000.
“Any time you put a lot of work into a project, to see the public enjoying it is the best part,” she said. “When they see the hidden nuggets you have put into the property, when they pick up the nuances that are not in your face, it’s great to see that and to have their support.”
Rising above downtown Visalia in dramatic fashion, the stark white exterior of The Darling is symbolic of what the world needs right now: a strong sense of place and identity. Art Deco was known in its heyday as an architectural style that looked ahead and embraced the modern world. It is safe to say that The Darling is looking ahead, too.
“We are looking forward to the return of travel,” Seaward said. “We will be prepared to welcome guests from all over the world when travel does come back.”
Until then, the property will be working on expanding its footprint by eventually absorbing the current Tulare County Probation Office, which was part of the purchase, to include a ballroom, catering kitchen and day spa.
“The partners took the time to invest in something that is top-notch,” Wyngarden said. “We wanted the building restored and restored properly, for it to be a place that the community can enjoy. I feel like it is something to be really proud of for everyone involved.”