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When COVID hit, this historic SLO hotel turned inn workers into renovators

San Luis Obispo Tribune logo San Luis Obispo Tribune 8/25/2020 By Nick Wilson, The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

A historic downtown San Luis Obispo hotel was planning a significant remodel before COVID-19 hit and forced it to change its plans.

Last year, the Garden Street Inn had initiated plans to redesign the building with three new guest rooms, a boutique restaurant and a wine bar.

But the COVID-19 pandemic upheaval — combined with a change of mind on pursuing an intensive city permitting process for its structural changes — put those ideas on hold.

Instead of undertaking a major structural project, the hotel quickly switched gears to a lower-key refresh that kept it staff members employed at a time when other hotels were forced to shut down and lay off employees.

A Garden Street Inn manager informed staff that the hotel would undertake an immediate cosmetic improvement of the interior, and they asked employees if they would like to pitch in while taking on new work roles.

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Work that began as an initial paint job turned into an overhaul of the building’s inside to the tune of about $500,000. The 13-room bed and breakfast was built in 1887 and last renovated in 1991.

The upgrade included new furniture, a new color palette throughout the building and new electrical outlets.

“At first, we thought, ‘What can we do to keep everyone on board?’” said Alex Kirkwood, CEO of Kirkwood Collection. “The entire staff enthusiastically said they wanted to jump in on the renovation. What at first was a simple paint and flooring change turned into a labor of love full design refresh of the entire property’s interior.”

Kirkwood said the hotel has a lease-purchase option, meaning his company is currently leasing the property from the owner with the option to buy it after a duration of renting it. Kirkwood said his company is moving forward with its intention to buy the property, citing the investment commitment into the property already.

Each of the inn’s staff of nine employees remained employed during the down time of the pandemic by pivoting from roles like hotel clerk and housekeeper to renovation team member, Kirkwood said.

They started improvements on March 20, working room by room until July. On July 10, the hotel held a soft reopening, with limited guests as work was completed on the common areas.

In addition to the cosmetic upgrades, workers also installed COVID-19 modifications like plexiglass dividers at check-in, sanitizing stations and socially distanced seating and dining areas in the lobby.

Gourmet breakfast is served to people’s rooms in mason jars, in keeping with efforts to maintain social distancing.

A fresh take on a classic Victorian look

Now, the existing 13-room bed and breakfast, built in 1887 and last renovated in 1991, has a new design that Kirkwood describes as a more modern, refreshed take on the classic Victorian aesthetic.

The new paint color palette features lighter tones that complement the existing wood millwork and the furniture.

In the hotel’s public areas like the library, decor was inspired by traditional Victorian courtyards, which often incorporated elements of stone, metal, water and foliage.

“Everyone went to work on painting, patching (wall dents and gouges), other detailed work and cleaning,” said Michelle McClory, the design director for Kirkwood Collection. “The building has been lovingly used over the many years with suitcases traversing down the hallways and dings and scratches. It’s amazing to see the difference with spackle and know-how from the team.”

History of the Garden Street Inn

The Garden Street Inn was once the home of Morris and Helena Goldtree, who arrived in the 1860s to join Nathan Goldtree’s business, a store selling a variety of goods including clothing, furniture, groceries and medicine.

The Goldtrees’ former home was converted to a bed-and-breakfast in 1989 after passing through several different owners over the years.

Kirkwood said the business still plans to pursue the larger structural redesign to add three new rooms at a future date, but the company doesn’t have a timeline on when yet.

He said the company also will pursue listing Garden Street Inn on the National Historic Register to protect the original 1887 exterior design elements.

Kirkwood Collection specializes in boutique hotels and has four other properties in Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, Kirkwood said.


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