Napa's Historic Resorts - Aetna Springs
By Jenna Sanders
Photo credit: Napa Historical Society
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For more than 100 years, Aetna Springs prided itself on the rural and rustic nature of the resort. In the 1880s, those traveling from San Francisco had to reserve eight hours to reach the secluded property. By the 1960s, guests were promised an “easy” one hour and forty-five-minute drive from the city. Aetna Springs did not shy away from its remote location, but rather promised that once guests arrived, they would find themselves in a “real sanctuary, a world apart, a respite form the great turmoil of today.”
Chancellor Harston, a New Yorker who moved to Napa in 1851, was the first to capitalize on the opportunity to turn the grounds of a mercury mining operation into a destination spa and resort. Harston purchased the land in 1877 and worked with his nephew, W. H. Lidell to remodel the miners’ buildings to open the property to guests.
In 1883, Dr. W.W. Stillwagon drafted an analysis of the waters at Aetna Springs where he pronounced, “these waters [are] of great and varied virtue and excellence, like the Ems of Germany, which they so closely resemble in analysis and in sanitary effect.”
Though Aetna Springs had operated as a curative spa for only six years at the time this report was published, the property had already achieved significant acclaim for the medicinal value of the hot and mineral springs. Visitors in the early years of the resort claimed they were cured of ailments such as malarial fever, gallstones, and rheumatism. Even paralysis was said to be erased after a steady treatment of daily soaks in the springs and consumption of the mineral water.
While Lidell managed Aetna Springs throughout the 1880s, Len D. Owens, a man whose doctor had given him only six months to live, visited the resort. Owens traveled to Aetna Springs with the hopes of convalescing in the curative waters. He found his health miraculously restored while at the resort and purchased the property for $35,000 in 1891.
Owens owned and operated the resort for the next 54 years. Under Owens’ direction, Aetna Springs went through three significant periods of architectural development, for which the property became well-known. The initial phase of development, the Victorian period, ran from 1877 and 1900. This was followed directly by the Rustic period ending in 1923. The final phase of significant development, the Farr & Ward period, spanned 1923 through 1944. The structures built at Aetna Springs between 1877 and 1944 were nominated for designation as historical landmarks in 1987 by Sally Woodbridge, an architectural historian. During the Victorian period, guests visiting the property entered through a wood entry gate and were dropped off at Winship, the main hotel building. In addition to Winship, guests had their choice of private cottages that dotted both sides of the creek running through the resort. The structures built during this period boasted wrap-around porches, double-hung windows, shingled gable roofs and latticework foundations.
Plentiful recreation amenities were available to guests, including a tennis court, library and reading room, bowling lanes, and billiards. A twenty-five-feet by seventy-five-feet bath house provided guests with protection from the elements. A 9-hole golf course, the second oldest golf course in California, was laid out for guests to enjoy in the 1890s.
The Arts and Crafts movement inspired improvements made to the property during the Rustic period. Between 1900 and 1923, the Dining Hall and Social Hall were remodeled to better match the rustic style. New additions to the property included a Soda Fountain, Mineral Bath House, guest cottages, as well as Owens’ personal residence. Stylistically rustic, these buildings sat upon stone boulder foundations and were framed with logs and heavy timber.
The architectural development during the Rustic period has often been attributed to famed architect Bernard Maybeck, perhaps best known for building the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Though records indicate Owens and Maybeck were friends, there is no evidence to support claims that Maybeck was responsible for any of the construction at Aetna Springs. As Woodbridge notes in her National Register of Historic Places nomination form, “the buildings are stylistically kin to Maybeck’s work and are fine designs in their own right.”
Owens commissioned Albert Farr and J. Francis Ward to design new guest cottages and remodel several of the existing structures between 1923 and 1944. The new cottages and remodeled structures featured wood shingled walls and roofs, wooden doors and shutters, and stone chimneys. Farr and Ward ushered Aetna Springs into modern times by constructing indoor plumbing and bathing facilities in the remodels and new builds.
In 1944, Owens sold the property to George Heibel. Though he owned the property for nearly 30 years, Heibel did not significantly develop or improve any of the structures used for guests. Aetna Springs closed to guests in 1972 and Heibel sold the 672-acre property to New Educational Development Systems for $650,000.
Historical preservation, permitted land use, and allegations of religious discrimination have plagued development on the property for the last half century. Though the property no longer operated as a resort, Aetna Springs was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Over the last forty years, many of the historical buildings were left untended and have fallen into disrepair. Napa County Landmarks has listed Aetna Springs as one of the Ten Most Threatened Treasures for nearly twenty years.
In December 2018, Alchemy Resorts purchased the property with plans to restore the resort to its original grandeur. Prior to the purchase in 2012, Napa County approved a plan to restore Aetna Springs. The approved plan allows for restoration of the 28 historic structures and visitation of 100 guests Monday through Thursday and 200 guests Friday through Sunday, among other things.
Many Napa locals eagerly await the day when this cherished historical institution will once again open its doors.