Living like a sailor may not conjure up visions of the most enticing hotel stay, but what if you could spend a night or two in a restored barracks building that once was home to San Diego’s Navy recruits - WiFi and high thread-count linens included, of course.
That’s the idea behind a proposed boutique hotel development that would transform the last of the nearly century-old Navy barracks within Liberty Station into an 80-room hotel.
The project, which has been dubbed the Barracks Hotel, also envisions restoring the more elegant officers’ quarters on the western edge of the former Naval Training Center, where guests would share a kitchen, a sitting room and landscaped gardens in a suite-like setting.
While the notion of converting historic buildings into lodging isn’t exactly groundreaking - an old Ford Model T plant in Oklahoma City is now a 135-room hotel, and downtown San Diego’s Courtyard by Marriott is a former bank building - repurposing military housing as a hotel is more novel.
It’s the brainchild of Scott McMillin and son Andy, the second and third generations of the Corky McMillin Companies, the master developer of the 360-acre Liberty Station in Point Loma. Father and son oversee a separate company, McMillin, that is partnering with Untitled Hospitality, a year-old firm whose founder has decades of experience opening and managing hotel properties, large and small.
The more than $20 million project also represents the latest addition to Liberty Station’s still evolving 100-acre arts district, an amalgam of shops, restaurants, galleries, museums and dance companies that has struggled at times to remain true to a purist’s definition of an arts-focused community.
The decision more than a year ago to convert the 1940s-era Luce Auditorium there into a multiplex theater instead of an originally planned dance performance venue was a disappointment to some in the dance community. But it was also a concession to the economic reality of having to subsidize the rents of many of the less well-heeled, arts-centric tenants.
Much of the district is overseen by the nonprofit NTC Foundation, which needs to attract income-generating businesses like restaurants and the movie theaters to help cover the high expense of maintaining historic buildings.
The over-arching mission of the district is not lost on McMillin and Untitled, who are committed to creating what they say will be an “arts hotel” that will incorporate contributions and ideas from resident artists, be it the design of the front desk, the lobby or even the furnishings.
“The art won’t necessarily be as obvious as hanging a painting on the wall,” said Robert Cartwright, CEO of Untitled and a former graffiti artist and muralist in New York. “We want our guests to uncover different artifacts throughout their experience. Many will be unexpected. These customers will experience a stay with history - kind of like, if these walls could talk.
“We want to avoid having the seafaring artifacts seem kitschy, but we also want to give our guests this wonder of wow, I’m just discovering something from 50, 60, 70 years ago. We’re taking this into the next century of hospitality, which is more about the experience you have within the hotel and the neighborhood you’re staying in.”
Guests at the hotel conceivably would never have to leave the property, where they could spend their time browsing the artisan food vendors in Liberty Public Market, taking in a movie, shopping the galleries, or just walking along the bayfront.
Andy McMillin recalls driving around the grounds of Liberty Station one day when his father had an epiphany about some of the long vacant barracks buildings. While the McMillin family’s involvement in real estate development dates back to the 1960s, the company’s expertise in hotels was very limited. Only more recently has it entered the market and is about to start construction on three Marriott and Hilton-branded properties within Liberty Station on N. Harbor Drive, southeast of the planned Barracks Hotel.
“So when my dad was driving around Liberty Station and saw these four buildings, he said that would make for a great hotel environment,” Andy recalled. “We kind of thought, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s still on his high horse from those (Harbor Drive) hotels. So we approached the foundation, and they said they thought they could make that deal work as long as we could do the three officer quarters buildings as well. We toured them and thought there was something unique and special that could happen here.”
Given the costly, labor-intensive nature of redeveloping historic buildings, it wasn’t easy finding someone willing to take on the challenge, said Lisa Johnson, CEO of the NTC Foundation, which is responsible for more than two dozen buildings in the arts district. Others looked at the possibility of converting the former officers’ homes into a bed and breakfast, but the numbers didn’t pencil out, she said.
“Renovating the buildings, plus their one-acre lots, was a million-dollar proposition per house,” she noted. “One wouldn’t get the return on business to make it work, but now we have people who understand the importance of preserving history and also have the ability to renovate the buildings for us.”
Although much of the project design is still a work in progress, McMillin and Untitled anticipate preserving the exterior of the two-story, Spanish Colonial Revival barracks buildings while gutting the interiors - similar to what was done with the other barracks that now house mostly galleries, studios and other arts-related uses.
The buildings, as well as the officers’ quarters, were occupied by recruits and top Navy brass from the 1920’s until 1997 when the Naval base was formally closed. The hope is to start construction in mid-2017, with completion targeted for late 2018.
Rooms in the barracks will likely range in size from 325 square feet on the lower floors to 450 square feet upstairs. A parking lot that now bisects the four buildings on Truxton Road will be re-imagined as a courtyard that will include a pool, dining venue and lawn area.
“The biggest challenge is we don’t have the power of a big brand behind us, their buying power, if you will,” said Cartwright, who at one time managed the 1,052-room Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. “But within that challenge is also an opportunity because a lot of these Marriotts, Hiltons, Sheratons are more homogenized. We’re providing an opportunity to stay in a historic building that normal citizens would not have had unless they were in the Navy.”
Toward that end, Cartwright is hoping the team can curate stories related by some of the recruits and possibly have those featured somewhere in the rooms. Even better, they’re hopeful that families of the sailors who lived there will be drawn to stay overnight in the hotel. One design idea is to include military-style lockers that would have been used in the barracks instead of a traditional dresser or closet.
A relatively short walk up a hill are the officers’ quarters, set in a more secluded, grassy area that offers panoramic views of the downtown skyline and Coronado Bay Bridge. The noise of planes taking off from the airport drowns out the traffic on Rosecrans Street, on which the homes front.
The polished hardwood floors remain, as do the elegant fireplaces, chandeliers, and curving staircase with oak handrails. Memorabilia, including an old spyglass and vintage officer hats, are displayed on a mantle, and in one house, a wooden board diagramming samples of Naval knots is propped up on the floor.
McMillin and Untitled envision the homes and grounds being used for weddings or an occasional beer festival or wine-tasting event. Each of the three 3,500-square foot homes could be rented out in their entirety or to individuals reserving single rooms. Plans call for up to five rooms in each home.
“These were luxury homes of the time and bringing them back to their original condition is our task,” said Vince Ferrer, executive vice president of McMillin. “Quarters D is already renovated and occupied by Scout, a design firm, and we’ll be bringing the three homes back to their heyday. They are four-bedroom homes with full kitchens and each have a garage, which will be turned into mini suites themselves.”
Meanwhile, the NTC Foundation hasn’t given up entirely on finding a home for a dance performance venue. It’s looking at the possibility of redeveloping the former Navy exchange building to accommodate performances for the resident dance companies, said Lisa Johnson.
“That’s still one of our goals,” she said of the 28,000-square-foot building. “The challenge is always finding the funding to renovate a building. One thing we’re looking at is an operational endowment where we could raise money to support operation even if we’re not making it with the performances, and are there other things could we use the space for, like lectures and concerts. We’re working closely with our dance companies to make sure it meets their needs.”
Robin Morgan, executive director of the San Diego Ballet, which is based at Liberty Station, said she’s encouraged by the revived effort but not yet convinced it will actually happen. The plans she’s seen would allow for smaller productions in a 300-seat theater but not something as elaborate as a production of The Nutcracker.
“Obviously, we wanted the Luce to be a theater for the dance organizations, so that was a big disappointment,” Morgan said. “But then again, for the NTC Foundation to manage it correctly, they needed to get a certain amount of rent and also pay the millions to renovate it and as a dance organization, we don’t have those kinds of resources to draw on.
“I’m no longer holding my breath for anything but will take it as it comes. I do understand the money side of things and realize it’s hard to run things by giving things away.”