While Oscar Wilde is perhaps best known for his embrace of excess, he once said of beauty: “Beauty is a form of Genius — is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon.” Jay Jeffers, designer and co-owner of The Madrona, which just opened on April 22nd, has hitched his wagon to that aesthetic star — and more precisely, to the Aesthetic Movement during which the long-beloved mansion was born. This time period was a decadent ballast for the (outward) repression of the Victoria Era.
Last incarnated as Madrona Manor, the 24-room inn on eight lush acres had sat empty in recent years until, on a whim, Jeffers and his business partner/co-owner Cory Schisler drove up to see the property, with their curiosity in check. After all, while Schisler had opened 16 hotels, first with Viceroy and then as an independent consultant, he had never owned one, and Jeffers’ career had been firmly established in residential design — in other words, they weren’t looking to purchase a hotel. But their mood quickly shifted as they toured the property, each finding a deep resonance with its structures, landscapes, and even some of the many artifacts left behind by the previous owners, Bill and Trudi Konrad, including pieces original to the Paxton family, who first built here in 1879. That property included more than 80 acres, but the land was subdivided by a second-generation Paxton. In 1981, John Harry Muir (apparently, no relation to the famed naturalist) christened it “Madrona Manor.” The Konrads, who bought it in 1999, made it a fine-dining destination with Chef Jesse Mallgren, who remains in the kitchen today.
The Madrona takes its Victorian bones and pushes up into the realm of lush satiation, with gracious views, both inside and out into the surrounding forest, in every visual frame. While a Victorian restoration would have been equally appropriate, it would’ve been too prim and proper for Jeffers’ vision, which toes the line between elegance and extravagance in surprisingly harmonious ways. If the Aesthetic Movement was Jeffers’ design inspiration, it’s 21st-century hedonism that is its new manifestation — not the superfluous kind but rather an enveloping pleasure.
No detail has been left unattended, from the recombinant old-new William Morris-inspired upholstery fabrics to the whimsical light fixtures to the art salon, curated by Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco (everything you see hanging on the walls is available for purchase). Each room is unique, with nods to both past and present. A stroll around the property with Jeffers and Schisler revealed stories that would take even the most immersive-minded visitor a long time to tease out: Jeffers first thought he wanted all the walls to be white, perhaps in reaction to the darkness of the mansion as he first encountered it; a friend designed one wall of the Carriage House, once a horse barn, from dyed cowhide cut into a mosaic pattern to memorialize its history and bring it into the present; and in a stroke of Leonard Cohen-like genius, Jeffers filled cracks in existing green floor tiles in one room with gold-leaf paint. There’s no matchy-matchy going on here.
Schisler discussed the challenges of budget for Jeffers, a designer used to working on residential projects where money is typically no object. But there’s no evidence whatsoever of cutting corners on luxury. Spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, as you would expect, have all the creature comforts, including decadent toiletries by Farmington Estates (think botanical ingredients such as mango seed butter, holy basil, sea buckthorn, wild clary sage) and plush alpaca throws blankets by Alicia Adams — and a peaceful vibe ever more elusive in California Wine Country, all with different sorts of views, from forest to vineyard to distant mountains.
Strolling through the citrus orchard in spring is the perfect introduction to the place, with the scent of orange blossoms in the air, winding up through around the pool to the quarter-acre vegetable garden and ending up at Mallgren’s table over a just-harvested salad and some oysters or salmon crudo. Food and Beverage Director Ashley Luna’s vintage spirits program is just taking off, with pours of pre-Chernobyl vodkas, retro amari, and other strange delights. Oscar Wilde would certainly have found himself right at home here.
Meanwhile, we among the living can partake in this glorious evolution of a beloved Sonoma landmark.