Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hard Hat Tour of the Elms Hotel and Spa

The view of the Elms from the back
Years ago, Steven and I went to The Elms hotel and spa for a weekend getaway. It was a bit musty and the food could have been better but we liked it.  I enjoyed the spa (so did Steven). We ate at the Wabash BBQ and it was great. After several more trips north, we ended buying a house on Crystal Lake as our weekend getaway. We continued to go to the Elms for cocktails and spa services. We imagined the Elms as it could be.

Apparently we weren't alone. Fast forward to the fall of 2011 when the Elms was purchased by Widewaters, Inc., which closed it down for a major ($17 million) renovation. The doors closed on November 1 and the fully rehabbed hotel is scheduled to open in April. It was sad to see it close but exciting to know that it was likely to re-open in better shape, both structurally and financially.

Over the winter we kept up with the rehab progress on Facebook.  Then one evening, while sipping wine at the Fence Stile Winery just outside of Excelsior Springs, we happened to meet a number of the artisans working on the construction, along with Kevin Snedden, the Spa Driector.  We ohhed and ahhed about the rehab, the history and the potential it represented. A few days later, Kevin invited us on a "hard hat" tour! Of course we jumped at the chance. Steven was thrilled to get an inside look at the history and architecture. I was focused on the important things: the food and the spa.

Pictures of the Damage

The Elms first opened in 1888. It burned to the ground in 1898.  It was rebuilt and re-opened in 1909. It burned down again in 1910.  The current building was started in early 1911 and opened in September of 1912.  Nearly a hundred years of continuous operation has taken something of a toll on the place.  I snapped a couple of pictures of the damage. It is amazing to see the extent of the wood rot. This is what they are working with. I'm surprised the rehab didn't take a couple of years.
Wood rot
And more wood rot
The picture below shows their attention to detail. They are piecing together the tile floor in the lobby where it had been ripped up during some previous (and less historically concerned) renovation. They had to order custom tiles from an up-state New York company that specializes in historical structures. One worker described it as "doing the same puzzle, over and over again". While he may feel like he is in Groundhog Day, the result should be amazing.
Working on the tile floor
The Spa

The new spa (and it's all new - they completely gutted the lower floor of the building) will be over 25,000 square feet.  It includes single and couples treatment rooms, hydrotherapy rooms, nail and hair facilities, a retail area, a swank lobby, a "quite space" where you await treatment and the the grotto.  Oh, the grotto!  The designers went all-out to create an experience.  I can't wait for it to open.  I'm hoping that Kevin and his team will need some guinea pigs to help them tune up prior to opening.

I am so insanely excited about the spa (and in particular the grotto) I can hardly stand it. I don't have pictures of the spa- it is not slated to open until May. You can go to the facebook page for the Elms (here) and see sketches. I predict that this spa is going to quickly become the best in the Kansas City region. Kevin Snedden, the Director of Spa services,  gave us the tour. He is so customer service oriented he oozes it. To hear him talk about the experience people can expect at the spa was amazing and refreshing. I don't know about you, but I have experienced the whole continuum -- from incredible service to dismal service. It doesn't matter how good the massage is if the checkout process is so annoying that it destroys the glow you got from the massage. Kevin gets this.

What I am most excited about is the grotto, an amazing modern take on the Roman bath experience which comes with any spa service. The grotto has a steam shower (my all time favorite), a dry sauna, a steam infused sauna, cold plunge shower, and a self-serve exfoliation area. You get to spend time in the grotto before and/or after your treatment. (I don't they plan to limit the amount of time -- though I don't think they will let me move in). The idea is to alternate between the different showers and saunas. They had me with the steam shower, the rest is just icing on the cake.

The Kitchen and Food

Speaking of cake... what about the food? The chef was one of the first things I researched (which should come as no surprise). I was delighted at what I found out. The Chef is Steven Duane Cameron. His website is here Steven Duane Cameron. In 2008 and 2009 he was a James Beard Best Chef for the Mid-Atlantic Region semifinalist. He focuses on locally sourced food. Those of you from Kansas City know that we have incredible local meat, produce, wine, beer, coffee, dairy, and honey. I am so glad that the Elms realizes how great our local farmers and food and beverage artisans are.

The kitchen

I have high hopes for the restaurant which is being completely redone. The main dining room has been gutted and is on its way to becoming a very classy new restaurant called "88 At The Elms".  The lower level combines dining space with a gorgeous new mahogany bar.  The upper level is becoming "The Upper 88" which can be dining space or reserved for special occasions.  They are even adding a second fireplace upstairs where you can have a glass of port after dinner.

Don't hold me to it, but my understanding is there is going to be a coffee shop and bakery where the gift shop used to be. The lobby bar is moving upstairs to become the library tavern. They also plan to debut a summer snack bar and casual dining space on the pool deck. More food.  Better food.  What's not to love?

I should be visiting the coffee shop weekly
Outside Pool

The pool should be filled and heated within a week of this blog posting. It is going to be awesome. An example of the attention to detail is the replacement of the (perpetually faded) painted Elms Hotel logo on the bottom of the pool with a tiled one. The pool renovation was extensive, requiring an excavation of the entire rim. According to rumor, the new heaters are powerful enough to keep the pool open from April through September.  The outdoor hot tub (which is open all year round) has also been given a complete overhaul and should soon be bubbling away.

Almost done with the pool

The tiled sign on the bottom of the pool

Inside Pool

Believe it or not, there is a large lap pool in the sub-basement. It was always rather cold but they made up for that with a hot tub (and a cold plunge tub). Steven and I used to swim laps and then sit int he hot tub. It was in desperate need of repair (see below). I can't wait to see the finished job.

Along with the total rehab of both pools and hot tubs, the new management decided to install two massive and very expensive industrial-strenght dehumidifiers. These beasts should go a long way toward eliminating the musty smell that was the perpetual bane of the old Elms. With no mildew and low-chlorine salt systems for the pools and hot tubs, the new Elms should be much more pleasant.
One of the indoor hot tubs

The lap pool, stripped of its trippy "Alice In Wonderland" decorations.
The Outside

I think the grounds of the Elms are beautiful. I enjoy walking them. The gazebo (below) is used for weddings. Steven and I slowed danced the gazebo one evening. Even without music it was magical. A new roof and new lighting add to the ambiance.

Moving on before I get sentimental.... They just finished building eight raised beds for herbs and veggies. I can't wait to see what they are going to grow.
Eight beautiful raised beds for fresh herbs and produce

The Rooms

It is a hotel, so I guess i should talk about the rooms. We did get a peak at the rooms.  The bathrooms are done in white. (See below). The bedrooms have custom built cabinetry behind the bed (it looks great). I don't think Steven got passed the cartridge coffee maker (in every room) and the Sony alarm clock with iPhone/iPod doc and a built in monitor. I was focused on the color scheme - I liked it and I liked the furniture. The rooms are not huge but that's fine with me. I plan to spend most of my time in the grotto's steam shower.

Marble and tile used in the bathrooms

I like this chair and the floor lamp
The cartlidge coffee machine with lots of beverage choices.

The bedside table with the Sony docking system


I know you are wondering-- what will we experience first-- the food or the spa. Well, that's easy- the restaurant is open before the spa so the restaurant. The spa won't be far behind. After our tour, Katie was being especially nice and kept mentioning that her birthday was coming up. Steven mentioned how long it had been since he had had a massage. I suspect we will be seeing more of The Elms in the very near future.

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