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New Hands Take Reins of Celebrity Ranch Retreat

October 11, 1987|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Montecito's San Ysidro Ranch, a retreat once owned by movie star Ronald Colman that is still frequented by the rich and famous, has changed hands again.

After 11 years, the man who sat behind the ranch door marked "Head Honcho" has returned to his roots in Camden, Me.

"As they say, I've now done California," said Jim Lavenson, president of the prestigious Plaza Hotel in New York City before coming west. "I'm going home."

The one-time New York auxiliary mounted policeman, who became a deputy sheriff when he bought the ranch, and his partner, wife Susie, have sold the property to Napa Valley resort operators Claude Rouas and Bob Harmon, who are just settling in.

Asked about their plans for the ranch, Rouas said, "I've only spent three nights here on three different occasions, so we have many unanswered questions."

Harmon said they will spend the next three months "formulating plans, from cosmetic touches to a major renovation."

Originally part of a Spanish land grant, the ranch was used by the Santa Barbara Mission for cattle raising. Then, underprivate ownership, it was planted with citrus. It opened as a resort in 1893.

The oldest building, an adobe cottage now office space, dates back to 1825. The ranch's bar was built in 1850 as part of the wine cellar.

After the Lavensons bought the ranch, which had been in bankruptcy and/or receivership for a decade, they spent years fixing up the buildings to make the resort even better than it had been when it attracted Gloria Swanson, Dick Powell, Jean Harlow and other Colman contemporaries. A guest in those days described the facilities as "genteelly crummy."

Despite the Lavensons' efforts, Harmon said, "The ranch has been here so long, it's probably in need of major repairs, but we won't change its appeal or character. We won't turn the ranch into a French country inn."

Focus on Restaurant

He and Rouas may focus first on the building housing the ranch's Plow & Angel Restaurant, used years ago as a fruit-packing house. The plow-and-angel symbol of the ranch came from Ysidro, which is Spanish for Isadore, the patron saint of Madrid. St. Isadore is always shown as an angel with a plow.

"We'll probably renovate the dining room in the spring," Harmon said. "It's popular the way it is, so there is no need to do it immediately."

Rouas is anxious to work on the food service. The ranch's restaurant is known for its fine cuisine, but Rouas is owner of L'Etoile in San Francisco, regarded by some as one of the finest French restaurants in the world.

Rouas opened L'Etoile 21 years ago. He and Harmon opened their Napa Valley resort and restaurant, Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, in 1981.

"I bought the land and worked with the drawings," Rouas said, "and when I was ready to build, I met Bob, and we put it together. We make a good team. He gets the financing for our properties and I manage them."

Daughter to Manage

Rouas' daughter is general manager of Auberge, and she will help him run the San Ysidro Ranch, he said. Rouas is also overseeing an Italian restaurant called Piatti that he and Harmon just opened in Yountville, Calif.

Harmon also has developed resorts in Bend, Ore.; Lake Tahoe, and the Hawaiian island of Kauai. "The golf course I developed along with the Kiahuna Plantation there was just sold to the company that is buying La Costa," he said. Officials of that company, Osaka-based Sports Shinko Co., have signed a letter of intent to buy the La Costa Hotel & Spa for $250 million.

Harmon and Rouas paid a lot less for the San Ysidro Ranch, but they paid a lot more than was published earlier. Lavenson jokingly said they paid more than $5, not $5 million--as was reported. He wouldn't divulge the purchase price, but Harmon and Rouas actually paid a little more than $13 million. Denny Rea of Grubb & Ellis' Santa Barbara office handled the transaction.

Rouas, who was born on the seashore of Algeria, always wanted a place near the ocean. "I stayed at the ranch just after Jim and Susie took it over, and I fell in love with it," he remembered, "but of course, I had no idea then that I would own it with a partner someday."

'Great Sister Resort'

Harmon and Rouas bought the property because they thought it would make, as Harmon expressed it, "a great sister resort" to their Auberge du Soleil.

"They're comparable in quality and appeal," Harmon said. "They're both at the high end of the market."

Daily rates at the ranch, effective Nov. 4, range from $155 to more than $340, with "well-behaved pets" $6 a night, and horses stabled at $30 a night, "gourmet hay" included.

Rouas looks at the ranch and Auberge as being similar but different. There are differences, he says, in "layout and look." Harmon sees a difference in ambiance, "but the size--in terms of acreage, number of rooms and size of restaurant--and the beauty of the properties are almost comparable."

There are 48 villas at Auberge and 23 cottages, or 42 guest accommodations, at the ranch.

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