Napa Valley Registers, Feb. 13, 2003
By NATHAN CRABBE, Register Staff Writer
The Moonies have sold historic Aetna Springs Resort in Pope Valley after 27 often-contentious years of ownership.
Developer Bryant Morris completed his purchase of the resort and 672-acre property Tuesday from New Educational Development Systems, an arm of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
The decaying resort, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was once a spa famed for the curative power of its waters. Morris has leased the property since 1997 and, over the past four years, battled the church in court over the lease’s terms.
The Moonies relented after losing a court decision last year and decided to finally sell the property, Morris said.
“Basically they tried to wear me down,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go away.”
Morris’ initial plans to restore the resort and open it anew were short-circuited when Napa County voters rejected Measure G in 2000. The measure would have changed zoning to allow Morris to construct a $22 million resort, which he claimed was essential to fund preservation efforts.
Morris said he still wants to restore historic buildings and open a resort, but will take a different approach this time. He hopes to find a partner to help fund restoration work and meet with county officials to develop a mutually agreeable plan.
“That’s probably what I should have done the first time,” he said.
Architect Juliana Inman, a preservationist and Measure G supporter, said the change in ownership should help restoration efforts. “Everyone has looked askance since (the Moonies) acquired it,” she said.
Inman said she didn’t “want to be too optimistic,” but having Morris own the land will make restoration “so much easier.”
Morris said he will also preserve Aetna Springs Golf Course, which is across the street from the resort. The course was built around 1890 and is thought to be the oldest course in the state, possibly the oldest west of the Mississippi.
When he leased the property, Morris planned to close the golf course and plant the land in vineyards. As owner, Morris said he’ll keep the course open but still plant grapes in other parts of the property and build a winery.
Ann Curtis, Aetna Springs golf director, said uncertainty has hurt the course. Rumors of a closure after the Measure G defeat and news of the vineyard plans hurt business, she said, but she hopes golfers will eventually return to the course.
“It will take a while to undo that, for sure,” she said.
Aetna Springs has a long and storied history. The resort first opened in the 1880s, with the rural setting and mineral baths as the main attractions. Several of its structures are believed to have been designed by famed Arts and Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck.
The resort closed in 1972 and was bought in 1976 by the Unification Church, known as the Moonies. The following years were marked by disagreements with the county and neighbors over the church’s use of the property.
Those years have also been marked by the continued deterioration of the resort buildings. Last year, many of the resort’s century-old structures had rotten floors and roofs and appeared on the verge of collapsing. Morris said recent storms have knocked one building off its foundation, causing it to teeter near a creek.
Morris leased the land in 1997 and said he’s spent $3 million battling the church for the past four years over the lease’s terms. He wouldn’t disclose the sale price.
The property is actually 17 different parcels, which Morris said he hopes to develop in a “cohesive plan” that prevents having “to carve up the hillsides.”
Inman said the property shouldn’t be split into many uses to protect its historic integrity.
“The whole thing is a historic district,” she said. “It would be good to try to keep it together.”
Whatever the plan, Morris said restoration efforts will likely wait until he can develop a project that is agreeable to most people.
“No one’s going to restore anything until there’s some plan approved,” he said.