Danny King
Danny King
Ever hear about California's dueling Valencias? Probably not. Since 1926, La Valencia, with its pink, Mediterranean-style buildings and tower, has lorded over La Jolla Cove. Last year, the hotel completed upgrades to its 112 rooms, which now include Keurig coffeemakers and high-speed Internet access, and it continues to streamline its indoor-outdoor public areas to bring the property well into the 21st century.

Head about 15 miles northeast, however, and Rancho Valencia (a sister property to La Valencia until 2010) is flipping the script a bit.

This spring, the resort, the only one in Southern California under the Relais & Chateaux designation, completed the final phase of a two-year, $30 million renovation for its 49 luxury casitas and 45 acres of grounds. And while modern amenities abound (yoga pavilion, anyone?), the mission-influenced design, the on-site grass croquet courts and the provision of fresh oranges each morning are among the touches that make someone feel far more like a 1930s Hollywood celebrity than an iPhone-toting guest in a resort that was built in 1989.

So if you're keeping score, the older hotel is trying to become newer, while the newer hotel looks to preserve a vibe that predates its debut by a half-century or so -- both in the name of the same sweet orange.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote in 1905 that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Sometime later, in a parallel observation, a somewhat earthier philosopher (and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher) Satchel Paige notably surmised: "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."

Blend those two bits of wisdom and you get a mixed message that I will refer to here as the Freaky Friday syndrome. It appears to be affecting a growing stable of hotels.

With the U.S. hotel industry finally getting back to prerecession demand levels, owners and operators of some of the swankier properties are putting money into not only providing a specific sense of place but, in many cases, emphasizing a specific era.

And, like the 1976 film (and 2003 remake) in which mother and daughter cosmically, albeit temporarily, trade places, many of these properties are designed to obscure their true age.

Naturally, some of the most extensive and expensive decorative time traveling is taking place in some of the most iconic U.S. hotels, and Hilton has had a hand in a couple of the more recently notable examples.

This spring, Chicago's Palmer House Hilton completed a $215 million renovation, and its "hip and historic" feel -- Hilton's words, not mine -- include newer touches such as a rooftop garden and a three-level spa. Granted, rebirth is nothing new to the 1,641-room property, whose second incarnation is just 141 years old. Its first incarnation had burned to the ground two years prior, after just 13 days in operation, in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Hilton (through its Waldorf Astoria division) is also touting the "fresh, modern" improvements to Southern California's 88-year-old La Quinta Resort & Club, set to be finished this fall, complete with flat-screen TVs and multiple USB ports integrated into the 45-acre property's legendarily old-school casitas.

Meanwhile, a grand dame in the nation's capital is getting a face-lift, as the 89-year-old Mayflower Renaissance Hotel this fall commences $20 million worth of upgrades to its 657 rooms. They are set to get flat-screen TVs and ergonomic work areas, not to mention docking stations that have nothing to do with the property's seaworthy namesake.

One hotel in Texas appears to be going in both directions at once. A recent visit to the 9-month-old Hotel Ella in Austin reveals a 114-year-old mansion named for (and originally occupied by) the daughter-in-law of a founder of the University of Texas. The thick, fluted columns, high ceilings and black-and-white hallway photos, not to mention old-school hospitality, seem to shout McKinley administration, and its sepia-toned lobby photos of notable Texans such as songwriter Townes Van Zandt and actor Woody Harrelson betray a sense of Lone Star formality.

That said, a trip behind the old house reveals a somewhat modernist-looking hotel wing as well as an outdoor area with a sleek pool, hip sculptures and an eclectic music mix piped in. It's not exactly "keeping Austin weird," but it certainly stays with the Texas capital's penchant for the unique.

That more money is being pumped into aging U.S. hotels is no surprise, as the combination of rising travel spending and the relative dearth of good urban locations has hotel owners and financiers loosening their purse strings.

At the same time, hoteliers are tripping over themselves to ensure their properties are reconfigured to appeal to the almighty millennial and that generation's penchant for open lobby spaces and in-room connectivity.

"Just invest in bandwidth and power outlets," said Gary Dollens, senior vice president of product and brand development at Hyatt Hotels, when speaking on a panel titled "Designing for Profit" at the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference last month.

Still, with the development pipeline of North American hotels continuing to widen each month, hoteliers, especially in the luxury sector, seem willing to put money into invoking certain historical eras to provide a unique experience, even if the era has nothing to do with the hotel's history.

A case in point is the Lodge at Torrey Pines near San Diego. The 170-room resort's uber-craftsman-style vibe, complete with super-wide hallways, angular lamps and mahogany trim everywhere, recalls a combination of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style and California's Greene & Greene (the hotel's gift shop is called Greene's). A visitor is more likely to imagine Teddy Roosevelt strolling the hotel's world-renowned golf links than to realize that the resort was built in 2002.

Meanwhile, across the continent, the 50-year-old New York Hilton Midtown, the city's largest hotel, continues to straddle the line between old and new. The 1,985-room property this spring completed the first phase of its million-dollar renovation by updating 228 rooms, with upgrades planned for the rest of the hotel's rooms and its ballrooms.

So while its '60s-era facade might suggest a midtown Manhattan inhabited by Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in "The Odd Couple," or, more morbidly, Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in "Midnight Cowboy," the hotel has long ditched the Lyndon Johnson-era garishness for a more subdued approach.

Asked by Travel Weekly last month about when the behemoth hotel would settle in on a design era by halting its decorative updates, hotel marketing manager Jonathan Stas asserted, "We're never done."

Which just goes to show that when it comes to hoteliers' attempts to strike the right balance between classic and contemporary, the effort will always be ... timeless.

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