No history of Playa Guiones would be complete without the mention of The Gilded Iguana. Built nearly half a century ago The Gilded Iguana has since played host to guests from all walks of life, the majority of whom left singing its praises, and some of whom came to regard their return annual visit as nothing less than a pilgrimage. It’s roles have included a hotel, a community meeting place, a drinking den, a live music shrine, a surf story trading post, and much more during its long and prolific history. And the great thing about history is it’s never over. After changing hands in 2014, the incoming owners knew that any project bearing the name “The Gilded Iguana “ must remain true to its original essence. Achieving this would require graft, expertise, and plain old tender loving care. After two years of planning, permitting, and ensuring the requisite ingredients were in place, in late 2016 the moment came to finally break ground.
To get an inside glimpse at the master plan, and find out exactly how the owners plan to build upon the hotels already stellar reputation, we interviewed the individuals spearheading the campaign. Here, in no particular order of merit, we present the steps that the owners have implemented to create a hotel worthy of its original name.
Step One: Bring In One Of The World’s Top Designers
Outside design circles his name may not be familiar. However, within the architectural community he has a reputation as one of the best and brightest. Born in Costa Rica, Benjamin Garcia Saxe’s path to prominence began at a young age. After living with his mother until the age of 5 in a small town in Guanacaste, he was adopted by foster parents in San Jose. Benjamins foster father was an established architect all too aware of the difficulties the profession entailed. Despite pleading with his son not to follow the architectural path Benjamin remained stubborn. A childhood immersed in design blueprints, combined with a passion for math, engineering and art had stoked a fire in Benjamin that no amount of cautionary tales could douse.
Ben completed his masters at the highly competitive, internationally acclaimed Rhode Island School of Design. Here, Benjamin found himself among the design world’s most promising architecture students, all competing to produce a thesis worthy of attention from the world’s leading architectural firms. While his peers were busy re-imagining shopping malls and skyscrapers Benjamin chose a riskier, far less orthodox design that resonated strongly with both his heart and early childhood home. His design centered around a small, low budget beach house to replace the tent that had remained the home of his biological mother in Guanacaste. “I was lucky to have been adopted and given some incredible opportunities,” says Benjamin. “Unfortunately, the poor environment I had been removed from 25 years earlier was the same environment in which my mother was still living. I wanted her to be happy, comfortable, and secure” he continues. “Also, I wanted to send a message to the architectural world, many of whom still design from an outdated perspective. Modern architecture needs to benefit all sectors of society, not just the rich” he says.” “I wanted to build something that reflected architectures impending need to rise to modern challenges. The global socio-economic climate is changing quickly. If we continue to view architecture only as a tool to bring value to the wealthy, then the entire profession risks becoming irrelevant.”
After graduating, Ben, began work in London for one of the world’s top architecture firms. During his time there Benjamin oversaw the design and delivery of major projects, such as World Trade Center Tower 3 in New York, a high-end development for the Prince of Monaco in Monte Carlo, and a range of residential and office towers across the Middle East and Asia. Benjamins down time was spent returning to Costa Rica. Here he worked to bring to life the house design he had imagined for his mother. In 2010 this house, named the ‘Forest for Moon Dazzler,’ won the award for “Best Private House in the World” at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.Benjamin subsequently skyrocketed from relative obscurity into the elite echelons of the architectural industry. It was then that the phone really began to ring.
“After the award I was fortunate to be able to open my own office while remaining a consultant for the London firm,” says Benjamin. “This was a great opportunity for me to immerse myself in the kind of architecture that I wanted to develop.” The kind of architecture Benjamin is referring to can be loosely summed up as follows: practical design based on solid physics, suitable local materials, environmentally friendly practice, adhering to local essence and culture, and a robust conviction that form is just as important, maybe more so, than function.
Step Two: Because “all art is but imitation of nature” (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)
“Good architecture requires a deep understanding of engineering, physics, and materials” notes Benjamin. “However, great architecture” he continues “is made of dreams”. In addition to his wealth of technical expertise Benjamin Garcia Saxe’ rise to prominence is the result of a deeply held curiosity into the psychology of visual attraction. “I’ve always been interested in the concept of universal beauty, and I’m constantly studying why people are drawn to similar things. Take a typical Nosara sunset. Why can’t people can’t take their eyes from it? The answer is simple; A Nosara sunset is a ‘universal attractor.’ It’s comprised of archetypal elements that draw people in regardless of their ability to understand their emotional connection. Studying how people react to things that bring beauty to their lives is a fascinating branch of psychology,” he says. “When broken down it’s simply a matter of art. If you’ve ever looked at a painting which has revealed a previously hidden aspect of your character, well I see architecture in the same way.”
Applying this philosophy to The Gilded Iguana redesign has not been without challenges. “From a masterplan point of view The Iguana is a large endeavour,” says Benjamin. “One of the design challenges involved creating an outward facade that makes it appear more low key than it actually is. To achieve this we broke the design into smaller pieces that integrate with the surrounding vegetation. For the hotel rooms, we designed the upper floor to appear as if it hangs over the lower floor making it appear as if they are a single level. A blend of contemporary, durable materials with local woods taken from sustainable teak plantations will be used to form strong, simple geometric lines.”
When it comes to design, it’s clear that Benjamin firmly believes that less is more. “Nothing beats simple shapes designed right” he says. We’ve removed the bells and whistles in order to integrate the design with the natural environment. Many tourists come here from urban centers such as New York. When they arrive they’ll be relieved to trade a complex, cluttered design environment for a simple, elegant space where they can relax and not be sidetracked from the surrounding natural beauty they came to enjoy,’ he says. “The Iguana’s design blueprint reflects the traditions of Guanacaste while incorporating a clean, modern, light and airy space where guests can revel in the simplicity.”
Structural simplicity is another area where the designer and the owners are in step. “ The new design is relatively simple and straightforward” says Jeff Grosshandler. “There will be 24 new hotel rooms in total. There will be lots of thatched roofing, stone and wood finishings, a new pool area with pool bar, sitting areas and hammocks, a small spa and lots of natural elements. The 6 rooms located behind the original pool area will be renovated and remain in place. Behind the original restaurant there is a new kitchen being built. Next to the restaurant will be a lounge and reception area, with a concierge and activities desk. Everything has been designed around the location of the original restaurant. Ben and his team have done an incredible job of reading the architectural language of the original structures and applying it to the entire project.”
Step Three: Pay Homage To The Past
“The Gilded Iguana is the first medium scale hotel I have designed” says Benjamin. On seeing the place my first thought was how crucial it would be to retain the historical essence of the place. The Gilded Iguana has a powerful connection to the past. It reflects the local people’s desire for Nosara to remain low key, as well as the value they place on the surrounding natural elements. Using the past as a reference point helped me to proceed with consideration to Nosara’s future.”
Regarding the task of fusing The Gilded Iguanas past with its future Benjamin and the hotel owners are reading from the same mission statement.
“The Gilded Iguana has been many things to many people” says co-owner and project manager Jeff Grosshandler. “It’s been a surfer hangout, a night spot, a community meeting place, and everything in between. All of these things have been considered in the re-design process. There is a level of sentimentality that connects us with what the Iguana was and has always been. As such we’re striving to retain this philosophy. Things like simplicity, familiarity, and a laid back ambiance will be key factors in the vibe we’re working to create.”
The best example in this struggle to “retain the Iguanas vibe” is reflected in the hard fought campaign to preserve what many considered to be the focal point of the entire landscape – the bar and restaurant. To say the building had been deemed unsafe would be an understatement best highlighted by the fact that multiple structural engineers refused to sign off on the structural integrity of the existing wooden restaurant. “The reports coming in literally told us the place was still standing ‘ due to an act of God’. We knew we would have to dig deep to come up with a rescue plan,” says Jeff Grosshandler.
“The bar and restaurant is the heart and soul of both the property and the area and deserves the most attention within the scope of the new project,” says Jeff Grosshandler. “This building was a key component of the places authenticity we didn’t want to lose. Its silhouette is all too familiar to anyone who has spent time here. Finding a solution wasn’t easy. Each time we peeled back a layer of the onion, it was more and more rotten and beyond recovery. We had engineers take extremely detailed measurements – the width of the railings, locations of old windows, the placement of each column, the lines of the roof and supporting structures. Eventually, the original structure had to come down but we preserved many of the original materials to re-purpose. These will be used to rebuild an exact replica of the original restaurant. It will be a safe, and usable structure for many years to come. Safety was a huge concern with the existing structure but we’ve solved that.”
Step Four: Respect The Environment, Laws and Procedures In Place For Building A Project Of This Size.
“We spent nearly 2 years obtaining a D1 Environmental Permit from SETENA. This requires a continuing contract with environmental engineers, who document the project and report it to the government environmental agencies. Prior to starting construction, we had to post a bond, required by law for D1 permits, held by the environmental authorities as collateral against any damage remediation. Of course, we know we won’t need it, but it goes to show how far we have gone to comply.”
“The Iguana is being designed in a way that fits into the environment around it. The construction is proceeding in a way that will benefit the local landscape” says Jeff Grosshandler. We have built around trees, and of course are planning to plant the property with many new trees once construction is winding down. We are a gold level sponsor for Costas Verdes and strongly support their reforestation project. If anyone out there wishes to reach out with ideas concerning wildlife and tree preservation, monkey trails, or any ways in which we can serve the local environment then we’d love to hear from them.”
In addition to their commitment to protect the surrounding area The Gilded Iguana owners are setting a precedent in tackling one of Playa Guiones other major issues – water. Water supply has long been a contentious issue among locals, residents and business owners, and it’s a topic that the owners take very seriously. “Water is the most precious resource there is, without it, none of us could be here,” says Jeff Grosshandler. “From both a business and ethical perspective there is nothing we believe is more important than protecting this vital resource, and ensuring that the water supply is both sufficient and sustainable. “
In addition to installing a full septic treatment facility that recycles all waste-water to be used for watering gardens and irrigation (keep in mind, this is required by law for a project of this scope), the team behind The Gilded Iguana has made the single most significant contribution for a construction project to the town’s water infrastructure in the history of the Playa de Nosara ASADA. “ We contributed because it was the right thing to do” notes Jeff Grosshandler. “Our contribution was agreed on to make sure there is sufficient water for the project, but also, to help makeup for the existing water deficits in town, we knew we needed to go above and beyond our own water considerations. Building in Nosara without consideration and contribution to the ASADA is irresponsible and short-sighted.”
Last but not least the owners have set out to achieve full energy independence as soon as possible. “We plan to have a solar installation when the time is right,” says Jeff. “A year down the line we will have determined our exact energy expenditures. This will give us the necessary data to go fully solar. We are exploring options for battery storage and are in process figuring out the full scope of our energy independence.”
Step Five: Think Globally – Act Locally
Despite a long history of welcoming international visitors from everywhere, one thing that made The Gilded Iguana stand out from the rest is the relationship it fostered with the local community. “Traditionally, the Iguana had a great reputation as a community meeting spot, says Jeff Grosshandler. “The huge outdoor space of the front lawn has been a great place for art fairs, fundraisers, live music and lots more. We’re doing all we can and more to ensure that we preserve and build upon this aspect of the hotel’s reputation.”
Jeff’s sentiments are strongly echoed by those of Consuhotel representative Susana Guevara. In a competitive industry, the services provided by her highly sought after San Jose based consulting company include everything from feasibility studies, marketing, training, staffing, and certifications. “Being from Costa Rica, I know that Nosara is a treasure” says Susana, whose specialties include launching national and international hospitality projects. “I love the towns vibration and I feel that it’s important that the Iguana project benefits the greater local community. We will be working with as many local people as possible to fill positions ranging from maids, bar staff, wait staff, maintenance, kitchen staff and more.”
And so, now that the grand plans for The Gilded Iguana have been revealed to the public the only questions that remain are when, and how much? “Construction should be complete by the end of 2017′ says Jeff Grosshandler. “LHC construction is ahead of schedule and doing an amazing job. When we have more clarity on an opening date we’ll begin taking reservations, but we are looking at a full open sometime in early 2018. Rates will be accessible, affordable, inclusive and competitive. In addition to the upgrade and expansion of the hotel, restaurant guests can still expect the same great service, the same cold beers, the same tasty bar food, the same great atmosphere, and of course, the same amazing live music every Tuesday night on the front lawn.”
Nostalgia is a strange thing. Fond memories of great nights with friends, epic music, and warm social gatherings often lead people to believe that the future can never live up to the past. However, this is precisely the mindset the Gilded Iguanas new owners have been working tirelessly to prove wrong. Upon reopening in early 2018 to say the Gilded Iguana guest experience will be precisely identical to that of the past may be inaccurate. However, this article began with the question of how the new owners plan to “build upon the hotels already stellar reputation,” and it’s abundantly clear that the individuals leading the redesign project, from the owners, to the builders and architects, have left no stone unturned in living up to their mission statement. A warm reception, service with a smile, great times in a welcoming, friendly environment and vacation memories to last a lifetime. These were all the hallmarks of the original Gilded Iguana. Only time will tell whether the new owners aim to keep these characteristics alive and well has been a success. However at this this stage the vital signs are overwhelmingly positive, and strongly suggest the future will indeed live up to (if not entirely surpass) the past. Pura Vida!