A standing ovation for Italy's Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, by San Francisco firm Babey Moulton Jue & Booth
Debra Scott -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
If truth be told, transforming a neglected neo-Gothic residence on the shores of Lake Garda into a hotel was not originally the notion of eminent hotelier Robert H. Burns, who founded the Regent International chain in 1970 and sold it to Four Seasons a decade ago. Burns had hoped to restore the property as a retreat for his own family but, with the specter of a $30 million budget looming, the numbers were not on his side. It was Burns's accountant who suggested that the villa might better serve as a luxury hotel.
Burns then contacted San Francisco design firm Babey Moulton Jue & Booth's partner Pamela Babey, with whom he had worked on the interiors of the Regent Milan. His mission: to make the century-old pile, formerly the summer residence of the namesake lumber and publishing dynasty—and notoriously the last redoubt of Benito Mussolini—feel as inviting and quirky as the country house it once was.
"We sought to give the villa the feel of a family living there for generations," says Babey, who led the project with partner David Moulton. Embarking on an ambitious shopping spree, the team purchased more than a thousand pieces of furniture and decorative items, from a Venetian cocktail set to Chinese porcelain. "We made an effort to extend the design thought so that one does not experience objects, " says Babey. "Rather, one experiences the space and the room first."
Scouring local sources, the designers were given free rein to collect dozens of photographs and paintings, the better to give each room an individual character. "We envisioned the personalities who might have visited the house in its day: Winston Churchill, Grace Kelly, Isadora Duncan, Eleonora Duse, Billie Holiday, George Patton. Then we determined what kind of room each of them might have liked," says Babey, who placed silver-framed black-and-white photos of her various muses in their respective rooms. Many of the paintings that Babey bought are contemporaneous to Villa Feltrinelli but rendered in a classical style, reflecting the project's thematic tension between old and new. "The interior architecture, with its frescoes, painted ceilings, and stunning stained-glass windows, supplied a great part of the style," says Babey. "The art was selected to reflect other perspectives. There are Italian portraits and landscapes, gouaches of Russian stage costumes, and early opera and theater notices."
Babey and Moulton found inventive ways to get around historic-preservation requirements that a significant amount of the villa's original furniture must stay on the property. "We broke up any sets," Babey says. "If a bedside table and headboard matched, we put the table in a hall, public space, or other bedroom." The firm also slipcovered formal upholstered pieces in "beach house" cotton.
Burns, known in the hospitality industry for larger-than-life bathrooms, mandated up to 500 square feet for each of the 13 guest rooms in the villa, plus another eight in four pavilions. And there weren't any bathrooms to start with, just a few scattered sinks and tubs. "We created bathrooms out of hallways, bedrooms, whatever we could," says Babey. Accommodating Burns's penchant for flattering lighting, the team provided shaded overhead ambient fixtures along with an array of standing and desk lamps. "No gray light," Moulton says. "Bob wants everyone to look good, so we positioned the lighting at or just above shoulder level." Each bedside table boasts a brass or Venetian-glass lamp, while beds sport antiqued French reading lights.
Besides the extensive interior renovations, Babey, Moulton, et al., addressed the villa's exterior. Red cushions were designed to be placed on the steps for seating during concerts, and a long-vanished pergola was rebuilt next to the main building. Here, guests dine alfresco overlooking the lake. With hanging lamps casting a bright orange glow, visitors can almost imagine themselves enjoying the largesse of old friends.