Sacred Building

Tom Little Bear Nason leads a ceremony planting a Monterey cypress tree on Esalen’s front lawn.

On March 14, an 85-degree Big Sur winter day, the Esalen Institute launched phase one of a multi-year renovation project. This will be the first major construction project at Esalen since its famed thermal baths were inundated by a mud and rockslide in 1998, requiring the bath house to be completely rebuilt.

The 52-year-old institute is set to expand and rebuild its lodge and kitchen. In addition, Chief Executive Officer Tricia McEntee announced the Institute will begin construction of new guestrooms, rebuilding staff housing at its South Coast property (some of which was destroyed in a 2011 fire) and improving overall accessibility throughout the Esalen property. The project, designed by Berkeley-based Arkin Tilt Architects, will cost an estimated $15 million.

The Esalen Institute is the site of Big Sur’s first visitor-oriented businesses. Once occupied by the native Esselen people (dating back to 2600 B.C.), the property was purchased in 1910 by Salinas physician Henry Murphy. He intended to open Big Sur Hot Springs, but that vision never quite realized its full potential. His grandson, Michael Murphy, co-founded the nonprofit institute with the late Dick Price. It’s now associated with the human potential movement.

Michael Murphy attended the March 14 groundbreaking with his son Mac Murphy, nephew John Murphy, the Esalen board of trustees and representatives from the Ventana Wilderness Four Winds Council.

“Let’s be plain,” John Murphy says. “In its enthusiasm to explore new vistas, Esalen at times neglected to care for its own body. Psychological and medical horizons were exciting; infrastructure was boring. We no longer accept that tradition.”

Trustee Chip Conley, founder and former CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, will contribute $1 million toward the project.

The institute will remain open during construction, with jackhammers and meditation seminars sharing space. The 5,600-square-foot expansion of the lodge and new kitchen will be done with a commitment to sustainability and use of local materials, according to McEntee. Esalen, though, will not be seeking the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification, a green-building program that recognizes and rewards the highest standards in building practices.

Architect David Arkin says LEED certification was “taken off the table” in early planning discussions.

The design plan anticipates the expanded lodge, kitchen and Huxley meeting room will consume less energy than the existing main lodge.

The first phase of construction will include building the new kitchen and second-story meeting room. Once complete, the switchover from the old kitchen to new will occur during the staff week in December, when Esalen is closed to the public.

The groundbreaking ceremony was topped off by a tree-planting ceremony on Esalen’s front lawn. The attending community placed the Monterey cypress tree near the site of the institute’s few remaining 50-year old Monterey pines, planted when Esalen first opened.

Founding Editor & CEO of the Weekly, September 1988. Bradley serves as the Free Speech Chair on the board of the national Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

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