Empress Hotel in La Jolla under new ownership, announces $2 million renovation

By Pat Sherman

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Fay Avenue and Silverado Street will undergo a $2 million renovation this year, said the hotel’s new general manager, John Haerr.

Invest West Financial/Pacifica Hotel Company sold the hotel for an undisclosed amount to Greystone Hotels, which owns the Best Western Seven Seas in Hotel Circle and The Bristol Hotel downtown, as well as seven other properties in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Palo Alto.

“We are excited to have had the opportunity to acquire an upscale, independent hotel in an iconic destination such as La Jolla,” said Greystone Hotels president and founder, Eric Horodas, in a statement. “In addition to its world-class location, the Empress Hotel fits perfectly in our portfolio. …

“Our remodeling program, combined with our emphasis on top-notch guest service will restore the Empress Hotel as one of the leading hotels in La Jolla.”

Haerr, who joined the Empress April 15, said his addition is the only personnel change. He previously worked as a controller at Greystone’s corporate offices in San Francisco.

“We’re very excited,” Haerr said of the 12-month, top-to-bottom, hotel renovation. “We’ve got a really, really fantastic designer (San Diego’s Kathleen Kita-Palmer of K. Kita Design). … We’re going to push this property up to a new level.”

Haerr said Greystone will spend about $1.5 million redesigning guest rooms, meeting rooms and public spaces, including a complete redesign of the lobby that replaces its long, solid front desk with pedestal check-in stands and other inviting features.

“We believe in a concept of having everyone want to hang out in the lobby,” Haerr said.

Though the “ultramodern” remodel will retain a bit of the hotel’s European flavor, the hotel’s dark color scheme will be lightened considerably, Haerr said.

Elevators and other equipment also will be upgraded.

The iconic Manhattan Italian restaurant, which is leased from the hotel, will remain as it is, featuring live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Haerr’s position as general manager brings his more than three-decade career in the hotel industry full-circle. Raised in La Jolla, he landed his first hospitality job as a bellman at the Empress while a student at La Jolla High School. His father, Ralph Haerr, lives in La Jolla and brothers, Paul and Roger Haerr, and sister, Greta Kennedy, reside in Bird Rock. His late mother, Molly Haerr, lived in La Jolla’s Muirlands neighborhood from 1950 on.

The Empress was built in 1967 as a retirement home. According to Carol Olten, a historian with the La Jolla Historical Society, it became the Ellingsen Court Hotel in 1977. A series of ownership changes ensued, and its name was changed simply to the Ellingsen Hotel. It included Aimee’s Fine Dining and Mon Aimee’s Cocktail Lounge.

In 1985, the hotel was sold to La Jolla Village Inns of America for $7 million. It was sold again in 1986, becoming the Empress Hotel.