The Sanitarium: Succor for the frazzled soul

A historic San Luis Obispo building is transformed by its owner into a whimsical getaway

rajuretic@sbcglobal.netOctober 26, 2011 

  • TIPS FROM THE SANITARIUM

    CASUAL DINING

    If your formal dining room is underused, consider dressing it down. A sturdy, distressed farmhouse table will stand up to games, crafts and family meals. A cabinet with lots of shelving or cubbies can keep activities at the ready. Comfortable chairs are a must. Or use a bench, which is kid-friendly and makes it easy to quickly grab a seat.

    CREATIVE SEATING

    The Sanitarium has found unexpected and inexpensive ways to create inviting seating areas. A vintage cot is used as a daybed. Comfy outdoor furniture, such as a porch swing, is used indoors. On an upstairs balcony, a hammock has become a popular spot to sit or nap.

    START A COLLECTION

    A themed collection of vintage items is a fun way to celebrate your heritage, interests or family history. If you come from a family of school teachers, you can collect and display old classroom implements. Or pick up vintage memorabilia from your hometown. Other possibilities include vintage sports equipment, cooking utensils, gardening implements, or medical tools.

When Suzi Bliss opened The Sanitarium bed and breakfast in San Luis Obispo, some questioned her choice of names.

“They thought people would feel like it’s a creepy place,” she said.

Seven years later, Bliss has proven naysayers wrong. Her bed and breakfast is thriving and its artsy, quirky style continues to evolve.

When Bliss purchased the structure in 1983, she was taken with its beauty and historical character. True, it was built as a private hospital, or sanitarium, in the 1880s, but it handled only noncontagious diseases, minor surgery and obstetrics.

“Babies were born here. That’s not creepy,” noted Bliss.

During World War II, the building became a women’s boarding house, then a rental. When Bliss purchased it, she rented it out to a fraternity while she saved up funds for a renovation.

By the time remodeling commenced, the building was in need of a major overhaul. Architect Timothy Becher drew up plans for the project. Interior designer Neta Gladney lent her insight on the project from start to finish. San Luis Obispo’s Larry Nash Construction headed up the remodel which turned nine small rooms into five guest rooms, moved the kitchen from the rear to the center of the building, and added a suite of two additional rooms in a freestanding structure. Clark Kluver of Cayucos designed and installed cabinetry befitting the historic structure.

Bliss, who is an artist, envisioned The Sanitarium as a combo bed and breakfast and art studio. So she called upon artist friends such as Tracy Taylor, to help her dream up the décor. They started with a blank canvas to amplify natural light — white walls, whitewashed wood floors, and white bathroom tiles.

Art provides jolts of color against the stark palette. You’ll find it everywhere, bringing a funky, bohemian presence to the space. Paintings and sculptures are rotated through the inn. Handmade lighting graces some of the rooms. Outdoors, paintings line the fences and even the walls of the carport.

Bliss and her crew decorated mostly with vintage furniture and accents. Weathered woods, wicker and plump upholstered chairs offer a friendly, laidback feel, like spending time at a favorite grandmother’s house.

Bliss and her crew exercised their creativity by inserting elements of surprise. A porch swing hangs indoors near a sunny bay window. In one guest room, they created a romantic cocoon by painting a small alcove fiery red, setting a white sleigh bed inside and concealing the nook with a wispy curtain. Another room has a beachy feel with a driftwood and glass coffee table and a fireplace hearth made of loose river rock. Ethnic accents, such as the Moroccan metal soaking tubs that are in each room, bring in a hint of the exotic.

The décor frequently ref erences the past of the building. In an upstairs alcove, an old hospital cot has been repurposed asa daybed. Next to it sits a vintage medicine cabinet with a nurse’s hat and shoes. Baby furniture, like an old bassinet and high chair, are used as accents. A vintage sterilizing cabinet stores baked goods in the dining room. Even the white color palette is a nod to the inn’s institutional roots.

The lighthearted way the staff approaches the history of the house echoes their casual acceptance of one more detail: the house is rumored to be haunted.

In particular, a female spirit is said to occupy one guest room. A former innkeeper, while standing outdoors at night, saw a woman by a window in that room.

“He thought a guest had arrived, so he went up to the room, but nobody was there,” said Bliss.

Bliss and others have heard footsteps coming from the room — a sound like a woman’s high heels clicking across the wood floor.

But neither she nor Melissa Wren, the current live-in innkeeper, fear this presence, which they describe as gentle and harmless.

“I like to think of her as a nurse,” said Bliss. “It doesn’t feel scary, but there’s a definite energy here.”

Bliss and her friends translate that energy into artistic endeavors. The large, bright front room, likely once used as a sitting room for patients, is the ideal place to paint. On the first and third Wednesday evenings of each month, strains of music fill the room during The Sanitarium’s songwriter showcases.

All this activity is what Bliss likes best about spending time at The Sanitarium.

“It’s like being in a depot,” she said. “People come from all over the planet — but I get to stay in one place.”

Rebecca Juretic is a freelance writer who lives in San Luis Obispo.

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