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Aetna Springs

This is Aetna Springs’ original lodge, built in 1893 and altered circa 1930. The building would be restored as part of plans to revive Aetna Springs resort. Robb McDonough photo

The long-dormant Aetna Springs Retreat in Pope Valley has a new lease on life.

The Napa County Planning Commission on Wednesday approved plans to renovate the run-down historic resort that once attracted residents, tourists, Hollywood executives, and even Ronald Reagan, from the 1870s to the 1970s.

Developer Robert Radovan wants to restore 28 buildings, relocate five more, construct a new lodge and restore related historical structures such as bridges.

Radovan’s proposal calls for hiring 120 people to work at the revamped resort, which sits on 672 acres in a rural part of Napa County, east of Angwin. On weekdays, the resort would be able to have 100 overnight guests, plus day visitors; on weekends it could have 200 overnight guests, plus day visitors.

Following a public hearing on the proposal, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve a major modification of the site’s use permit to allow Radovan’s project to move forward.

Radovan said he and his team will continue working on the project’s design, which he hopes to have done this summer.

The site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opened as a resort and spa in the 1870s. And because new buildings were added over time, it has a hodgepodge of architectural styles, Radovan said. One of the first golf courses west of the Mississippi River was constructed there in 1891.

Aetna Springs became a stylish-summer destination for San Franciscans and celebrities. Its profile developed to the point that Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for governor there, Radovan said.

The resort was sold in 1972 to a company affiliated with the Unification Church, which was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The site began to decay under that company’s ownership, which ended in 2003. 

Radovan bought Aetna Springs in 2006 and restored the golf course, which opened in 2008. Renovating and re-opening the resort is the second phase of his restoration project.

“Aetna Springs is a very important piece, not just for Napa County but for the state of California,” Radovan said. “You’re seeing a timeline of the state of California. You’re seeing distinct (architectural) styles you just don’t see anymore. This is something we need to keep.”

Planning commissioners spoke glowingly of his proposal.

“This is truly a courageous undertaking,” Commissioner Michael Basayne said. “It is a sincere honor to approve this project.”

Due to a 1997 Planning Commission decision, Radovan didn’t need the panel’s approval to do restoration work on the property, Deputy Planning Director John McDowell said. “They can get a building permit tomorrow,” he said.

But some of Radovan’s proposals did need Planning Commission approval, such as moving five buildings so they don’t interfere with Aetna Springs Creek, and building a new lodging structure where another one stood years ago before it burned down.

Going through this process will benefit the environment and will result in a better resort, McDowell said.

“We’re fully supportive of the concept,” McDowell said.

Helen Heibel, whose parents purchased the property in 1945 and sold it in the 1970s, told the commissioners she grew up there with her siblings.

“It’s always very difficult to go out and see what it’s like now,” Heibel said. “I can’t tell you how overwhelmed I am at what’s being done.”


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