A gas station is probably the last thing you think of when you look at El Portal Sedona, the remarkably detailed 1900-1930-era bed and breakfast inn that Steve and Connie Segner created near Oak Creek – for one thing, if service stations had bathrooms like these, you’d never get drivers to leave the rest stop. Yet, that’s one of the analogies that the incredibly enthusiastic, impassioned Steve offers up for his dream inn, and when he says it, it actually makes perfect sense.
“When I was a kid, I worked in gas stations. Best business I was ever in. It was a nice community business; you were on your feet all day long, and I liked that. You pumped gas, you cleaned the window, checked the oil, sold Mrs. Johnson tires when she needed them. This is as close as I can get to it. This is my little gas station.”
For all the amazing attention to detail and architectural verisimilitude, talk with Steve for any length of time and while it’s clear he loves the minutiae, it’s really all about people. It’s about creating an environment that would appeal to the kind of guests who chafe at the sameness of a hotel chain, and who admire craftsmanship. And to get those people to sit around and talk. That was Steve Segner’s western fantasy – and, now, a reality.
“I built the inn because I wanted to reconnect with people,” Steve explains. “I had my own business, but after a while you’re in the back room, you’re looking at P&L statements, you’re doing memos. At that time, it was just no fun. I wasn’t dealing with customers.”
Steve’s beauty of a “salon” ensures he’s no longer wanting for company the kind he’s glad “come for a day and stay for a week.” The lure is the result of an inspired vision, shared and enhanced by the couple’s longtime friend, interior designer and co-innkeeper Lynda Bourgeois: El Portal, which opened earlier this year after seven years of development, is a rich man’s home, started in 1910 and finished about 1915 – with a few modern amenities like high-speed cable Internet access and digital entertainment centers. Certainly, the air-conditioning would blow that mythical 1910 tycoon’s mind. But in keeping with the theme, the grates over those vents would have a very comforting look.
“This is exactly how they would have built it” in 1910, Steve says. Which is not to say it’s “perfect” – “perfect buildings have no soul,” Steve asserts – but it is comforting, because it feels real. “Most homes in that time were built by the farmer, his brother and three other guys,” Steve reminds us. “Walls and edges can’t be perfect because people who laid up stone then were amateurs.”
The centrality of people to the El Portal story extends to the collectors and craftsmen the Segners and Bourgeois met on the way.
Typical of the stories is the quest for door knobs. Steve met an 80-year-old man in what’s now Watts in Los Angeles. He still lived in the house he was born in, when the area was a beanfield. “He had rows and rows of hardware from the ’20s in the original boxes,” Steve recalls. After Steve earned his trust – an extended feeling-out process until “he felt he knew I knew what I was talking about” – he showed his visitor a couple of vintage doorknobs. When he passed that test, Steve was granted passage to the back room, where his host had stashed hundreds of vintage knobs. Such discoveries make El Portal special.
And give guests something to talk about, which is what makes Steve happiest. Doctors, lawyers, rollercoaster engineers or ’60s record company execs, they all connect, finding common ground on the grounds. “All of a sudden they’re talking, and there’s interesting discussions, and hopefully once in a while they say to each other, ‘I’m going to call you in a couple of weeks.’ That, to me, is the highlight.”
El Portal Sedona is located at 95 Portal Lane, adjacent to Tlaquepaque. Contact the Segners at (800) 313-0017, or see their Web site at www.elportalsedona.com.