Under a Mansard roof in downtown Los Altos, hotel guests relax in their French-infused rooms, read by the fireplace in the cozy library or, in the bistro, nibble pastries flown in from Paris. And proprietor Abigail Ahrens resides – literally – under the rooftop.
Now in her 48th year in the real estate business, Ahrens, owner of The Abigail Co., has long had a penchant for designing and development. She was also part of a partnership that owned an antique store in Los Gatos and a store for high-end interiors – Hilary Thatz at Stanford Shopping Center.
She’s developed several local condominium projects and has built more than 100 houses. The crème de la crème of her career is Enchanté Boutique Hotel, located at 1 Main St. in downtown Los Altos, which welcomed its first guest April 1, 2015.
“I thought I had done my last, and theoretically my best (work),” she said. “But when I went to the doctor and asked if there was any medicine I could take to stop developing, he said, ‘No, sorry, Abby. It’s a disease and you’ve got it.’”
A widow, Ahrens raised four children as a single mother and didn’t make it to France until the age of 40. But she had read up on it and was already sold on French culture.
“The whole history of Paris to me was fascinating – that you could take a slum and turn it into something so beautiful,” she said. “So when I got there, I was totally in love.”
One of her first purchases was at a flea market – a requisite for visitors to Paris. The military hat, which the vendor tried unsuccessfully to convince her had belonged to Napoleon, is now placed in Enchanté’s bistro, along with a collection of other hats.
“And that started all the rest of the Napoleonic things,” she said. “That was the inspiration for this room, with the 200-year-old timbers and as many antiques as I could manage to fit in.”
The hotel, with 19 guest rooms as well as top-floor living quarters for Ahrens, reflects her penchant for French style. Many of its antiques had been in her home, which she gave up to move into the hotel.
Although Ahrens had been collecting treasures as she found them for more than 40 years, her furniture buying in France didn’t begin until she had acquired the piece of property that was to become Enchanté Boutique Hotel. Traveling throughout southern France with a friend, she was determined to crack the code of French style.
“You know French women have this ‘something special.’ I wanted to know (what makes) French hotels special,” she said. “So we went into a zillion little French hotels, one after the other.”
Not planning to buy anything on that trip, Ahrens happened upon the museum-quality piece now in the hotel’s entryway – a massive cabinet from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Avignon that houses a grandfather clock.
Part of the community
The bistro, which is open to the public after breakfast, boasts French limestone floors that extend to the outside.
The inviting library features a cozy fireplace, comfortable furniture and a collection of framed old French documents.
The men’s restroom on the first floor displays Ahrens’ sense of humor: The wallpaper, made in Italy, depicts a life-sized knight in shining armor.
A pet-friendly hotel, Enchanté offers a variety of dog beds, including some crafted from wine boxes.
Walking beside the hotel on Main Street, one can’t help but notice a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte in a doorway – actually an emergency exit.
The building’s style is “kind of Parisian,” Ahrens said, “very definitely what you’d find on the streets there.” She noted that the building on Main Street currently housing the post office has the same style roof.
“They weren’t just Spanish – there were many (other) Europeans here as well,” she said, reflecting on the area’s heritage.
Supporting local businesses whenever possible, Ahrens said the antique French posters that adorn many of the rooms and public areas were mostly framed by FastFrame Los Altos. Vintage Bath provided the majority of the plumbing fixtures, and the now-defunct Los Altos Lighting supplied some of the lighting fixtures.
Ahrens’ friend Roberta Peters, an interior designer, helped coordinate colors and find the best fabrics for draperies.
The hotel’s guest rooms feature fireplaces, Carrera marble bathrooms, unique decor and a variety of antiques.
The Marie Antoinette room includes an exhibition poster of her along with other items dedicated to the famous queen.
Marie Curie has a room, with “apothecary jars and documents and pictures of experiments … possibly what she would have had in her home,” Ahrens said. Playing on the room’s theme, she created a coaster that quips, “Spend the night with Madame Curie and wake up glowing.”
While collecting posters, Ahrens also was searching for antique prints and came across a set of French nursery rhymes and sheet music. One room displays some of those framed nursery rhymes. Ahrens said that when a French family stayed there, she opened the door for them and the mother and daughter “burst into song, because they knew the nursery rhymes.”
According to Ahrens, it was a long-term process to create such individual rooms.
“You do it as you find things,” she said.
Among other amenities of Enchanté are the organic Naturepedic mattresses made by Amish craftsmen in Ohio and soundproofing to keep out street noise. On the windows that face the hills, Ahrens uses half-window curtains behind drapes to hide neighboring roofs but maintain the views.
The attention to detail was well worth the effort to Ahrens.
“To me, this is a legacy for the town and a legacy for the kids,” she said.
A pied à terre
Abigail Ahrens’ own apartment at Enchanté Boutique Hotel, which she shares with her two Yorkshire terriers, is on the top floor. There are two main rooms and a large balcony visible from San Antonio Road.
The entryway features a “bibliotheque” cabinet with wire on its doors; inside are a stuffed rooster and chicken (“Henri” and “Henrietta”), French dolls and other favorite pieces from her collection.
Stepping through the antique French doors, Ahrens’ combination kitchen and living room includes a variety of antique chairs and a fireplace.
Over the range in the kitchen area is an old-fashioned scene of couples dancing, the unlikely inspiration for which came from a bar of soap. Ahrens’ former house also had artwork on the range hood. She showed a bar of soap – which she had had for some time and whose wrapper featured the dancing scene – to the artist who painted Napoleon on the outside downstairs door of the hotel. He re-created and expanded the festive picture for her.
“I just thought it was charming,” she said.
The living area decor boasts an antique Mora clock, a French barometer and a number of framed original English and American embroidered samplers. A portrait of a dog-headed lady is by French artist Thierry Poncelet, whose work is featured in the book “Sit.” Ahrens owns three of his paintings.
Creating a multifunctional space in one room, Ahrens has managed to avoid a cluttered look. The refrigerator is tucked away in the kitchen cabinetry and her TV is hidden in an armoire.
The balcony, which she called her “next project” as it is not yet planted, includes Anduze pots and a statue of a girl harvesting wheat. The “oeil de boeuf” (“eye of the beef,” probably named for the shape) on the roof was once a window; they’re seen in the attics of many Paris buildings, she noted.
“It just proves you can live in two rooms,” she said of her apartment.