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Something Inside of Us Sleeps, The Sleeper Must Awaken

The Beanie Babies billionaire is holding a Calif. hotel ‘hostage’

For nearly three years, an enigmatic billionaire has kept one of the most beloved and sought-after properties in the world closed: Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Santa Barbara. 

Now former employees, Santa Barbara residents and vacationers of a certain stature are starting to wonder when Ty Warner is going to release his stranglehold on their coveted space.

The short answer: Nobody knows. 

You may have already heard of Warner, and even if you haven’t, you know who he is in an instant. Whether you’ve searched for Peanut the Elephant on eBay or attached his signature “Ty” emoji to a message to denote “thank you,” you probably have somehow, in some way, been influenced by the Chicago-based Beanie Babies tycoon. 

Warner, who is worth an estimated $5.2 billion, according to Forbes, last granted a long-form interview to People magazine in 1996. Besides an incident May 19, 1997, when he threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game, he is only spotted in public during court appearances and trade shows. He keeps such a freakishly low profile that in nearly every article about him, the word “reclusive” precedes the mention of his name — which has surfaced more often than not in recent years in stories of tax evasion convictions and high-stakes relationship squabbles

Ty Warner, the creator of Beanie Babies, signs autographs in a rare appearance to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Beanie Babies toy line at the American International Toy Fair on Feb. 16, 2003. 

Ty Warner, the creator of Beanie Babies, signs autographs in a rare appearance to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Beanie Babies toy line at the American International Toy Fair on Feb. 16, 2003. 

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that the elusive tycoon suddenly decided to shutter the most beloved property in his portfolio and continues to offer no explanation or reopening to this day.  

First opened in 1927, the 206-room hotel on 22 beachside acres — which abuts the oceanfront walkway of Channel Drive on the southern end of town — resembles something of a Gatsby-goes-West coastal retreat. 

Known for its sprawling gardens and red brick walkways that connect Spanish revival cabanas hidden around every corner, the hotel is not the kind of place where you bump into business travelers clad in lanyards and dress sneakers trailing airplane BO from wrestling carry-ons in coach.

No, this place is something else entirely.

Designed by architect Reginald Davis Johnson, known for his Spanish revival estates in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, the property is so special it somehow stitched its way into the heart and narrative of satirist David Sedaris, who allows himself to slip into a rare spell of enchantment on the property: “I was put up at the Biltmore Four Seasons, which is not in the city centre, but several miles away, along a secluded stretch of coast,” he wrote for Conde Nast Traveler in September 2014. “My room was a Mission-style one-bedroom casita with a working fireplace. I had a terrace corralled by flowering vines, and over the gentle rasp of sprinklers, I could hear the ocean.

“… I returned the following year, and the one after that. My room wasn’t always a private little house, but it was always horribly magnificent.”

Satirist David Sedaris has a soft spot for Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Santa Barbara. 

Satirist David Sedaris has a soft spot for Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Santa Barbara. 

NBC/Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty I

A decade after the property’s completion in 1927, San Francisco-based Allied Properties purchased it and ran it for 40 years, from 1936 to 1976. Allied then sold the property to Marriott, which ran the hotel until 1987; Marriott sold it to Four Seasons Hotels for $55 million. 

Billionaire Warner picked up the resort in 2000 for $150 million. It would become the crown jewel of Ty Warner Properties’ Santa Barbara portfolio. Warner also owns the nearby Sandpiper Golf Club, San Ysidro Ranch, Montecito Club and Four Seasons Hotel New York. 

“Since opening in 1927, The Biltmore has been beloved by countless visitors to Montecito and Santa Barbara, including locals, celebrities and heads of state,” Visit Santa Barbara President and CEO Kathy Janega-Dykes told SFGATE in an email. “We look forward to the day when the property and its staff can once again become a source of our region’s pride and joy.”

While Warner’s other portfolio properties remain open, both Four Seasons hotels suspended operations indefinitely in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have not yet reopened.

Downtown Santa Barbara is a short drive away from Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, the crown jewel of billionaire toymaker Ty Warner's properties in California. 

Downtown Santa Barbara is a short drive away from Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, the crown jewel of billionaire toymaker Ty Warner’s properties in California. 

Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

“We are in the process of getting it back up and reopening, renovating, getting it set to go,” a Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts spokesperson told SFGATE. “Right now there’s no timeline. We’re actively moving on improvements, but the timeline is still TBD — there’s no official statement on opening.”

The closure mystery begins to unravel slightly when Warner’s Four Seasons properties are viewed as a set. While all of the billionaire’s properties were first shuttered in tandem, only the Four Seasons hotels remain closed. It has been reported that Warner’s hospitality group and Four Seasons are in some kind of rift



The Four Seasons properties are also facing labor disputes. The Santa Barbara property alone employs 450 people, and at least 250 are currently represented by local labor attorney Bruce Anticouni of Santa Barbara-based labor law firm Anticouni & Ricotta. 

“Four Seasons is contractually obligated to compensate its former employees substantial Separation Pay when their employment has come to an end,” Anticouni wrote in an April 2021 memo. The effort for restitution escalated in February 2022 when the law firm filed a $6 million class-action lawsuit for loss of wages on behalf of the employees it represents.

“A vast majority have not found comparable employment, resulting in evictions, foreclosure of mortgages, unpaid bills, the inability to purchase health insurance, and severe emotional damages,” the attorneys allege. 

The attorneys also claim that one former employee died by suicide as a result of the work stoppage, though SFGATE could not independently verify this. (SFGATE reached out to a representative from Anticouni & Ricotta on the status of the lawsuit but did not receive a comment by press time.) 

Four Seasons Hotel New York is also owned by Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner and, like its Santa Barbara counterpart, has been shut down for more than 1,000 days.

Four Seasons Hotel New York is also owned by Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner and, like its Santa Barbara counterpart, has been shut down for more than 1,000 days.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The New York Post speculates that Manhattan’s Four Seasons, located in midtown at 57 E. 57th St., is being “held hostage by an epic contract dispute between the Four Seasons management company and Ty Warner. … At issue is the fact that the hotel has been losing money for years — even before the pandemic struck, according to property records.”

“It’s terrible,” Anticouni told the Post. “There have been a lot of sad stories. A lot of employees losing their houses, divorces, and at least one suicide. 

“The company takes the position that they are still employed and will come back at some point — but we’re not seeing evidence of that. It’s been close to 1,000 days already.”

Back on the lush grounds in Santa Barbara, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore remains standing, far from decay. 

The road to Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Santa Barbara is lined with palm trees. 

The road to Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Santa Barbara is lined with palm trees. 

Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

On a recent run, I stopped by to peek at the property. While it still carries the zombified air of forced emptiness that immediately brings one back to the early days of pandemic shutdowns, the buildings, pool and grounds are maintained. 

In the words of Sedaris, the beloved property remains “meticulously landscaped and smells like primrose mulched with shredded money.”

The hotel itself, in other words, also seems poised for some kind of resolution.