Saddleback Ranch near Galisteo will became a boot camp for dealing with middle age — or, as new owner Chip Conley puts it, a “midlife wisdom school.”
Conley and co-founders Christine Sperber and Jeff Hamaoui launched the Modern Elder Academy in 2018 in Mexico. On Jan. 8, they purchased nearly 2,600 acres of Saddleback Ranch’s 3,250 acres for $8.5 million.
They selected the Santa Fe area as the location for the academy’s first U.S. expansion after considering 20 other places around the country — from Napa Valley, Calif., to Austin, Texas, to the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
“We’re excited about the Northern New Mexico area,” Conley said by phone from the academy’s Baja California Sur campus. “We just love the diverse nature [of people] of New Mexico. Nature is a part of our teaching program.”
The Modern Elder Academy will occupy prime real estate; Saddleback Ranch last sold in 2008 for $17.45 million.
Several factors enabled Conley to buy Saddleback for “half the price of the 2008 sale.” The previous owner, Dan Silvestri, a Houston-based shopping center magnate, put it up for an Oct. 14 auction with no minimum bid through Platinum Luxury Auctions.
Several bidders asked for more property details, which postponed the auction. Several parties, including Conley, subsequently made offers without the auction ever taking place.
The 2008 sale price was based on planned development that never happened, said David Ashcroft, managing director at Platinum Luxury Auctions.
“[Silvestri] felt like the luxury auction process successfully exhausted the market’s options, thus making MEA’s offer the ‘highest and best’ the market would bear,” Ashcroft said.
Modern Elder Academy, organizers say, will tap into Santa Fe’s DNA.
“Santa Fe is a place people go to reimagine themselves,” Conley said. “We are a regenerative community. We could have more than one location in Northern New Mexico.”
Conley plans to renovate the ranch’s existing four homes and clubhouse. The 7,264-square-foot Drogheda house and 2,800-square-foot Chamisa house will be used for academy workshops. The 6,103-square-foot Windland house and a fourth house will be sold to people wanting to live at Saddleback.
Conley intends to build additional buildings for the academy as well as 20 to 30 homes to be sold as residences. He has enlisted Santa Fe-based Regenesis Group, a regenerative development firm, Santa Fe-based AOS Architects, and Santa Fe-based land planning and landscape architecture company Surroundings. He expects to open the local Modern Elder Academy in early 2023 and have homes ready to sell six months to a year later.
Conley launched the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain in 1986 at age 26 with a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. He owned 52 hotels over the years and sold the company to Geolo Capital in 2010. Geolo sold the chain in 2018 to Hyatt Hotels Corp., which rebranded Joie de Vivre as JdV, currently with 19 hotels — eight California properties and 11 more in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, China and Sweden.
“To be honest, going through the dot-com bust, 9/11 and having the Great Recession, I was tired,” Conley said. “I was 50 and ready for something new.”
That took him to Airbnb as head of global hospitality and strategy.
“I was 52. Most of the company was 26,” Conley recalled. “I was helping them take their idea and go mainstream. I was the house mentor. At Airbnb, they called me the modern elder.”
That led him to write the book Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, published in 2018. He bought a house about 30 miles north of Cabo San Lucas in 2017.
“On a run, I had a Baja aha moment,” he said. “Why don’t we have a school to help people going through the transitions of life? I built the [Modern Elder Academy] campus around my house. I had the house about a year before we opened.”
Conley started pondering midlife as he had his own midlife transition.
“It became clear to me,” he said. “I had five friends who committed suicide. Why don’t we have a way to help people going through the transitions of middle age?”
That was what Conley, Sperber and Hamaoui launched in 2018. Conley described the academy’s opening year as a “huge success. It was a validation.”
“I wish my friends who committed suicide could have gone through this program,” he said.
The academy offers one-week workshops, with the most popular focusing on life transitions.
“How people are going to go through professional transitions, relationship transitions — divorce, empty [nest] transition, losing parents,” he said. “[There are] people who want to shift their professional life.”
The Modern Elder Academy’s definition of midlife is age 35 to 75.
“Midlife today starts earlier and lasts longer,” he said. “People are living longer. The organization leadership is moving younger and the world is changing faster. You can’t just pay your dues. You have to renew yourself. [The old way is] you learn until 25 and earn until 65. Now you may want to get a master’s degree at 40.”