Hotelier Profile—Choolwe Kalulu, The McClelland House

By Ranee Ruble-Dotts

When longtime B&B owner Celeste Carducci-Ahnfeldt sold the venerable McClelland-Priest Bed & Breakfast Inn in 2019, the new owners took advantage of the pandemic’s auspicious timing to embark on renovations. Innkeeper Choolwe Kalulu had initially planned to just “spruce it up” and reopen it in September 2021 as the grand dame of luxury inns in downtown Napa. But “sprucing up” soon shifted into an extraordinary “bottom-to-top” renovation that involved lifting the house to pour a new foundation, earthquake retrofitting, installing all new electrical and plumbing, adding an elevator, and completely redesigning the interiors.

Now reopened and rechristened The McClelland House, the renovation’s exquisite detail recreates the old-world grandeur of the landmark Victorian mansion, while appealing to modern sensibilities and luxury tastes. The rooms sparkle with stunning chandeliers, gilded accents, intricate tile work, and opulent furnishings selected with the discerning eye of a world traveler.

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Kalulu was once a commercial pilot, not the typical launch to a career in innkeeping. But watching the Zambian national entertain guests, it’s clear that he has found his calling. He’s a warm, attentive host with a rare blend of sincerity and charisma imbued with joy. We recently talked with Kalulu about his background, his approach to hospitality, and the stunning renovation that has upped the ante on luxury lodging in downtown Napa.

How did you make the journey from a pilot in Zambia to an innkeeper in Napa?
My journey began in 1997 when I came to the United States to study at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. At the time, I had been working for eight years as a pilot for Roan Air in Zambia. I came to the United States to get an aviation business degree because my basic pilot credentials wouldn’t permit me to join the board of directors.

During college, I had worked in hospitality at the Inn at the Opera and Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. I was intrigued by hospitality at the highest level and felt I could do this one day.
After I got my degree, I met a woman and all my plans changed. She was from Napa and her family business was based in wine country. I followed her to Napa. After several jobs and transitions, my mentors found this great property in downtown Napa. Built in 1889, the mansion had been a B&B for 30 years. I acquired the property with the vision of making something uniquely luxurious in downtown Napa.

Who or what have been your major influences for developing your approach to hospitality?
My mother was the greatest influence on my hospitality interest. Throughout my life, I’ve traveled extensively and developed good knowledge of what top-flight hospitality looked like. Working odd jobs as a server and valet attendant also opened my eyes to the nuances of service and gratitude. I always worked with a sense of ownership even when I was the lowest person on the totem pole. My Zambian culture is also a huge influence because we welcomed and spoiled every guest in our home. Giving people joy is remarkable, but creating memorable experiences for people is simply magical. We create lifelong bonds at our property, and money doesn’t buy that kind of relationship.

What was your vision with the renovation?
The vision was to create unique lodging that provided guests with an experience, not just a bed to sleep. We had been running the bed and breakfast as it was for two years after the purchase. The reviews were great, and the guests loved us. My daughter especially was a big hit, but the place needed some serious upgrades. I figured if this place, with all the faults, can create such memories, what would happen if we actually made it the best in both hospitality and aesthetics? The answer was simple. We decided not to cut any corners and go for it.

Describe some of the challenges you faced with renovating a historic building while trying to modernize the interiors.
Challenges were numerous. The first was to find the finances to cope with the extensive rules in restoration and renovation. The house had to be lifted and retrofitted for earthquakes with a new foundation. The cost of that alone was equivalent to the cost of another house. All the plumbing and wiring were over 50 years old and had to be replaced. To keep the artistic charm and integrity of the house, we couldn’t completely gut the house. We had to consult with historians on what was truly authentic and worth keeping, and then work around the historic elements. The glass art in the front door was buckling, and it needed to be removed, restored, and replaced. But few people are still alive who can do this type of glass restoration. The wrought iron fence had been painted repeatedly for over 100 years and all the iron art detail was lost beneath layers of paint. The fence was a key feature because local newspapers had written about in 1889. We had the fence acid washed to remove the toxic paint and restored to reveal the beauty of the iron detail. Certain architectural features of the ceilings had cracked and restoring their intricate designs was far more complicated than installing a new ceiling in a modern home. All our door hinges are original and were restored using oxidation and sometimes sanding.

Were there any moments when you were ready to throw in the towel with the renovation? If so, what were they?
Renovation became a challenge because the permitting system during the pandemic was hell. All the appliances and construction essentials were back ordered, and this led to spikes in the cost of labor and logistics. The reopening date was pushed more than eight times because the house was simply never getting ready on time. In the meantime, I had a payroll to maintain. My frustration was the skyrocketing cost and how to decide what to give up on. We eliminated several great touches like the beautiful fountain outside. A simple hot tub required ADA compliance with lifts and gadgets I can’t pronounce. Just fixing the sidewalks took tremendous debate and heartbreak, and I’m putting this lightly.

What are you most proud of with the renovation?
I’m most proud that we took a respected aging historical home in Napa and transformed it into the gem that it once represented back in 1889. Our visitor demographic has expanded tremendously. The new design attracts younger guests as well as connoisseurs of history. The balance of history and modernity was a moving target, and I think we nailed it.

How do you feel you’ve been able to set The McClelland House apart from your competition?
Our inn is unique in every sense of the word. The architecture, location, amenities, beds, linens, Hermes toiletries, staff, and hospitality are beyond most anything I’ve seen in Napa Valley. Our level of service is absolutely five stars. We have 24-hour concierge service. We cater to every demand. We deliver a complimentary chef-prepared gourmet breakfast with freshly squeezed orange juice to the guests’ rooms every morning. Our chef is CIA trained, and we offer a menu that can be tailored to every preference and dietary restriction. We are just one block from the center of town. We offer our guests complimentary electric bicycles and luxury vehicle chauffeur service. Our spa treatment team is amazingly attentive to detail. And unlike any property our size, we have an elevator, making stairs optional. Most of all, our guests always leave feeling like family.

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