Rocks/Glass: The Making of Sedona’s First Landscape Hotel

Robrt L. PelaMarch 1, 2023
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Sibling owners Jennifer May, left, and Colleen TeBrake toast the completion of their “landscape” resort.; Photography by Kevin Kaminski
Sibling owners Jennifer May, left, and Colleen TeBrake toast the completion of their “landscape” resort.; Photography by Kevin Kaminski

Sisters did it for themselves at Sedona’s luxe Ambiente resort, a self-styled “landscape hotel” that looks to be the hot hospitality ticket in Arizona this spring.

A man walks into a dentist’s office. The dentist says, “Hey, Mike, want to build a resort hotel?”

But the story of Ambiente isn’t a joke. According to Jennifer May, who owns the just-opened Sedona luxury resort with her sister and their father, her dad’s trip to the dentist is the beginning of a larger story about a family that loves Northern Arizona and wanted to share it. 

“Our family dentist, George, owned this property,” says May as she wanders the 3-acre plot on the west side of town, lush with juniper and inspiring views of Sedona’s iconic red rock mesas. “My dad was getting his teeth cleaned one day [in April 2015], and George said, ‘Mike, I have a piece of property you may want to buy.’”

George the dentist had long intended to build a hotel on the hunk of land along Highway 89A. Preoccupied with veneers and root canals, he’d never gotten around to it.

“My dad and I drove over to the property later that day,” May remembers. “And we walked around, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’” 

According to public records, May’s father, developer Michael Stevenson, ultimately settled on a $2.5 million purchase price for the parcel – beginning the unlikely journey of developing a from-scratch resort in a community famously wary of development. It didn’t hurt that Stevenson’s most recent building venture, restaurateur Lisa Dahl’s Mariposa restaurant, had been well received by locals. Sedona old-timers also liked the idea of a business run by May and her sister, Colleen TeBrake, a couple of hometown girls who’d gone to Mingus Union High School with their kids and had raised their own children there. 

Rumor was that the women planned to use sustainable building practices and minimize the impact on the land. That they wanted to hire local people to help run the place, too.

view of Tabletop Mountain; Photography by Kevin Kaminski
view of Tabletop Mountain; Photography by Kevin Kaminski

May and TeBrake made good on those promises. Now known as Two Sister Bosses, they broke ground in 2020 and got busy designing every square foot of the “landscape hotel” they envisioned, overlooking the
Coconino National Forest preserve.

“We didn’t grow up planning to go into business together,” says May as TeBrake trundles past, dragging a large box of pool furniture that’s just arrived. “We work well together,” she says. “And we work a lot.”

May, who acts as Ambiente’s official spokesperson, won’t talk about the project’s price tag, saying only that it cost “eight years of blood, sweat and tears from concept to completion.” However, assuming a $300-per-square-foot construction cost (commonly cited in development circles for luxury custom home development), it’s unlikely the 33,000-square-foot resort came in for less than $10 million – making it one of the more ambitious owner-operated hospitality ventures in Arizona history.

May is willing to admit the sisters spent more than they planned to on the resort. “We learned a lot about what not to do on a project like this,” May says. “But then, we hadn’t ever built a resort before.”

Born in Sedona in the early 1970s, May and TeBrake may have been destined to be hoteliers. Their parents worked at their grandfather’s restaurant, a local favorite called Dutchman’s Cove. Dad cooked and tended bar; Mom waited tables. In 1973, their folks bought Sedona’s tiny Red Rock Lodge. Rooms ran $14 per night.

But the early ’70s gasoline crisis and a bad winter in Flagstaff made travel to Sedona problematic, and the Stevensons gave up the lodge and relocated to Huntington Beach, California, where Mike fell into work at a plastics company. He later founded his own firm, creating durable plastic labeling for water bottles and automobile parts.

“But land development was always his true passion,” May says of her father. “That and Sedona. We came back every summer while we were growing up.”

The family returned to Sedona full-time in 1985. May and TeBrake eventually married and raised their children there. TeBrake sold real estate, and May worked as an aesthetician, later joining her dad at the plastics company.

“Whatever we do is a family project,” she says, pointing to a pair of young men who are unboxing lounge chairs beside Ambiente’s swimming pool. “That’s my son Jesse and my son-in-law Matt. My other son is around here somewhere. Stephen Thompson, the architect who designed our lobby building, is my daughter-in-law’s father.”

Having family support came in handy when fallout from the COVID pandemic slowed Ambiente’s construction to a crawl. Construction workers were scarce for a time, May says. Material shortages meant supplies were either not available or took forever to arrive once they were ordered.

Sedona’s strict building codes were another challenge.

“There’s always rules when you’re building something,” says TeBrake, joining May on her tour of the property. “But up here, you have to protect a certain amount of plant life. You can’t come in and knock everything down like in a big city. So we were watching out to make sure workers didn’t throw something off a roof and destroy a plant that had been there for years.”

The sisters figure they attended more than 75 meetings with city council, the Sedona Community Forum and the local rotary club to describe their interest in ecology and sustainability, to talk about how they wouldn’t harm trees or destroy mountainside shrubs.

“My favorite comment was, ‘Why would anyone pay that much money to listen to the metallic flatulence of Highway 89A?’” May says, recalling a remark from one of the many zoning hearings she attended.

View from a guest suite
View from a guest suite
the sisters and their dad and co-owner, Mike Stevenson, taking in the scene
the sisters and their dad and co-owner, Mike Stevenson, taking in the scene
exterior reflection of Sedona surrounds
exterior reflection of Sedona surrounds

“Metallic flatulence. That was a good one,” TeBrake says, giggling. “We laughed a lot.”

The people they’d grown up with didn’t have a problem with Ambiente, TeBrake says. “It was the newer residents who assumed we were greedy developers who were going to put up a parking lot.”

After the sisters opened the property for a public tour, their critics began to come around. They liked the bit about how the rooms would be on stilts to preserve the plants below, and how Ambiente’s recirculating irrigation was fed by the property’s own well, and not with water cadged from
Oak Creek.

Locals also were pleased that the sisters plan to run the place themselves, rather than partnering with a chain or bringing in an outside management company. Residents were warming to the idea of another elite resort hotel in town – joining L’Auberge de Sedona and Enchantment Resort – and May was ready to check “calm local fears” off her list.

Caesar salad at Forty1; Photography by Kevin Kaminski
Caesar salad at Forty1; Photography by Kevin Kaminski

“And then our contractor died, halfway through,” she says with a sigh. TeBrake groans.

They found a new contractor, May says, and the shower tiles and the pavers and the plants they’d ordered began to arrive. Ambiente, scheduled to open last summer, made its debut in February.

Each of its 40 glass-fronted, cube-shaped, 576-square-foot rooms is known as an “atrium” – though it’s people, and not plant life, which reside inside a glass box, looking out onto Sedona’s red rocks, junipers and conifers.

Each unit features a rooftop deck tricked out with a firepit and a day bed; inside, guests will find a wee kitchen and a gigantic TV. The rooms, which run $1,500 per night during high season, are mirrored to maximize the inside-outside motif. The atriums are positioned to showcase Sedona’s prosaically named rock formations: Snoopy Rock, Chimney Rock, Coffee Pot Rock.

“We positioned each atrium separately,” May says. “We stood on ladders and told the architects, ‘OK, this one has to point more in that direction, so turn it 2 feet to the left.’ It took a while, but it was totally worth it.”

The architects, Phoenix-based Tim Russell and Will Erwin, were patient. May and TeBrake chose the pair, who design for Phoenix-based ASUL Architects, because they’d already designed glass-and-steel box homes, and because they seemed to really listen to the sisters’ occasionally out-there ideas.

Although neither is trained in interior design or landscaping, the sisters knew what they wanted. They’d done their fair share of traveling, but weren’t drawing on memories of hotels in Taipei or resorts in Madagascar. They were inspired, May says, by their own hometown. “People come to Sedona for the views,” she says. “We wanted to find a way to bring that view into every one of our rooms. That’s where we came up with the idea of glass cubes on stilts. Then we got busy researching how to do that.”

Their research led them to places like Vivood in Spain and Norway’s Juvet, resorts with similar scenery-first concepts that were calling themselves “landscape hotels.”

The owner of Vivood told May there was a handful of these places all over Europe that emphasized scenery as a chief amenity; May says Ambiente is the first American resort to brand itself a “landscape hotel.”

They brought in California-based Krizan Associates to handle the landscape design, which May says retained nearly 90 percent of the plant life already growing there. May and TeBrake handled all interior design chores, filling each glass box with shadowy, textured wallpapers and ceiling treatments.

“We wanted the property and the rooms to be dark, so that the views would jump out at you,” she says. “I wanted Sedona on IMAX, right in front of every guest.”

She succeeded. A pair of streams flows through the property’s formerly dry washes, fed from the property’s own well system. In a separate lobby building, a spiral staircase leads to rooms where one can experience something called a vibro-acoustic sound lounge, or soak in a tub filled with nano-oxygenated water. Just beyond are more recognizable therapies: an outdoor sauna, a yoga studio. Stevenson plans to install an automated 20-foot wind chime in the stairwell that will play random melodies. “How Zen is that?” May asks.

The sisters are also planning for a remote telescope that will project starscapes onto a movie screen atop the pool house. And unlike perhaps every other resort in the world, Ambiente has no gym – the sisters figure a hike along the Adobe Jack trailhead will outshine any treadmill they might install. There’s an on-site restaurant called Forty1 (because it’s the 41st building on the property), and a poolside kitchen in an Airstream trailer (“That was my dad’s idea,” May says). Both concepts will offer Modern American cuisine by chef Lindsey Dale, formerly of SaltRock Southwest Kitchen at Sedona’s Amara resort.

Early on, it was decided that Ambiente would be a child-free zone, open to adults 21 and over. “We love kids,” May is quick to point out, “but we wanted to have a space that’s about couples and romance.” Toward that end, she’s planning a gift-shop line of toddler-size T-shirts printed with the slogan “I was made at Ambiente.”

It was the sisters who came up with perhaps Ambiente’s most unconventional amenity: an audio system that pumps nature sounds onto the property.

“The system listens to the road,” TeBrake explains. “When the traffic on 89A is heavier, the volume goes up to cover up the freeway noise.”

It’s unlikely the celebrities who’ll be sleeping at Ambiente – VOGUE editor Anna Wintour and actress Laura Dern have already called to inquire about rooms – care about the source of the resort’s pleasant nature sounds. The reps from the French bank and the Norwegian gaming company who booked a weekend buyout probably didn’t ask about the resort’s green politics. These are things that matter mostly to TeBrake and May, who are glad to finally be done with shipping shutdowns and worker shortages and unfounded assumptions about their intentions. But don’t look for them lounging on chaises alongside Ambiente’s heated pool.

Ambiente lobby
Ambiente lobby
sleeping nook
sleeping nook
cocktails at Forty1
cocktails at Forty1
chef Lindsey Dale
chef Lindsey Dale

“Now that we’re open,” May says, “we’re thinking about writing a book about everything that can go wrong when you’re building a hotel.”