Authenticity, history and an indelibly unique character are what matters when it comes to the most sought-after destination hotels of the day
For the past few decades, hoteliers have scrambled to build sparkling new palaces overlaid with polished steel, acres of Travertine and Carrara marble and, if you were schooled in the aesthetics of Christian Liaigre, forests of wenge and hand-stitched leather. From Sao Paolo to Singapore, the look was polished and, eventually, very much one-dimensional cookie-cutter. Guests began to complain that, opulent though the lobby and their rooms were, they could be “anywhere”. Even boutique properties like the Sanderson London looked and felt pretty much the same as the Delano in Miami or the Mondrian in Los Angeles.
Clearly sensing the growing tide of discontent, especially among deep-pocket frequent flyers, hoteliers returned to the drawing board. The solution has been to abandon new builds and reach back into the architectural archives to search out grand old piles—some of them faded hotels from a more gilded age, others Belle Epoque palaces—and add the defibrillating jolt of iPad check-ins, mirrored TVs and Bang & Olufsen sound systems.
Enlisting an army of specialist architects, designers, craftsmen and restorers, faded corridors and crumbling rooms are gently coaxed back into life. And just like that, jaded travellers have sat up with renewed interest.
Right in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the 81-room Shangri-La has set up home in an elegant 19th century Louis XIV-style mansion that was the original home of Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew. The exhaustive restoration unveiled the original skylight over what is now the dining room alongside beautifully wrought Empire mouldings.
Similarly, after over 12 years of renovation and painstaking restoration, the former Midland Grand hotel reopened in 2010 as the 245-roomed St Pancras Renaissance Hotel London. Built by the great British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1873 as the Midland Grand, it was once one of the world’s most modern hotels. The current owner Harry Handelsman has been careful to ensure that the £150 million-plus restorations—including a grand sweeping staircase and original murals—retain a gentle echo of an era when train travel was a genuine luxury.
The newly minted Rosewood London continues this trend with the Hong Kong-based group investing nearly £100 million to restore the former HQ of an insurance company, a 1914 Edwardian Belle Epoque Grade-II* listed pile. Here, celebrity interior designer Tony Chi carefully added lashings of lacquer, mahogany and prismatic mirrors around original features such as the grand Pavonazzo marble staircase that rises up seven stories and a majestic wrought iron-gated carriageway entrance to a central courtyard with stonework inspired by an Italian Renaissance palazzo.
But nowhere has this grand revival been more potent than in Venice. Over the past couple of years, canny hoteliers across the ancient water-framed city have been quietly converting historic palazzos, especially those along the Grand Canal, into sumptuous, contemporary accommodations.
This past May, the legendary Gritti Palace reopened after an extraordinary 15-month tip-to-toe renovation that cost US$55 million. Long-time fans of the hotel were thrilled by the sensitive restoration that has preserved much of the charm of a building built in 1475. Beneath the inevitable hi-tech gadgetry, the Gritti Mark II oozes Old World glamour with precious antique furniture, handmade Venetian tapestries, Murano glass chandeliers and artwork scattered through the 61 rooms and 21 suites, and public spaces.
The Gritti’s restoration, says Simon Neggers, the global PR director of the St. Regis and The Luxury Collection, involved everyone from Rubelli fabric experts to Venice’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Environmental Conservation. “It was a fine balancing act to retain the hotel’s historic features and original charm, while introducing the latest modern comforts, design and technology.”
Meanwhile, in San Polo, one of Venice’s oldest and most historic districts, the Asian-based luxury resort group Amanresorts opened its fourth Mediterranean property Aman Canal Grande (www.amanresorts.com) in a sprawling 16th century palazzo, converting the dilapidated building into a sumptuous 24-suite pleasure dome filled with original mouldings, Tiepolo frescoes and reliefs. The 18-month-long restoration involved a team of local artisans led by Jean-Michel Gathy working with Istrian stone and antique Murano chandeliers, while restoring timber Brustolon furniture and applying tempera (the same painstaking painting technique used by Leonardo da Vinci) to faded frescos.
Of course, there are innumerable challenges to reconfiguring old spaces, many of which are so site specific that it would be simply impossible to replicate another hotel in the same mould. But this one-of-a-kind limitation only adds to the allure of a property. Indeed, for Adrian Zecha, the visionary behind the Aman Resorts, the greatest challenge for the rehabilitation of the former Palazzo Papadopoli into the Aman Canal Grande “was ensuring the building’s authenticity within the strict restoration guidelines because, as a protected building, it has its share of historical frescos and other paintings which needed to be skilfully restored and subjected to rigorous inspections.”
And if it’s not already clear, whether in Venice or in London, restorations on this scale do not come cheaply, but the results invariably speak for themselves. This explains the unsparingly generous budgets that hoteliers tend to allocate to reviving grande dame properties.
For the Starwood group, for instance, the Gritti (which it owns) is part of a broader US$200 million investment purse for its Luxury Collection including the Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, the Prince de Galles in Paris and the Hotel Maria Cristina in San Sebastian.
In the end, when the scaffolding is finally lifted, the result must be, to use Zecha’s word, authentic. If the goal is to avoid the impression that one could be “anywhere”, then it’s important to firmly imprint a sense of place and heritage. As Neggers points out, key to any restoration effort is “ensuring that the restoration is more than just cosmetic, but also addresses the spirit of the destination.” If the Gritti, Rosewood, Aman Canal Grande and its cohorts are any indication, the future of destination hotels is in good hands.