France: Renovation fit for a palace

By Samuel Muston

What's in store for Paris's iconic Hotel de Crillon? Samuel Muston takes the long view.

The Hotel de Crillon has closed for renovation. Photo / Supplied
The Hotel de Crillon has closed for renovation. Photo / Supplied

It must be one of the smallest-circulation glossies in the world. And yet one with advertisements from the smartest names in fashion. Ads you are unlikely to find in another publication with a circulation smaller than a parish newsletter.

The Hotel de Crillon magazine is as improbable as the old palace turned hotel itself. Left discreetly on the desk of all 146 rooms, it is an extravagant and deliciously camp confection. A Prada ad faces a feature about Pop art (with gallery information for the would-be Warhol-buyer). A page-wide ad for Sunrise Yachts precedes a recipe section with instructions on making "Sologne-style imperial caviar with cucumber jelly and blinis" - a recipe which requires the use of a centrifuge.

Staying there recently, I found myself lying on a huge Crillon bed being ever more seduced by the heavy pages. But then this 93-page publication offers a sharply focused vision of the hotel itself: polished, extravagant, frayed at the edges, but never anything but poised; a dream place, and a place where dreams have always been indulged.

Since last month, though, the Crillon's magazine is no more. For the hotel is no more. For two years, only the builders and architects engaged by its new owner will cross that rich-veined marble lobby, pass up those winding stairs and look out from its salons to the Eiffel Tower.

Lebanese architect Aline d'Amman and three Parisian decorators Cyril Vergniol, Chahan Minassian and Tristan Auer have been tasked with "rooting the hotel more firmly in the 21st century". Although the management and designers are tight-lipped, the bare bones of a plan is revealed in a press release: "The 7th floor will be imagined as a `quarter within the hotel' where fashion designers and brands can collaborate with the Crillon to decorate the suites."

It is hardly surprising that Prince Mitab bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wants to make his mark on the place. He did, after all, pay 250m for the hotel. And certainly the "Louis XV" decor, while never lacking for gilding, can seem a tad dated. Which might explain why, when the French Ministry of Tourism was handing out "palace" status to hotels in 2011, the Crillon was absent from the list (Mohamed Al-Fayed's Paris Ritz also lost out and has also recently closed for a 27-month refurbishment).

A straw poll of the bar revealed that most people were in favour of the makeover. But its devoted clientele were anxious that the aura they spoke of "unhurried elegance" and the ambience of the private house be maintained.

The question is, though, how do you achieve that? It's a perennial problem for those tasked with updating historic hotels, as Matt Turner of hotel design magazine Sleeper points out. "The most successful refurbishment manages to keep the spirit of the original hotel, while adding a contemporary polish. It needs to pass the 'regulars and local test', as those people often feel a sort of ownership of these historic buildings."

There is a flipside to that, though, as Zoe Monk, editor of Hotel Business Magazine, points out: "After a renovation, existing customers are often eager to return to see the new look. If it is marketed properly, most hotels will see an immediate rise in turnover." Indeed, following Claridge's refurbishment in London in 1998, turnover increased by 38 per cent and profitability by 90 per cent. It is much the same at the Savoy, which is owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. In the year after it reopened in 2010, gross operating margins jumped by 10 per cent.

Preserving the soul and spirit of the hotel is a big challenge at the Crillon, for there is so much of it. It is 250 years old with several rooms scheduled as national historic monuments.

The classical palace set of golden stone forms the only flank of Place de la Concorde, the most enviable address in the city. Designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel for Louis XV, it was bought by the Count de Crillon and has witnessed epochal events. In a first floor salon, Marie Antoinette took piano lessons and later, outside, lost her head to the guillotine. Benjamin Franklin signed the Franco-American treaty here in 1778.

Not surprisingly, this extravagant building was seized during the Revolution. Only in 1907 was it returned to the Crillons, who promptly sold it to Socit du Louvre, a holding of the Taittinger champagne family. It was they who commissioned the architect Destailleur to turn it into a hotel.The doors opened in 1909, and statesmen and crowned heads tripped over each other in a headlong rush to get a room. A marble plaque in the Salon Aigles commemorates the time when President Wilson and Winston Churchill were in residence; both came to sign the treaty establishing the League of Nations.

Ernest Hemingway propped up the bar and later put it in his novel The Sun Also Rises. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald came often, too. However, as I circled the crystal Baccarat figurine in the Winter Garden I saw no royalty. What I did see amid the mass of gold leaf, the mirrored halls and magnificent views were the ineluctable signs of tiredness. The draw for Prince Mitab is clear enough though. "Historic hotels are a safe place to put your capital," says Matt Turner. "There are only so many of them so they hold their value."

Foreign money can often be viewed with suspicion in France. But if the proof of the pudding is in a hotel's star ratings, it should be noted that the five Parisian hotels with "palace" status - the Meurice, Plaza Athne, George V, Park Hyatt and Bristol are all foreign-owned.

Indeed, there are already signs of promise for a refurbished Crillon. The management contract is rumoured to be heading in the direction of Swiss-based Kempinski, which already manages a number of historic hotels. Whether in two years a Kempinski-run and Mitab-owned Crillon will draw modern-day kings and queens of Hollywood and please the barflies, made so at home in the old Crillon, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: even the grandest of grandes dames benefit from a makeover every once in a while.

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