PARIS: “Hôtel de Crillon is Paris,” the renowned French Caribbean musician Henri Salvador wrote in the namesake hotel’s guest book in 1984. “Paris is Champagne, Champagne is France and France is my heart so Hôtel de Crillon is my heart.”
What would Salvador, a frequent guest at the Crillon, think of his beloved hotel now? After a renovation that has kept its doors closed since March 2013, the Parisian property, now managed by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts and officially called Hôtel de Crillon, a Rosewood Hotel, reopened on July 5, more than 98 years after its original opening on March 12, 1909.
Occupying three buildings on a corner of Place de la Concorde, a square off the Champs-Élysées, the property itself, like any hotel worthy of more than a brief mention, has a notable history, this one dating to the 18th century.
In 1755, King Louis XV commissioned the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel to build two palace-like facades, eventually the exterior of the Crillon, overlooking Place de la Concorde. These ornate structures, completed in 1758, were considered to be an emblem of fine 18th-century architecture, but they remained as facades until another architect, Louis-Francois Trouard, bought the land behind them at auction and built a sumptuous private mansion.
The Count of Crillon bought the home in 1788, and, for the most part, descendants of the Crillon family lived there until 1904. But before the Crillons came into the picture, Queen Marie Antoinette frequented the mansion for her piano lessons — until 1793, when she was guillotined right outside on Place de la Concorde.
From a grand mansion to a grand hotel: The building’s life as the Crillon began in 1906 when a luxury hotel group, the Société des Grands Magasins et des Hôtels du Louvre, bought the mansion and its two adjacent buildings with the intention of creating Paris’ most luxurious palace hotel catering to a growing demand from the international elite.
When the Crillon opened in 1909, said Brice Payen, the Paris historian who consulted on the property’s renovation, it had electricity, hot water, an elevator and a hair salon. And while the Majestic, the Astoria and the Ritz Paris were already part of the city’s luxury hotel scene, the Crillon may have been the most formal, he said. “The décor was in a typical 18th-century style, and the standard of service was very high,” he said.
Gen John J Pershing of the United States Army and Franklin D Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the United States Navy, were guests in 1918, and President Woodrow Wilson stayed there during the Paris peace conference in 1919. President Wilson, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain and foreign delegations met numerous times at the hotel in early 1919 and drafted the covenant of the League of Nations in a salon.
The lengthy list of high-profile guests in subsequent years included Charlie Chaplin, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Queen Sofía of Spain, Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Sophia Loren and the composer Leonard Bernstein, who was a regular guest. He wrote in the hotel’s guest book in 1989: “What a pleasure being once again on my terrace over Place de la Concorde.”
Fine hotels, however, can age over time, and the Crillon closed because a face-lift was in order, said Marc Raffray, the hotel’s managing director. (The hotel has been owned since 2010 by Prince Mitab bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.)
For one, the property had no central air conditioning, he said; most guests cooled themselves by opening the windows or using fans. And the chief architect of the renovation, Richard Martinet, who lives in Paris and visited the Crillon over the years, said that the hotel felt old. “It was dark and somewhat outdated,” he said, in an interview in the hotel’s redesigned lobby.
The new Crillon, central air conditioning now fully in place, is intended to be the opposite of stuffy, Raffray said. “We want to be humble, approachable and nonintimidating,” he said. “Instead of having an air of formality, our staff will greet everyone with warmth like friends.”
Unlike the past, when the hotel was a hangout primarily for its wealthy overnight guests, attracting Parisians, he said, is a big priority. Locals won’t have to cross the lobby to enter the new bar past the main entrance to the right. Formerly the fine-dining restaurant, Les Ambassadeurs, the space still has its original 18th-century sky-blue ceiling and marble and gold walls, but the ornate antique furniture has been replaced with contemporary pieces, and patrons can expect a menu of creative cocktails and a lineup of regular live entertainment.
Children, too, will be welcomed with extensive programming like treasure hunts at the hotel and activities that teach them about Paris.
Designwise, Martinet said that his goal was to capture the Crillon’s history while making it more modern. “I wanted to lighten up the hotel but make sure it still had soul,” he said. In addition to Martinet, the design team behind the renovation included the artistic director Aline d’Amman and three decorators, Chahan Minassian, Cyril Vergniol and Tristan Auer.
Auer faced redoing most of the public spaces, and, in an interview at the hotel, he said that one of the most significant changes he made was to raise the ceilings in the lobby by 3 feet to create a more spacious and airy appearance. And instead of one large room, the lobby is now a series of smaller spaces with numerous sitting areas. “I tried to replicate the feeling that you’re in a private home, not a hotel,” he said.
Other additions include a white marble and brass-hued spa called Sense; a men’s grooming room offering shaves and shoeshines; a high-end restaurant, L’Ecrin, overseen by Christopher Hache, who was the chef at Les Ambassadeurs; a casual restaurant with a crudo bar, Brasserie d’Aumont; and a basement level with a pool under a glass ceiling, all of which construction workers created by digging two levels underground.
And always a treasure in the centre of any big city, there’s a new garden with 35 varieties of plants and trees in what was once an unused courtyard; the pool’s glass ceiling looks up to the garden.
Rooms for overnight guests have been pared down to 124, from 147, and 43 are suites (nightly rates begin at €1,200, about US$1,345). The Bernstein Suite, inspired by the composer, has new furniture and accessories but still in place is the long, private terrace overlooking Place de la Concorde that Bernstein wrote of fondly in the Crillon’s guest book.
The Duc de Crillon Suite, named after the mansion’s first Crillon occupant (the count became a duke in 1815), and the Marie-Antoinette Suite, adjacent to the salon where the queen took piano lessons, have also been redesigned with new furnishings but with an 18th-century aesthetic.
Two of the most prestigious suites, Les Grand Apartements, are new and were designed by Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel. Their walls hang with photographs that the designer shot himself, such as an image of the Palace of Versailles, and then printed on canvas to give them the look of being 18th-century paintings. And in an over-the-top touch, one of the suites has a white and black marble bathroom with a two-ton bathtub.
Around 800 people were behind the renovation. The Crillon’s owner paid for the project, but his representative, Ramzi Wakim, a managing partner at the asset management firm Avangard Advisory, said that he would not disclose its cost. “The redone hotel — not how much money was spent on it — is what’s important,” he said.
The president of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, Radha Arora, was a major figure in his company’s deal to manage the hotel, and for him, the project has a personal connection: He lived in Paris for part of his childhood and worked as a busboy at Les Ambassadeurs when he was 17.
“Back then, Hôtel de Crillon was associated with regality,” he said. “Today, it’s still very much a luxury hotel, but it’s meant to impart the sense of being at the beautiful chateau of a good friend who happens to live in the centre of Paris.”
By Shivani Vora © 2017 The New York Times