Londoners drive on the left, right? Correct, with one exception. The street that leads to the London Savoy Hotel is the only one in the city, and indeed in the whole of England, where you have to drive on the right. This dates back to the time when guests would have arrived in horse-drawn carriages. It was traditional for the ladies or dignitaries to sit behind the driver. Approaching on the right allowed staff to open up the door for the important guests without walking round the car. The passenger could alight and walk straight into the hotel. I enjoy thinking about this when I arrive there in a black cab, although a modern Hackney Carriage sadly isn’t as grand as a horse-drawn one.
The Savoy Hotel was built in 1889 and owes its existence to the theatre of the same name. Massive crowds were flocking to see the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operettas such as the Pirates of Penzance, and this grand hotel was built as an afterthought, to accommodate them. In 1904 the architect Thomas Collcutt added to the buildings, giving them an Edwardian style, and there is also an art deco theme, which was introduced in the late 1920’s and 30’s. Since the beginning, it has been one of the most exclusive hotels in London. Over the years, a host of glamorous and influential people have swept through its revolving doors, including Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. The building has always been kitted out with all the cutting-edge comforts of the day. It was the first hotel to install electric lifts, or “ascending rooms” and the first to introduce “speaking tubes” to allow its guests to order room service.
As the company chairman said in 1930, “The Savoy is always up-to-date and, if possible, a little ahead.” This remains the aim today, and, accordingly, the hotel has just undergone a £100 million refurbishment.
“For us, the most important thing was to honour the art deco heritage and traditional English design of the hotel, while upgrading the property to meet the expectations of today’s most discerning guests,” says General Manager Kiaran MacDonald. This included revamping the 268 guest rooms and River Suites, which have views over the Thames. A new bar and teashop have been added, as well as a winter garden gazebo, a glass enclosed gym and a rooftop swimming pool (one of only two in London).
The hotel has been closed since December 2007 for the restoration and we can all have a look at the results when it reopens this summer. Prices will start at around £350 per room per night. If that’s a bit over-budget, you could always book a table at the restaurant instead, which is now managed by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. The original layout of the Savoy Grill has been preserved, and it’s a thrill to think that you can still dine at the table favoured by Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin or Marilyn Monroe.
The renovation at the Savoy is a massive project, but it’s nothing in comparison to the work that is going on in another historic hotel, which you might not have heard of. When I first arrived in London at St Pancras Station, I wondered about the mysterious, pink-bricked building facing the road outside. With its graceful towers and spires, was it a closed-up cathedral? A forgotten palace? I soon learned that it was actually the last and most extravagant of the Victorian railway hotels, The Midland Grand, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
It was built in 1873 at the height of the railway boom, and no expense was spared. The interior was decorated with gold leaf and an elegant fireplace was put in every bedroom. The building was fitted with the latest technology, like hydraulic lifts and revolving doors. It was the ultimate luxury hotel of the moment, but its glory was to be short lived. The fortunes of the railways had peaked, and boom began to turn to bust almost as soon as the doors were opened. As the Victorian era passed into the new century, the lavish building began to look obsolete. En suite bathrooms became de rigueur, and the Midland Grand had none, requiring guests to travel with an army of servants to run up and down the stairs with bath tubs, buckets of hot water and chamber pots. The hotel struggled to survive and finally closed in 1935.
Now, seventy five years later, it is poised to be opened once again. The building has been refurbished by the Manhattan Loft Corporation and transformed into apartments and a 245 bedroom hotel. Thankfully, they’ll all have the luxury of a bathroom this time. Modern conveniences have been fitted in around its soaring wood beamed ceilings and majestic staircases. The developers have lovingly restored the towering beauty of its arches and columns, the intricacy of its wood and plasterwork, so stepping inside, it feels like a monument to Victorian grandeur and glorious excess.
The apartments are finished and have all been snapped up by people willing to pay a premium for living in such an extraordinary building with such great transport links. (The Eurostar to Paris now departs from St Pancras.) The hotel will be a Marriott Renaissance property with two restaurants and bars, a ballroom and reception rooms for meetings and events. There will be 52 guest rooms in the historic part of the building, with the rest in the new bedroom wing. It’s not ready to receive guests yet, but it’s scheduled to open in 2011. This time, it’s ready to face the future.