Saudi Prince's Paris Hotel to Get Facelift by Lebanese Architect

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PARIS -- Since it opened to the public in 1909, the majestic Hôtel de Crillon has been an icon of French refinement. On Sunday, this iconic hotel, now owned by a senior Saudi prince, will close its doors for two years to undergo a major renovation intended to restore some of its former splendor.

The facelift will be directed by the Lebanese architect and designer, Aline d'Amman. Ms. d'Amman, whose agency, Culture in Architecture, has collaborated on various design and decoration projects in the Middle East, has hired three interior decorators based in Paris, Cyril Vergniol, Chahan Minassian and Tristan Auer.

"We have an ambitious renovation project that aims to preserve the soul and spirit of this hotel rather than a radical makeover," Ms. d'Amman said during an interview.

Overlooking Place de la Concorde, the most imposing public square in Paris, the hotel has been home to many illustrious guests, including Theodore Roosevelt and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran.

It has three reception rooms that are classified national historical monuments: the Salon des Aigles, the Salon des Batailles and the Marie Antoinette music chamber. They are all opulent, with six-meter-high, or about 20-feet-high, ceilings decorated with gold leaf and incomparable views of the square.

But despite the gilt, the décor seems dated and the rooms -- there are 147 of them -- and bathrooms are in need of a sprucing up.

Initially a facade built in 1758 by the French architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel by order of Louis XV, the fabulously ornate building has undergone numerous rounds of refurbishment, including a recent restoration in 2011 under the direction of the Architectes des Bâtiments de France, the agency whose mission is to safeguard France's architectural heritage. Parts of the facade had started to crumble.

During its two and a half centuries, the Crillon has witnessed some epochal events. Both Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded in 1793 in the square outside, where their marriage had been cheered some 23 years earlier.

During happier times, Marie Antoinette had taken music lessons in the salon that bears her name on the first floor. Occupied by the Germans during World War II, the building later served as headquarters for the Allied Expeditionary Forces after the liberation of Paris.

Until 2005, the Crillon was French-owned. From 1788 to about 1906, it was the private residence of the Crillon family who gave the property its current name. In 1907, the Société du Louvre, a holding of the Taittinger family known for its Champagne label, acquired the property along with adjacent buildings to create a luxury hotel.

In 2005, the Crillon was sold to the American group Starwood Capital, owner of the chain of the W hotels and St. Regis hotels, who in turn sold the hotel in 2010 to Prince Mitab bin Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al-Saud for a reported €250 million, about $319 million at today's exchange rates.

With the exception of the salons that are classified as historical monuments and must remain intact under the watchful eye of Bâtiments de France, which protects classified buildings, the new owner has nearly free rein to redo the entire interior of the hotel.

"We are conscious of the importance of this patrimony and the history that it embodies," she said. "The renovation will be effected with the respect that the building deserves."

According to Ms. d'Amman, the three decorators were selected for "the fresh vision" each would bring to the areas of the hotel to which they are assigned.

For now, Ms. Amman is tight-lipped about the scope of the renovation and the style the owner has in mind.

"Our goal is, execute the vision of the owner who has found this gem and wishes to preserve and magnify it," she said.

"This hotel will maintain its 18th-century cachet with a twist of contemporary creativity," she said. "We also reserve a few surprises."

According to the French daily Les Échos, the cost of the renovation will be about €80 million.

With the French economy buckling under nearly recessionary conditions, a number of high-profile properties here have been has snapped up by foreign groups, many of them from oil-rich Middle Eastern or Asian countries, with the means to acquire and maintain cash-draining assets like luxury hotels.

Of the five highest-rated hotels in Paris labeled "palace," the Meurice, Plaza Athénée, George V, Park Hyatt and Bristol, all are foreign-owned. Prince Walid bin Talal, a nephew of the Saudi monarch, owns the George V.

The "palace" rating is an official designation, above "five stars," awarded by the tourism authorities to distinguish the most luxurious of hotel establishments.

Though foreign investors can be viewed with suspicion and given a cold reception here, they are a godsend for sites like the Crillon, vestiges of France's former glory. The fresh money puts to work French artisans whose skills are at risk of extinction, and breaths new life into deteriorating structures.

While Ms. d'Amman freely uses the term "palace" in reference to the Crillon, a likely reason for engaging in huge restructuring of the aging hotel is its failure to qualify as a palace under new rules that were promulgated in 2011, strictly limiting use of the exclusive label.

Under those rules, beyond new requirements for minimum room size and excellence in service, a spa is a mandatory criterion that the Crillon would not meet today.

"We are building a luxury spa in the basement," confirmed Ms. d'Amman, an endeavor that will require restructuring the basement and reinforcing the structure.

Before the work at the Crillon begins, the hotel plans to auction off most of its contents, nearly 3,500 lots consisting of its furniture -- mainly copies of 18th-century items -- down to its monogrammed towels. The kitchen and its contents will be donated to the Foyer, a nonprofit restaurant run by volunteers in the basement of the Madeleine Church.

The French auction house Artcurial will hold the auction at the hotel over five days starting on April 18. Public exhibitions will also take place in the hotel, including in certain suites and rooms, an opportunity for the public to view the inside of the hotel.

"The sale is estimated to bring in about €1 million or €1.5 million, depending on the level of interest of the public," said François Tajan, the auctioneer at Artcurial in charge of the sale.

"It will attract those who want to buy a bit of Paris's history," Mr. Tajan said. "The top lot is the bar designed by the artist César, a piece that anyone who has been to Crillon knows well," he said. "The rest is furniture in a grand 18th-century style, well made with a lot of charm."

An iconic piece, the crystal and bronze Baccarat crystal elephant figurine, today the centerpiece of the Winter Garden tea room, will be excluded from the sale.

"We will keep certain objects that represent the memory of this hotel," Ms. d'Amman said. "Many will be integrated in the new Crillon."

She is reluctant to divulge much information about the new owners' plans, including which company may be selected to manage the Crillon when it reopens.

"The story of a palace is always cloaked in confidentiality," Ms. d'Amman said.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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