Author: Karen Kissane
Photography: David Japy
It's not only archaeologists who must peel away layers to lay
bare the truth of history.
For architects, too, the layering of ages can disguise the beauty and drama of earlier eras. This was the experience of French architect Richard Martinet during the long restoration of a landmark Parisian hotel.
The grand Belle Époque building in Avenue Kléber, near the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées, began life as the beautifully appointed Hôtel Majestic in 1908. Its interior was entirely unprepossessing by the time Martinet arrived to assess it six years ago on behalf of its new owners, Peninsula Hotels. In 1936 it was bought by the French Government, and its historic incarnations have included time as a World War I military hospital, an office of the German army during the occupation of Paris in World War II and, from 1946 to 1958, the headquarters of UNESCO. It's had its romantic moments, too: on a memorable night in May 1922 Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev attended a dinner party there; American songwriter George Gershwin wrote An American in Paris while staying at the hotel in 1928 (inspired in part, he later said, by the sound of cars honking their way around the nearby Arc de Triomphe); and, in January 1973, Henry Kissinger signed the agreement that ended the Vietnam War in a salon that is now the hotel's wood-panelled Bar Kléber.
While time has added richness to the hotel's history, it had also encrusted the building with layers of ugliness. Martinet, the chief architect of Affine Architecture & Interior Design, found the entrance hall had been partitioned into office cubicles. The Versailles-like decorations of the ballroom had been painted a grim dark green and the grand space subdivided into meeting rooms. As he tore down office walls and ceilings in other areas of the hotel, he discovered a wealth of delicate detailing: stained-glass roofs, graceful decorative plaster, wood trellising, marble pillars. The boxy entrance to the restrooms, when stripped back, revealed faux-classical pillars and flooded the area with light from a Palladian-style dome. He made this the new lift lobby. "There was great joy in tearing down the ugliness and finding beauty underneath," Martinet says.
Paint and plaster were stripped back to reveal the original colours, decorative motifs and trompe l'oeil designs, which then required painstaking restoration by French craftsmen with traditional skills. "The original hotel came from a fascinating period in French history," Martinet says. "It was designed and executed to a very high standard by artisans with sophisticated skills in gold gilt and stone-craft, woodwork and ironwork.
"Trying to keep the original ambience of the hotel was like working on an ancient text where pieces are lost. The right way to do it is to put yourself in front of what was the original and to write another story and to make it compatible. You have to have a harmony between the contemporary and the original."
The original floor of what is now the lobby, for example, was once covered in charming pastel mosaics. A building accident with a concrete slab put an end to that. Instead, the new lobby floor is a vast expanse of white marble but the remaining original mosaics, softly faded now, have been relaid in inner courtyards, and a reproduction mosaic floor in the same design graces a large reception room.
After four years of restoration and renovation, Martinet's
billion-euro baby (the combined cost of the land and the building
project) is magnificent: airy, light and crafted opulently in the
French manner. The regal cream and gilt dining room, adorned by
frescoes and medallions, was restored by the same families of
artisans who work on the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre
The stunning centrepiece of the lobby, hand-blown at the Lasvit crystal studio in the Czech Republic, is a fairytale installation named Dancing Leaves, floating like falling snowflakes. The grand staircase in the lobby has a crystal chandelier by Baccarat and the same lacy ironwork that frames the large arched windows leading from the dining room to the terrace restaurant. Each of the public areas has its own unique chandelier, from the teardrops in the lift lobby to the Vietnamese-styled chandelier in Bar Kléber.
The restoration was done under the watchful eyes of France's three heritage bodies, with a brief to preserve the building's authenticity. "You have a piece of art in your hands but we didn't want to make a museum," says Martinet. "We wanted to make a hotel for the 21st century. So we had to turn it into something you could live in, that's contemporary. The life of the visitor has to be easy." As a result, the 200 guest rooms and suites have a full armoury of technology, each with an entertainment centre, office equipment tucked away in a sleek desk and an in-room tablet to run everything from room service to curtain closure.
This is the 10th Peninsula property opened by the Hong
Kong-based hotel company, and the Pen Paris shares all the modern
"signatures" of its siblings. There's a Cantonese restaurant named
LiLi, a fleet of cars to ferry guests around the city, Chinese
stone lions at the door, cheerful bellboys and girls in
old-fashioned pillbox hats, and an aeroplane - one of the owners
likes a tribute to aviation in each hotel. The rooftop terrace
restaurant, L'Oiseau Blanc, takes its name from the biplane used in
the first, failed attempt to cross the Atlantic, in 1927. A
near-lifesize reproduction is suspended in a glassed courtyard
beside the restaurant, but guests are more likely to be seduced by
the 360-degree views from the terrace, from which all of Paris's
landmarks can be seen, including Sacré-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.
Five of the hotel's 34 suites have private rooftop gardens with
views over the city.
The hotel opened in August and was ironing out some teething problems during our stay soon afterwards. The WiFi was fine but our suite had no mobile-phone reception - a common issue in this city full of monumental stonework. The hotel later told us it was aware of the problem and working to find a solution. All is forgiven by bedtime, however. Dressed with a down-filled topper, the beds bring cloud-like solace.
The period dining room, now The Lobby restaurant, is decorated for a queen - Marie Antoinette comes to mind. Its cream walls have elaborate plaster garlands covered in gold leaf by the traditional French firm Gohard. A restored trompe l'oeil borders the ceiling, which is hung with huge glittering chandeliers, "a contemporary design made in a traditional way", says Martinet.
Under the hotel's executive chef Jean-Edern Hurstel, The Lobby's chef Laurent Poitevin serves a menu of classic and modern French dishes with a focus on simplicity, using herbs and citrus to bring out the best in top-notch produce. Sea-bass fillet, for instance, comes dressed with a brown-butter and caper sauce and a "Melba" that adds a touch of crunch. And The Lobby is also where the Peninsula signature afternoon tea is served. Here, the silver-service L'Heure du Thé comes in both English and French versions - the former with scones, jam and cream, the latter with finger sandwiches and sweet delicacies by chef-pâtissier Julien Alvarez.
His tiny choux pastries filled with whipped cream and passionfruit jam are textbook examples of the technique; his apricot and raspberry jams - required to garnish one's own mini beignets - are the concentrated essence of fruit.
The French can be cool. In Paris, it's often seen as more important for service to be correct than friendly. Peninsula staff, however, combine the French attentiveness to detail with understated warmth. The welcome, at the desk and in the dining room, feels genuine. As Martinet says with quiet understatement, "I think it's going to be a nice place to stay."
Peninsula Paris, rooms from $1,264, 19 Avenue Kléber, Paris 75116.