LONDON — Brown's Hotel, which has hosted literary giants, governments in exile, and scores of affluent Americans in search of tea and a crisp cucumber sandwich, is back.
The town house hotel has reopened after a 19 million pound, or $33.6 million, renovation by hotelier Sir Rocco Forte.
The hotel, on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, has lost nothing of its Edwardian charms except, perhaps, for the fraying carpets, faded chintz sofas and poky bedrooms.
Forte has swept off the dust, enlarged the rooms and revived the restaurant, turning it into an old-style London grill, with leather banquettes and waiters serving roast beef from silver trolleys.
On the ground floor, the old wood paneling and doors with their beveled-glass panes remain, along with the marble fireplaces and signature black-and-white mosaic tile floors in the entrance hall. Grand, stained glass windows still gleam from the stairwells, and the original duck's neck wall lamps have been resilvered and rehung.
"Lady [Margaret] Thatcher cut the ribbon," Forte said proudly from behind a glass conference table in his St. James' offices. "She's an institution, as is Brown's. And she got to sign the same visitors' book as Winston Churchill."
Indeed, Brown's was the place where Churchill ordered Pol Roger bubbly for breakfast, where the Belgian government remained in exile during World War II and where Rudyard Kipling, Agatha Christie, Orson Welles and generations of Roosevelts stayed.
There was no shortage of big names at the hotel's opening party this month. Guests at the black-tie cocktail, including Thatcher, Roger Moore, Solange Azagury-Partridge, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Vivia Ferragamo, feasted on mountains of oysters, sushi, foie gras canapés and champagne.
Named for its founder James Brown, who was Lord Byron's valet, the hotel began life as four town houses. It still has a homey feel, with long, winding hallways like rabbit warrens, bookshelves stocked with classics, antiques in each of the 117 bedrooms, and black-and-white paparazzi shots of Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.
During the refurbishment, which began in early 2004, Forte added two floors to the hotel. While there are still the same number of rooms, the bedrooms and bathrooms are all bigger, and there are more suites."It's a new hotel in an old shell," said Forte, whose sister, Olga Polizzi Shawcross, a fellow hotelier, oversaw the interior design. "It was run down and ripe for redoing, and I think we've given it a more contemporary English feel."
While the downstairs might still be the sort of place where Edith Wharton would have met Henry James for a fireside chat, the upstairs is all about contemporary comfort. Forte has put in flat-screen LCD TVs in the bathrooms and iPod docking stations and extra-large beds in all of the rooms. "I wanted the feel to be a country house hotel, but in the center of town," he said.
The new Brown's is the latest luxury addition to Albemarle Street, which until recently was a quiet row of art galleries and sandwich shops. During the last year, Albemarle has become one of Mayfair's hottest thoroughfares, with the recent opening of Sir Paul Smith's interiors shop, and David Linley's furniture and design store.
For Forte, Brown's was a long time coming. For years, he had been hunting for the right property in London. He said he wants to become Europe's principal luxury hotelier, and his properties now include hotels in Edinburgh, Rome, Florence, Cardiff, Manchester, St. Petersburg, Brussels and Geneva.
In the next few years, he plans to open hotels in Frankfurt, Berlin, Geneva, Munich and Prague, as well as a spa and golf resort in southern Sicily.
Forte's family has been in the hospitality business since the turn of the last century. In 1996, the family was forced to sell its minority stake in the Forte hotel group, which was the target of a hostile takeover by Granada hotels. Forte, then the group's chairman, was forced to step down. That same year, Forte formed his Rocco Forte Hotels group.
Polizzi Shawcross, who had spent her professional career decorating the interiors of the Forte hotels, went on to buy the Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall, which she owns with her husband, William Shawcross, and Endsleigh House, which is now run by her daughter, Alex Polizzi.
"Who knows what life would have been like with the old setup?" Forte said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I was actually perfectly happy with what I was doing before the takeover, but this new business is more fun in a way because it's more hands-on."As for the future, Forte said he is sticking with city hotels, and is even considering a move across the Atlantic. "I'm thinking maybe New York — it's almost Europe, you know."
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