Capital’s ‘grand dame of hospitality’, the Hotel Bristol celebrates its 120th birthday
Regarded as the grand dame of Polish hospitality, the iconic Hotel Bristol celebrates its 120th birthday today.
With the plot first purchased in 1895 by a firm overseen by Stanisław Roszkowski, Edmund Zaremba and the future Prime Minister, Ignacy Paderewski, the decision to build a hotel was taken in 1898 with the cornerstone set down the year after.
Touting Art Nouveau interiors designed by Otto Wagner and a Neo Renaissance exterior credited to architect Władysław Marconi, the hotel was dedicated on November 19th, 1901, before welcoming its first guest three days later.
Marta Krzemińska, Head of Marketing & PR, told TFN: “Much remains unknown as to the purpose of her visit, but we do know that the first guest was a lady from Paris by the name of Emilia Finot. Stepping across the threshold, she was greeted by the director, a man called Helbling, before being given a tour of the hotel.”
What Finot would have viewed was seen as positively ground-breaking at the time.
“This was one of the most remarkable buildings in the country, certainly in a hospitality format,” says Krzemińska, “and we also know for fact that we had lots of nosey journalists queuing right up the stairwell to see the rooms.”
Featuring central heating, double ventilation, fireproof ceilings, walls and floors and six telephone lines (this at a time when Warsaw had only 800 phone numbers listed), it made for a mind-boggling experience.
For all that, however, it was the elevators that made the biggest impression.
“At the time, the public simply weren’t adjusted to travelling up and down by lift so the hotel even employed a full-time porter to look after guests to make sure they didn’t faint inside it,” says Krzemińska.
Serving also tea and coffee within its crystal confines, the visitors lift was a sensation and dominated the press reviews that followed in the days after. “Some likened it to a fairy tale carriage,” says Krzemińska.
From the outset, the Bristol was a benchmark in luxury with its nightly rate of 8.5 to 25 roubles the equivalent of many monthly salaries (a housemaid, for instance, could expect to bring home between 6 to 9 roubles back in those times). However, it was during the inter-war period that it truly made its mark to entwine itself in the very story of modern Poland, a point emphasized by concierge Paweł Owczarek:
“The hotel holds a special place in Polish hearts because our independence was born here – when he became Prime Minister, Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s first government meeting was held here.”
Known equally for his virtuoso piano skills, such was Paderewski’s passion for the hotel that he lived here for some time – today, the suite in which he lodged is a nationally protected monument and the most prestigious suite in the hotel’s arsenal of options.
This aside, the hotel courted further publicity as the place in which Józef Piłsudski announced his withdrawal from politics in 1923; painter Wojciech Kossak, meanwhile, had his atelier here (reputedly, the artist occasionally fulfilled his hotel bills by gifting his works to the Bristol), though this would later prove to be one of the few sections to sustain damage when war broke out.
“Two bombs hit the hotel during the September siege of 1939,” says Owczarek, “and though they fortunately did not detonate one smashed through Kossak’s atelier.”
Earmarked for German use only, the occupation brought new challenges, though to a large degree it was its value to the Germans that saved it from the wanton demolition that saw much of the centre flattened in 1944.
Used as the HQ of the Chief of the Warsaw District, neither did the Nazi presence deter the Polish staff from engaging in underground activities, and the hotel’s nooks and crannies were utilized to store weaponry ahead of the Warsaw Uprising.
Turned over to the city in 1947, nationalized in 1948, and then fully absorbed into the Orbis chain in 1948, the post-war years greeted figures such as Pablo Picasso, JFK, and Jan Kiepura.
Regarded as a mega star of the era, Kiepura famously sung to the crowds from his corner balcony when he visited in 1958.
Six-years later, Marlene Dietrich also stayed, reputedly relocating after her suite in the Europejski proved too small for her dozen bulky travel trunks. Asked at a press conference as to what she thought of Polish hotels, the songstress is reported to have answered with a smile: “why do you ask? Are you a hotelier?”
But whilst big names continued to visit the hotel (Dietrich herself returned a couple of years later), the Bristol was a shadow of what it once was – even the original elevator was removed in 1969.
“By the 70s the facilities had become so outdated that the hotel was demoted to a second class grading by the government and there were plans to donate the building to the University of Warsaw,” says Krzemińska.
“No-one wanted to invest in it, and at one stage plans were even mooted to turn it into the University’s library.”
Left to languish, it was closed in 1981, and the years after saw many original artefacts simply vanish for good.
But this was not, by any means, the end of the Bristol.
“The hotel has traditionally mirrored the political situation in Poland,” says Krzemińska, “and whenever something big has happened all roads have led back to the Bristol.”
It’s a theory echoed by the new lease of life the hotel was handed after the fall of Communism. Acquired by the Forte Group, a complete restoration undertaken between 1991 and 1993 saw the hotel re-energized, renovated in a style that was fully compatible with the Bristol’s past. A personal friend of Sir Rocco Forte, Margaret Thatcher was on hand to preside over the hotel’s grand reopening ceremony.
Choosing to celebrate their rollcall of famous patrons by way of a Wall of Fame, the Bristol has not shied from linking itself to the legends that have checked-in. Over time, that’s meant a staggering list of names that include Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bill Gates, and Naomi Campbell.
“My personal favourite story though, concerns Marie Skłodowska Curie,” says Krzemińska. “She remained a Varsovian at heart and when she visited after her second Nobel Prize a banquet was held in her honour inside our Malinova restaurant.
“People noticed that she was taking diligent notes throughout whilst people lined-up to meet her. Asked later what she’d been noting, she confessed that she just hated meetings and was simply solving maths puzzles – I love that she remained true to herself in such a way, and it’s something we’re now quite proud of!”
Just as satisfying, says Owczarek, was when the Bristol rode to the rescue of President Bush.
“He was appearing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and we were watching this unfold on TV when a request came in saying that he had left his overcoat in Berlin – could we help!
“With minutes to spare, our team was able to find a coat belonging to one of the concierge’s and it was delivered to the President by our head of operations – it was a perfect fit and the President was incredibly grateful!”
Perhaps typifying the Bristol’s stories and adventures, it’s an anecdote perfectly fitting with the most legendary hotel that Poland has to offer.
“From our standpoint the hotel has always been where modernity and heritage meet,” says Krzemińska. “We’re proud of this combination, and we will strive to continue this legacy and embrace it with our guests.”