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Claridge’s: the definitive history.

by Saloni on January 9, 2013

Television viewers were recently treated to an unprecedented look behind the scenes of Claridge’s in the BBC2 documentary series Inside Claridge’s.

With the programme pulling in millions of viewers, there is clearly a good deal of fascination with the inside story of one of London’s best Art Deco hotels.  And it turns out that the hotel’s history is every bit as intriguing as its present luxury offerings.  Claridge’s is a true icon, with events such as the putting up of Claridge’s Christmas tree now established as keenly-anticipated traditions in a way that few other institutions can match.

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Humble beginnings

Looking at Claridge’s today and its accomplished team of staff, you could be forgiven for thinking that it sprang into life fully-formed as a vast luxury retreat.  But the truth is somewhat more down to earth.

When the original incarnation of Claridge’s opened for the first time in 1812, it was as a single-terraced house on Mayfair’s Brook Street.  Operating under the name “Mivart’s Hotel” and run by James Mivart, it originally provided by-the-month accommodation for wealthy visitors to London.

As the success of Mivart’s grew, so too did the physical dimensions of the hotel, and additional houses in the row were purchased and eventually knocked through to form a single entity.  At the same time, husband and wife William and Marianne Claridge were running their own successful hotel on Brook Street, eventually purchasing Mivart’s Hotel in 1854.  The combination of the two properties was for a brief period known as “Claridge’s, late Mivart’s” until 1856 when it became simply “Claridge’s”.

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 A Victorian royal favourite

Mivart had set the bar high and during this early period the hotel attracted not just the wealthy but the royal too.  Prior to his ascension to the throne, the flamboyant King George IV was said to have a suite permanently reserved, while the monarchs of Russia and the Netherlands were among many distinguished guests who came to enjoy the hotel’s legendary luxury.

With the change of ownership and name, the hotel’s reputation continued to soar unabated. In 1860, Empress Eugenie of France stayed at Claridge’s and was visited by none other than Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  This in itself was the best advertising the hotel could have received and kings, emperors and princesses were soon gushing through the doors.

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The hotel continued to prosper well into the Victorian era, but the Claridges eventually sold the hotel in 1881, in part due to William’s poor health.

Without the couple’s guidance the hotel lost something of its sparkle, while more modern hotels were also upping the ante.  Clearly Claridge’s would have to transform itself to compete in London’s growing luxury hotel market. The first stage of that transformation began in 1893, when the hotel was purchased by Richard D’Oyly Carte – owner of The Savoy.

D’Oyly Carte recognised the need for change and started to rebuild the hotel from scratch for the modern age.  The new building (the one you see today) was designed by Harrods architect C. W. Stephens with all mod-cons including en-suite bathrooms, electric lights and lifts to all floors.  As revealed in the recent documentary, Claridge’s today has the last ‘man-operated’ lift in London.  Reopening in 1898 it soon reclaimed its position as THE place for the rich and the royal to stay in London.

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It was in the 1920s that Claridge’s took on its distinctive art deco aesthetic and is now considered one of the most spectacular art deco hotels in London.  Casting off some of its more stuffy Victorian features, leading figures of the art deco movement were commissioned to reinvent the hotel.

Basil Lonides transformed the restaurant while Oswald Milne was responsible for re-imagining Claridge’s’ entrance, foyer and more.  Many of these features remain today, while the hotel’s art deco credentials were reinvigorated in the 1990s, with Thierry Despont giving the foyer and restaurant a modern makeover and David Collins re-crafting the hotel’s bar.

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The Yugoslav connection and more famous faces

One of the most interesting episodes of Claridge’s long history occurred in 1945.  During World War 2, the hotel became home to numerous monarchs and other heads of state in exile from their war-torn home countries.  One of these was the King of Yugoslavia, who was granted an extraordinary request, even by Claridge’s high people-pleasing standards:  to allow the King’s son, Crown Prince Alexander II, to be born on Yugoslavian soil, Suite 212 was temporarily ceded to Yugoslavia on June 17th 1945.

Events like these and the hotel’s continuing popularity with monarchs and heads of state after the war only served to enhance Claridge’s reputation.

Since the mid-20th century the hotel has also been a favourite for movie stars, fashion icons, tycoons and divas – thus developing its name as a celebrity hotel and often rivalling the Dorchester with famous faces like Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Brad Pitt, Kate Moss, U2 and Mick Jagger.

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Where next for Claridge’s?

Even in testing financial times, there are apparently still plenty of people willing to pay the price for luxury, as witnessed in BBC 2’s illuminating series.  For those put off by the expensive price tag however, afternoon tea at Claridge’s is well worth the money and offers a taste of the high life at a fraction of the cost of an overnight stay.

Further behind the scenes meanwhile, a struggle continues to be played out for control of Claridge’s and its sister hotels, The Connaught and The Berkeley.  In 2011 the Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph and The Ritz, effectively bought the hotels by purchasing the loans owed by parent group Coroin.  Since then they’ve been locked in a court battle with property developer Patrick McKillen (owner of a third of Coroin), who claimed they had gained control of the hotels unlawfully.  It is expected though that the Barclays will finally gain control of the hotel.

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Claridge’s is sure to remain one of London’s most prominent five-star hotels well into the 21st century.  But far from resting on its laurels, it continues to seek refinement, most recently with the creation of 25 new suites by David Linley.  Today it continues to be synonymous with absolute luxury, with a guest list that often resembles a ‘who’s who?’ of modern global culture and power, together with a knack for consistently delivering the sublime.

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Photo credits: Claridge’s Hotel, BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives.











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