It seems all of the changes taking place these days are for the worse. I am hardly a Miss Havisham to say it would be better that some things—especially good hotels—remain unchanged.
The Breakers at Palm Beach is the best of these. Over the decades it has managed to make do with mere subtle alterations. The floors are covered with patterns meticulously matching previous ones. The furnishings change with time but are always in keeping with the same slightly tropical theme. This is likely because the hotel has remained under a single family’s purview for its entire history. Dynasties always deal more gracefully with time’s passage.
The Peabody of Memphis is another national treasure. Rooms are tasteful yet free of either awful “authentic” art or crass reproductions of classic works. The view from the rooftop terrace is spectacular during a Sunday brunch. The last time I was there they served seven different varieties of caviar.
A little north is The Seelbach in Louisville, a fine place as long as you aren’t there on Derby weekend. Otherwise it is a charmer. The lobby especially retains its essence and there is the smallest space of a mezzanine where you can arrange to meet with a young lady before going out. At night it affects a kind of echo up there so that if a genteel party is being held you can faintly make out the clink of glasses while imagining that Daisy or F. Scott will appear below you any minute.
The Drake in Chicago sadly fails the trend. They have “redesigned” in the past decade and taken out a great deal of its life. Prior to the redesign I stayed in a room facing Lake Michigan with extremely old-style light switches and ancient carpets that were nearly threadbare. I could almost feel the ghosts and convince myself of being in the very room where that murder they tried so hard to hush up in the 40s had occurred. These days I can only imagine myself at a very nice Howard Johnson’s.
New York’s Waldorf-Astoria York updates in the old style regularly and so tastefully you would mercifully never know the difference. It remains exactly as you would expect it to be, which is a very good thing.
Straddling the extremes of staid elegance, the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg is yet largely unaltered, meaning it has been refurbished without being destroyed. My personal preference has always been St. Petersburg’s Hotel Astoria, pristine with perilous beauty. I managed to get there on my own and shared an otherwise solitary candlelit dinner late one evening during the winter. And while it may have been better for all Russians had the country been taken as a whole, it was better for me that a single Siberian was taken individually.
In London they supposedly brought The Savoy into the 21st century. What’s so wonderful about the 21st century? Whatever it was they did to it, it isn’t The Savoy anymore. They kept the deco sign, but the shabby sophistication is gone. It has new “art” and new “décor” but no character.
The Ritz in Paris is being shuttered in an effort to do whatever it is that makes once-grand destinations into everyplace else. Those who decide these things will be determining how best to demystify something that took multiple generations to evoke.
It would be masterful to redesign everything inside to accord with interior scenes from Love in the Afternoon. Except they won’t do that. Who knows why? I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t rather live in that film for a few days than in whatever garish neo-punk-Goth-modern-post-post-modern monstrosity they always manage to foist on everyone. It’s all one more reason to choose The Crillon.
There is a special symmetry with hotels, a seeming sanctity of past mixing with the present’s insecurity. In a handful of habitats anyone can live in the very space once occupied by Rockefeller, Proust, Buddy Holly, Tchaikovsky, or Princess Diana. It may be for only a night, but that is a few moments more than can be said for most of our darker hours.
Yet it only works to the extent we use continuity as a transport to other times. Fine garments with lifetimes left to wear ought not be discarded simply due to age. Anyone can make a new hotel; it takes generations to make history. Stripping bare the few sticks of period furniture, choosing modish carpeting, and whitewashing the gilt off the rails not only leaves our experiences empty, it erases that tenuous link to the past. It leaves a glimmering but gutted building in its stead.
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