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Hotel Lutetia: A Journey Through TimeAuthor: Radmila Durasinovic
Hotel Lutetia: A Journey Through Time
The must-see landmarks of the metropolis easily overshadow less famous historical sites that lie hidden in plain sight within its labyrinth of streets. Paris is one of those cities, with an abundance of such landmarks, and many more layers than can be taken in during a brief stay—a city that must be lived in order to be fully understood. It requires a particular kind of curiosity of the citygoer to discover all the historical layers that make up its identity, to pause before yet another ornate beige facade, seemingly just one of hundreds in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris.
But, every building, even seemingly ordinary ones, is a living, breathing organism, infused with the lives of the people who have visited or inhabited it over the years. And this building is not an ordinary one—its story is more interesting than most. En route from the Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, two of the city's most famous landmarks, the Hotel Lutetia has stood tall for over a century, an impressive architectural achievement and a technical marvel of the time. The story of the Hotel Lutetia is a story of the city of Paris, a material testament to the city's rich cultural legacy and a witness to the ever-changing tides of history.
The architecture of the Hotel Lutetia is a fusion of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Commissioned by the Boucicaut family, owners of the Le Bon Marché department store, the hotel was named after an ancient city that existed in the same location as Paris. It was the brainchild of architects Louis-Hippolyte Boileau and Henri Tauzin, who sought to create a modern, forward-looking design while blending two popular styles. The intricate metalwork and sculptural reliefs on the façade were reflective of the Art Nouveau style, while the clean lines and geometric shapes of the interior were representative of the bold and futuristic design of Art Deco.
The architects employed avant-garde materials such as glass, riveted steel, and reinforced concrete to construct the building. The use of concrete as a building material was still relatively new at the time, allowing for a greater degree of design flexibility than traditional building materials like brick and stone. The genial steel frame structure allowed for the building to have a greater height and larger floor plates than would have been possible with traditional load-bearing masonry construction. Additionally, the inclusion of advanced amenities such as hot water, and telephone lines in each room was a pioneering concept, one that further added to Lutetia’s reputation as one of the must-see places in Paris.
After the Great War ended, the world bravely stepped into the "Roaring Twenties", a time of great social, artistic, and cultural innovation, following the devastation the war caused. A newfound sense of freedom and rebellion, with changes in fashion, music, literature, and social attitudes reflected a desire to break free from the restrictions of the past. It was a time of progress and optimism, with many looking to the future with hope and excitement, and Lutetia was at the centre of it.
While on leave from the Spanish army in 1917, Pablo Picasso fell in love with Olga, a Russian ballerina and his future wife, who was staying at the Lutetia at the time. Picasso frequented the hotel throughout his life, and it is said that he even painted several pieces in his suite on the top floor. James Joyce, the celebrated Irish writer, lived with his family in Paris for several years in the 1920s, and they often stayed at the Hotel Lutetia during their visits to the city. It is rumoured that Joyce worked on his famous book "Ulysses," during his time in Lutetia. In 1921, the future French resistance leader and president Charles de Gaulle spent his wedding night at the hotel with his wife Yvonne.
The 1930s brought great economic hardship and political upheaval, marked by the Great Depression and the rise of authoritarian regimes. Europe was reaching its boiling point, and Lutetia witnessed it. During the 1930s, German novelist Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich, along with other refugees, sought shelter in the Lutetia. It was during this time that Mann wrote his famous novel "Doctor Faustus”, one of the greatest works of German literature of the 20th century. Mann's time at the Lutetia was marked by his interactions with other notable intellectuals and artists who had fled Nazi Germany, including composer Arnold Schoenberg and writer Bertolt Brecht. The hotel became a hub of creativity and intellectual discourse, where German émigrés devised a plan for a new government to take over after what they perceived to be Adolf Hitler's inevitable downfall.
When Paris fell in 1940, the Lutetia was requisitioned by the German army and used as a headquarters for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. The hotel's luxurious suites and rooms were transformed into offices and interrogation rooms, and the grand ballroom was used as a detention centre for prisoners of war and resistance fighters. The hotel's elegant façade and Art Deco interiors were stripped of their grandeur, as the Germans attempted to erase any signs of the hotel's former glory. Despite its use by the German army, the Hotel Lutetia simultaneously played a role in the resistance movement. The hotel's staff and management secretly provided aid and shelter to Jews, members of the French Resistance and others who were seeking to escape the occupying forces. Following the German withdrawal in 1944, the hotel became a centre for the repatriation of prisoners of war and displaced persons. The hotel's ballroom was converted into a dance hall, becoming a gathering place for Parisians and Allied soldiers who were celebrating the end of the war.
After the war, the Lutetia was restored as a luxury hotel, continuing its evolution and preserving its early reputation as the place to stay while in Paris. With the explosion of tourism, the hotel underwent a significant renovation during the 1980s, adding a fitness centre, swimming pool, sauna, and Turkish bath. Guest rooms were fitted with modern amenities such as air conditioning, mini-bars, and televisions, while the addition of conference rooms catered to the new corporate culture and MICE tourism.
Lutetia’s most recent renovation was in 2018, led by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, whose project aimed to revive the spirit of the original architectural project through the restoration of the building's original façade, while bringing the hotel into the 21st century. Wilmotte & Associés term it a “respectful renaissance” with the key to the renovation being letting in more light with the creation of an interior courtyard patio, which serves as a link between different areas of the ground floor. The Art Deco Bar Joséphine, named after the famous entertainer and regular patron of the establishment, had its original charm restored by uncovering a stunning fresco by Adrien Karbowsky.
Collaborating with prestigious furniture manufacturers such as Poltrona Frau, Paolo Castelli, and Poliform, Wilmotte designed and incorporated furnishings throughout the hotel, creating a balance between historic and contemporary aesthetics, in an attempt to reproduce the original atmosphere of the Hotel Lutetia for today's patrons. The project not only restored the physical structure of the hotel but also brought back Lutetia's vibrant soul.
If you find yourself wandering through the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, don't let the Hotel Lutetia blend into the backdrop of the city's ubiquitous historic buildings. Let the weight of history envelop you as you reflect on the countless events that have unfolded within these walls, events that have indelibly shaped the Parisian landscape. Imagine a time when concrete was considered a futuristic technology, when telephones and televisions were considered a luxury; transport yourself to the wild revelries of the Roaring Twenties and contemplate the despair and tragedy of World War II. Allow Lutetia to tell you her continuing story—perhaps today a new genius is hard at work crafting his masterpiece within her walls.
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