The fascinating story of London’s lost palace of luxury
On the north bank of the Thames, right beside Cleopatra’s Needle (with its sphinxes that face the wrong way), there’s an Art Deco treasure. Unveiled in 1931, Shell Mex House, the former London headquarters of Shell-Mex and BP, is an imposing masterpiece, boasting 49,900 square metres of floor space and crowned with the biggest clock face in London (wags dubbed it “Big Benzene”).
The building it replaced, however, was just as grand – and of far more interest to fans of travel.
To see what’s left of it you’ll need to walk east from Charing Cross Station and down the Strand, past a slew of soulless chain restaurants. When you reach the Vaudeville Theatre turn your gaze south, and up. That soaring red brick facade, now occupied by the likes of Itsu and Pret, was once the entrance to the Hotel Cecil, the largest, and – some claimed – most luxurious accommodation in all of Europe.
Named after the former London home of the powerful Cecil family, which once occupied the site, it opened in 1896, three years before the nearby Savoy, and stretched from the Strand to the Thames. It had 800 spacious rooms – a staggering number when one considers that the Savoy today has just 267. Public areas included a bright and airy courtyard, a vast Palm Court ballroom (perfect for afternoon tea and evening dancing) and three restaurants capable of feeding a total of 1,150 diners. There were terraces to lounge in – and even a beauty salon. Rates in 1907 ranged from five shillings for a single room (“including light and attendance”) to 25 shillings for a suite – that equates to around £500 today. Breakfast was an extra two and six.
One of the best contemporary descriptions of the hotel can be found in Nathaniel Newnham-Davis’s 1914 book, The Gourmet’s Guide to London.
He explains how the bustling courtyard at the Hotel Cecil’s entrance, known as “The Beach”, was a popular hangout for US guests who preferred it to the gilded parlours within. “The most American spot in London” was filled with cane chairs, piles of luggage, a newspaper stall, and “in the summer-time pretty girls sunning themselves and waiters hurrying to and fro with cold drinks and long straws”.
The main restaurant’s decor, he adds, was at first “too sombre” – all walnut wood panelling and deep crimson velvet. By 1914, however, it had been turned into a dazzling hall of white, gold and pink.
“The panels are of Rose du Barri silk, the pillars are gleaming white, while the frieze is of the lightest blue,” wrote Newnham-Davis. “A dark rose carpet gives relief to this shimmering, shining restaurant, and in its centre is a handsome table of many tiers for fruit and sweet things, a table of gilt sphinx heads and many electric lamps. The waiters wear knee-breeches; the band plays in an ante-room.” Windows offered views of the Embankment Gardens.
For seven shillings and six, diners could enjoy an 11-course supper:
Huitres Natives on Hors d’Ouvres
Filets de Sole Careme
Quartier d’Agneau Arlequine
Caille en Cocotte au Jus d’Ananas
Asperges, Sauce Hollandaise
Glace a l’Andalouse
“The delicate sauce with the sole, the neatness of the garnish of the vegetables with the quarter of lamb, the plumpness of the quail and their contrast of taste with the pine-apple, assured me that the kitchen is in first-class hands,” gushes the author.
Mr Bertini, “a clever, quick-eyed, bearded Italian”, ran the show, Mr Coste, one of the “greatest” chefs of the era, oversaw the kitchens, and Mr Califano, nicknamed “Sunny Jim”, was the maitre d’hotel.
For something less traditional, the hotel also employed “Smiler”, a “curry-cook of great renown” poached from a restaurant in New York. He crossed the Atlantic in first class “with a little band of underlings” and was mistaken for an Indian prince during the journey.
Towards the end of its life the hotel was – surprisingly, given the era – known for its vegetarian banquets.
Entertainment in 1914 included a Romanian band – “fierce-looking gentleman in embroidered garments” who “made the roof reverberate with their czardas” – while variety performances were offered on Sunday evenings. By the 1920s, however, a jazz band was hired, turning the Hotel Cecil into a favoured haunt for the hedonistic flappers of the age.
The end of the optimistic Roaring Twenties also signalled the end of the Cecil. In 1930 the hotel was bought by Shell-Mex and the building largely demolished in the space of 16 weeks. Lust for luxury was replaced by lust for oil.
Today the most famous hotel on the Strand – perhaps the most famous in London – is the Savoy. But it certainly owes something to the lost palace of opulence just up the road that predated it by three years.
The hotel that took the Cecil’s crown
In 1915, 19 years after the Cecil flung open its doors, another hotel nabbed the title of Europe’s largest. The Regent Palace Hotel, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, took up an acre, or one entire triangular block, of prime West End real estate and contained 1,028 bedrooms.
It was conceived as a palace hotel for the people, marking “an epoch in luxury and courtesy of service combined with economy”. More than 1,000 staff were on hand to draw baths and iron clothes, and the Beaux Arts decor was impossibly grand, with the public rooms described as the “largest and most spacious in Europe” – but prices were fair, with singles available for six shillings and six (around £125 today), including breakfast and attendance. Doubles cost the equivalent of £250. Some called it a democratic version of The Ritz, which opened in 1906, making available to the middle classes those luxuries usually only enjoyed by the rich.
In 1934 the hotel was given an Art Deco makeover by Oliver Percy Bernard, the English architect and designer, but standards began sliding after the Second World War, and it developed a seedy reputation as somewhere for the West End’s prostitutes to ply their trade. Sources suggest guests in search of company needed only to ring the concierge and request “an extra pillow”. By the 1980s the “palace” in its name was starting to sound more than a little ironic – it was just another sprawling budget hotel, albeit one with a cracking location.
The Regent Palace Hotel closed in 2006 and £300m was spent redeveloping the site. Offices now fill the upper floors, but its most eye-catching Art Deco interiors have been saved – enjoy them by booking a table at either Brasserie Zedel, a bistro, or Park Row, a DC Comics-themed restaurant.
London’s biggest hotel today
The largest hotel in London – at least in terms of rooms – is the rather less salubrious Royal National Hotel, a three-star behemoth in Woburn Place, Bloomsbury. It has 1,630 beds and rates from around £100 a night. Public areas include a café serving stone-baked pizzas and the London Pub. The Cecil it is not.
A curious fact or two about Cleopatra’s Needle
This obelisk, which dates back to 1450 BC, was given to London by the ruler of Egypt and erected beside the Thames in 1877. A time capsule was concealed inside it holding all manner of curios, including a set of 12 photographs of the best-looking English women of the day, a box of cigars, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, a complete set of contemporary British coins, copies of the Bible in several languages, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers. Look closely and you’ll see shrapnel holes on one of the sphinxes caused by a German First World War bomb.