The return of the station hotel
There was a time when one stepped off a train into an adjacent railway hotel, which would offer the weary traveler rest and repose in opulent surroundings.
There was a time when one stepped off a train into an adjacent railway hotel, which would offer the weary traveler rest and repose in opulent surroundings. The luggage, usually an army of porters lugging footlockers would follow. The hotels could have been a Victorian mansion built of red brick, or a “Belle Époque” palace simply erected for a world’s fair.
The industrial revolution, which saw inventions like the steam locomotive, heralded a golden age for these hotels, which literally made for logical bedfellows.
Much like today’s airport hotels that connect directly to a main terminal at an airport the station hotel of yore offered the nineteenth and twentieth century passenger a place to lay their heads and resuscitate their souls.
Then came the 21st century, where both rail and the hospitality industry seemed to have undergone a minor revolution through upgrade and innovation. High speed rail is the norm, connecting major European and in certain cases Asian cities together, shrinking distances and time, making it more practical “to train” than “to plane” Those station hotels of yore are now getting a second glance and in many instances being restored to their former glory.
Many examples of these restorations can be found in Europe’s major capitals. The Renaissance Hotel at St. Pancras Station in London, arrival terminal for the Eurostar is now an integral part of the station. Travelers can literally step off a train from Paris or Brussels and be in their room in minutes.
Not to be outdone, Paris has its share of renovated hotels and monuments, most recent of which is the Paris Opera Hilton, a beautifully crafted restoration of the Gare St. Lazare’s turn of the century station hotel. Once known as Le Grand Hotel Terminus, this belle époque edifice was originally built for the Paris World’s Fair in 1889 at the same time as the Eiffel Tower. The building traversed exciting moments in history and its architecture reflects this. The hotel was directly linked to the station via footbridge and travelers were immediately awed by a double staircase flanked by lion sculptures. Later in the 1930’s the hotel was completely renovated by the architect Henri Pacon. Pacon had worked on the Ocean liners of the era and brought in an avant-garde style in his approach. During the Second World War, the euphoria of the past was extinguished and the hotel actively contributed to the Resistance allowing fighters to reach the train station by a secret tunnel avoiding German controls. After the war the hotel was requisitioned by the Americans and became the Grand Central Club of the American Red Cross.
Taken over in 1973 by the Champagne family, Tattainger, it was fully restored to its former glory in 1989 and was listed as an historical monument.
In the age of cookie-cutter hotels, hats must go off to Hilton for overseeing a subtle yet elegantly crafted restoration, returning another station hotel to its former glory.