Rocco Forte’s Hotel Astoria, St Petersburg
1912 – 2012
Through the Ages
St Petersburg’s iconic Rocco Forte’s Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th birthday this year.
Since 1912, Hotel Astoria has lived through the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, two world wars, Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of the new Russian economy. A bastion of aristocratic traditions, it is one of a few truly Russian luxury brands which has survived the turbulent history of 20-21 centuries.
Managed by the distinguished British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte since 1997 and redesigned by Olga Polizzi, this historic hotel continues to offer consistently excellent standards of traditional Russian hospitality, a high level of service and luxurious accommodation.
The owner of the land where the Astoria stands was an English company Palace Hotel, which commissioned in 1910 the German firm Wais and Freitag to build a luxury hotel in anticipation of the celebrations planned for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. In 1913, the Hotel became the main hospitality attraction for invitees of the Royal family.
The stunning Style Modern hotel, designed by architect Fyodor Lidval, first opened its doors to pre-revolutionary St Petersburg’s beau monde on December 23, 1912. It was an instant hit with the city’s gourmets and artistic crowd.
From day one it was a hotel that made history – Russian Grand Dukes threw larger-than-life parties in the Winter Garden; a prima ballerina danced until dawn in the Ballroom; Rasputin spent the night here in the company of a lady whose husband was ‘something in the government…;’ the Astoria played host to legendary figures such as the dancer Isadora Duncan and the writer H. G. Wells; and the Faberge shop was so close by that the hotel’s guests talked about going to the “local jewellers.”
Fast-forward to 1922, and NEP (New Economic Policy) millionaires emptied the wine cellars the hotel – at the end of Perestroika in 1992 the newly minted oligarchs did exactly the same; and right in the very middle of our century, in 1952 Stalin’s commissars were rather partial to the delicacies served in Davidov Restaurant (roast quail was a favourite).
2012, and the Hotel Astoria is still at the epicentre of all that is fashionable and influential in St Petersburg, a city experiencing a renaissance. To read the guest book is to leaf through the pages of recent history - Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, George and Laura Bush, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin, Alain Delon, Madonna, Elton John, Gina Lollobrigida, Jack Nicholson, Luciano Pavarotti, Marcello Mastroiani, Pierre Cardin, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Prince Charles and Prince Michael of Kent.
As a major St Petersburg landmark located in its very heart on St Isaac’s Square, the hotel is inextricably linked with the story of the city. It witnessed at first hand many of the pivotal events of past. In 1919, Lenin stayed here and gave a speech from the hotel’s distinctive 1st floor balcony. During both world wars, the Astoria was used as a hospital, and it was at Winter Garden that Hitler planned to host a banquet celebrating the conquest of the city he besieged for three years in the mistaken belief he could starve it into submission.
Hotel Astoria’s 100th jubilee is a milestone that will be celebrated by the city of St Petersburg throughout 2012 with a whole host of commemorative events.
Within the anniversary campaign, Astoria is launching a special programme for its guests who can benefit from free entrance to museums, backstage tours and many other special treats at the leading cultural institutions of St Petersburg such as the spectacular St Isaac’s Cathedral and Hermitage Museum.
Two major theatres of St Petersburg – Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky – offer exclusive private boxes for the Astoria guests as it was accustomed in Russia before Soviet times.
As part of the celebrations, Astoria will resurrect a hotel tradition dating back to 1920’s, of hosting Jazz Evenings. Throughout 2012, internationally recognized musicians including Yann Tierson and Denis Matsuev will perform at a series of dinners and concerts.
The first hotel in Russia, the Astoria will introduce a special scheme for local farmers, developing new menus with seasonal, home grown and free-range ingredients, supporting the community and providing guests with the very best produce from the region.
In spring 2012, Hotel Astoria will also unveil newly refurbished 78 rooms and 58 suites including Deluxe, Ambassador, Junior Suites and the incomparable Royal Suite (with total number of rooms –188).
December 2012 will be marked with a splendid jubilee party bringing together guests from all over the world including politicians, fashion designers, artists, musicians, film stars, and other devoted connoisseurs of truly Russian luxury.
To walk into the Hotel Astoria in 2012, and to stay as a guest, is to walk into history, and to keep making history
In 1912, Russia was experiencing an economic boom, with foreign investors pouring money into all sorts of different ventures – railways, banking, retail, oil and gas. In the Imperial St Petersburg of Nicholas II, money was no object, and on St Isaac’s Square, in the very heart of the city, an English company, Palace Hotel, commissioned the fashionable architect Fyodor Lidval to build a new luxury hotel. Every modern convenience then known to man was installed – cork soundproofing, an electric light system for calling servants, city telephone lines, automated vacuuming system, steam-driven central heating, guest lifts…
The sumptuous interiors impressed even the most demanding of the city’s gilded society. The exterior of the building, however, proved more controversial, embodying the clear contours of the fashionable Style Moderne, and drawing mixed reactions from contemporary observers. Plus ça change - today, it is acknowledged as a masterpiece…
The central location of the hotel has always placed the hotel in the history books – in 1917, as the Russian Revolution ignited, a fierce battle took place in and around the building between the Bolsheviks and the supports of the ancien regime.
The Astoria has always been in the minds and ambitions of history makers – Lenin stayed here in 1919, and in 1941 it was here that Hitler planned to host a banquet following his conquest of the city (he even had invitations printed…). Thanks to the heroic defenders of the city, the banquet never took place.
During the Soviet “Interrugnum,” the Astoria lost something of the lustre that it had previously enjoyed, but the old traditions lived on, for example, in the weekly jazz evenings held in the Winter Garden, where loyal “apparatchiks” and their wives dressed up to the nines (in fashions that were avidly copied from Paris), and looked askance at the more liberal-minded members of the audience. Then, as now, a shared love of culture brought the city together.
In 1987, the hotel was closed for reconstruction. Two years later, it reopened, totally renewed. Ten years later, in 1997, the management of the hotel was taken over by Rocco Forte Hotels; and a further programme of reconstruction was begun. About $20 million were invested in that transformation, and as a result the hotel’s historic interiors were refreshed and enriched by contemporary elements, and the equipment and communications were replaced entirely. Fitness and business centres appeared, fully equipped with the latest hi-tech facilities.
The simultaneous renovation and restyling of the hotel’s interiors is the work of Olga Polizzi. She immediately realised that "the famed hotel of 1912 and the concept that guests have of St Petersburg would play a significant role."
The question of what ‘Russian style’ actually is arose from the very start: the original design details include the colour red, with much velvet and gold leaf, but at the same time the Hotel Astoria building is the work of Frederick Lidval, and the hotel is a monument to St Petersburg Art Nouveau.
"Acquiring the Astoria, we understood that this 'Russian project' had to reflect the new, brilliant image of St Petersburg that has built up over the last few years," says Olga.
The task was to preserve the original decor whilst giving it a touch of contemporary design. An introduction to the Volga Linen Company helped Polizzi to discover Russia as a major linen producer; and from here the concept of the pure Chekhovian interiors for the Hotel Astoria was born - magnificent wooden floors, a touch of gilding, with curtains and covers of Russian linen.
The furnishing of the hotel's rooms mirrors the concept of the Rocco Forte brand: simplicity and elegance. Natural materials, such as preserved wood, leather, and marble, are delicately complemented by modern elements, including lamps of metal and glass with sculptured details on the walls and Volga Linen curtains.
To walk into the Hotel Astoria in 2012, and to stay as a guest, is to walk into history, and to keep making history.