Savoy refurb: rather fine, guests agree

Tom Peck sees the first guests check in to a £220m refurbishment project

'It's a bit like being back at school," said Tony Cortegaca, the head doorman at London's Savoy hotel, which reopened yesterday after a three-year refurbishment. Some £220m has been spent renovating the hotel, around £2m for each of last night's guests; only 55 of the hotel's 268 rooms have re-opened so far.

At 10 minutes past 10 yesterday morning – 10/10/10 – in front of more than 100 staff and almost as many photographers, Mr Cortegaca opened the door of an embarrassingly colossal Rolls-Royce, registration number S8 VOY, to welcome the new hotel's first – albeit non-paying – guest, Stephen Fry.

As Fry – who has himself undergone a transformation since the Savoy shut its doors in December 2007 (back then he was yet to embrace Twitter) – made his way into the grand lobby, it fell to one of Mr Cortegaca's underlings to bellow at the driver of the departing Rolls-Royce as it came within inches of the crystal art-deco fountain that now stands before the main entrance.

In the expansive Thames Foyer, complete with grand piano in a giant metallic gazebo below a glass domed ceiling, there was no shortage of seating options for the hotel's solitary guest (for those actually paying, check-in time wasn't until noon). To the left sits the art-deco Beaufort Bar, a completely new addition.

"It wasn't about changing the hotel. It was about restoring it," said Simon Gilkes, the director of sales, standing next to the bar on the hotel's old cabaret stage, where George Gershwin premiered his "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1925. "We wanted to keep its soul, but elevate it, and make it the best hotel in the world."

Slovakian Erik Lorincz, this year's winner of the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year, and thus the world's finest cocktail maker, has been installed in the restored American Bar, long considered the purveyor of the best cocktails in London.

The place certainly has an illustrious history, not merely through its extraordinary guest list, from Edward VII to Marlene Dietrich and the Beatles. "Oscar Wilde stayed here for some time," said Fry, now checked in to his river-view suite on the sixth floor, priced at a modest £2,500 a night. "It was staff from here who testified at his trial for gross indecency." Wilde, portrayed by Fry in a 1997 film, conducted his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas in the hotel.

Fry was a guest for six months in the 1980s, suite-sitting for Carry On film producer Peter Rogers who had to dash and couldn't face emptying all his things, a stroke of good fortune not visited on too many gentlemen in their late twenties.

"I have seen and heard things in this hotel that your eyes and ears would not believe," he said, but was unconcerned by the prospect of an indecency trial of his own. "My friends Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson both had their wedding breakfasts here where I gave the best man's speech, so I will always have a special affection for it."

Among the first guests were the Lincoln family from Epping, Essex. "It's fabulous, isn't it," said Mrs Lincoln, 53, who had checked into a suite on the ninth floor. Her niece, Julianne Heard, 25, and her fiancé, Nicholas Rowe, a trainee lawyer from Suffolk, will be back again in December, for their wedding breakfast in the imposing ballroom.

It is not the first time the Savoy has required a lick of paint. In 1381 John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace, which stood on the same site, was burned to the ground by Wat Tyler's rebel army. But with rooms starting at £350 a night, and finishing with the £10,000 Royal Suite complete with specially ventilated shoe closet, any peasants in the vicinity, no matter how revolting, are unlikely to make it through Mr Cortegaca's revolving door.

An illustrious history

1246 King Henry II gives the land between the Strand and the Thames to Peter II, Count of Savoy, who builds the Savoy Palace there.

1381 A second palace, built by the 1st Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, is burnt down by Wat Tyler's rebel army during the Peasants' Revolt.

1505 Henry VII leaves money in his will to establish a hospital for "pouer nedie people" on the site of the palace ruins.

1854 A fire burns the site down, and the property sits empty until theatrical impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte buys it in 1880 and builds the Savoy Theatre, where he stages Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, including HMS Pinafore and The Mikado.

1890 Inspired by visits to America, D'Oyly Carte build Britain's first luxury hotel. It is the first to be lit by electric lights and the first with electric lifts.

1941-45 After the US joins the Second World War, the hotel becomes a favourite of American officers, diplomats and journalists. Winston Churchill lunches frequently with his wartime cabinet in the Savoy Grill.

2010 The Savoy reopens after a three year, £220m refurbishment.

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