Like the National Gallery, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, the Savoy is a part of the fabric and character of London. Famed for its impeccable service, this much-loved institution is deserving of its label as London’s most famous hotel.
Footman and pageboy outside the Savoy. Copyright: Savoy Archives/Fairmont Hotels
Throughout its 125-year history, the Savoy has welcomed many distinguished guests – from Monet, Whistler and The Beatles to Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. Monet and Whistler famously painted the Thames from their hotel rooms; Whistler even sketched the hotel as it was being built. Gershwin gave the British premiere of Rhapsody in Blue at the hotel in 1925, complete with a live BBC radio broadcast heard by thousands in their homes. Vivien Leigh first met her future husband Laurence Olivier in the Savoy Grill. And, in 1940, it was while Churchill was lunching at the Savoy that he received the call informing him that he would now be running the country. It was here too that, 30 years earlier, he founded the Other Club, a famous dining society that still regularly meets at the hotel today.
River View Deluxe Suite. Photo: Fairmont Hotels
The Art Deco Beaufort Bar serves a tempting range of cocktails. Photo: Savoy Archives/Fairmont Hotel
History has been made at the Savoy and not just on a national level. Many Londoners feel a personal connection with the hotel. Emma Allam, the Savoy’s communications director explains: “Everyone I talk to seems to have their own story. That’s what makes it special. My mum, for instance, was one of the dancers at the Savoy. People often write in asking us to find their registration cards or old menus of society lunches they attended here.”
Sir Winston Churchill greets the press outside the Savoy. Photo: Savoy Archives/Fairmont Hotels
This is where the Savoy’s archivist, Susan Scott, comes in. In charge of the hotel’s records and archives, Susan is responsible for answering any queries relating to its history. She also gives tours of the hotel to private groups (just write in with your request).
Staff outside the main entrance in 1904. Photo: Savoy Archives/Fairmont Hotels
It says a lot about the Savoy’s place in London’s history that it is the only hotel in the city – quite possibly in the world – to have a dedicated archivist and an on-site museum. “You can just walk into the museum and have a look,” says Susan. “We change the displays every three months or so. Sometimes we run special exhibitions on specific themes.”
The Savoy owes its existence to impresario and composer Richard D’Oyly Carte, the man behind Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration and builder of the Savoy Theatre next door. Convinced that his customers would welcome a meal and possibly an overnight stay after their theatre outing, he commissioned architect Thomas Edward Collcutt to design a grand hotel inspired by the luxury establishments he had experienced while on business in America.
The hotel took five years to build and when it opened on 6 August 1889, it caused a sensation. The height of technological advance, it was the first public building in England to be lit by electricity. It was also the first hotel in London to have electric elevators – poetically referred to as ‘ascending rooms’ in an advertisement from The Times, which described the hotel as ‘the perfection of luxury and comfort’. Guests were encouraged to order anything they required via speaking tubes in their rooms – an early form of room service. ‘Please command anything from a cup of tea to a cocktail and it will come in the twinkling of an Embankment lamp,’ boasted the brochure.
Service was further enhanced when D’Oyly Carte employed the famed hotelier César Ritz in 1890. ‘The king of hosts and the host to kings’, Ritz was a perfectionist, insisting that there should be one valet for each guest.
Appointed managing director in 1900, hotelier George Reeves-Smith oversaw the extension of the hotel to virtually twice its original size. At the dawn of the glamorous Edwardian era, the Savoy was poised to welcome some of its most notable figures, not least the pleasure-loving King Edward VII, who had patronised the hotel since its earliest days when he was Prince of Wales.
The hotel even played a part in the story of women’s emancipation. Up until the late 19th century, dining in public had been frowned upon for respectable ladies, but Ritz and later Reeves-Smith made it desirable for a lady to be seen dining in public. It wasn’t long before the whole of London high society met, dined and partied at the Savoy.
During the jazz age of the 1920s, the hotel was famed for its music and dancing. The Savoy’s two resident bands – the Savoy Havana Band and the Savoy Orpheans – were the main attraction, but cabaret acts were also performed between courses. Every night the hotel was packed with hundreds of people, from stars of the stage and screen to the best of London’s beau monde and its party-seeking Bright Young Things. Those unable to enjoy the hotel in the flesh could savour a taste of its jubilant atmosphere by turning on their radio sets and listening to regular broadcasts of ‘Dance music from the Savoy Hotel in London’.
The hotel remained continuously open to guests until it closed its doors in 2007 for a major refurbishment. Described in the press as ‘the most ambitious hotel restoration project ever undertaken in London,’ the mammoth task took three years to complete and cost £220 million, involving not just cosmetic changes but many structural alterations as well.
“We did not change anything for the sake of change,” explains Susan Scott. Remaining true to the essence of the Savoy was very much a priority for award-winning interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. “We were like surgeons,” he says. “We had to remove the bad parts, without destroying the spirit.”
The 195 guest rooms and 73 suites are decorated in either Edwardian or Art Deco style, clear nods to the hotel’s two greatest eras. A new Royal Suite spans the entire length of the fifth floor commanding unrivalled views of the Thames. César Ritz would be pleased that there is now butler service to all suites and that the hotel has reopened its butler training programme, known as the Butler Savoy Academy.
The Front Hall, with its gleaming new black and white marble floor and restored mahogany panelling, feels like a larger version of a country house entrance hall. In the Thames Foyer, where guests can enjoy afternoon tea, is an elegant centrepiece: a winter garden gazebo topped by a stained glass cupola. “The roof had been closed since the Great War; the room is now flooded with natural light,” smiles Susan.
The River Restaurant, facing the Thames, has been redecorated in an Art Deco style, and so too is the supremely opulent and entirely new Beaufort Bar. Within this theatrical fantasy of jet-black and burnished gold decoration, guests can choose from a staggering selection of the very best champagnes and enjoy nightly live entertainment.
If cocktails are more your thing, then the world-famous American Bar, itself virtually unchanged, offers some of the most legendary bartenders’ drinks, including a White Lady and a Hanky Panky! Having visited the newly reopened hotel, one journalist remarked: “The Savoy is still the Savoy, only better.” If you’ve never been, now might just be the time to visit.
Getting there: The Savoy is located on the Strand in London. For detailed travel information, visit www.fairmont.com/savoy-london/map/mapanddirections
Where to stay: While this may be a once-in-a-lifetime treat for many, Savoy guests can enjoy double rooms from about £400; suites start from about £800. www.fairmont.com/savoy-london
Don’t miss: The Savoy’s small on-site museum. As you head towards the American Bar, it is located on your left, and hosts a selection of hotel memorabilia and archive photographs recalling a heyday of glamour and decadence
More information: The Savoy Hotel, Strand, London WC2R 0EU. Tel: 020 7836 4343. www.fairmont.com/savoy-london