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Historic Montreux hotel to "set sail" again


If a luxury hotel can be compared to an ocean liner, Montreux's Hotel National would be the Titanic. The main difference: this wreck is being "raised".

The Hotel National opened in 1875 as the first grand hotel in Montreux, the resort on the Swiss Riviera that would eventually become known for its stately accommodation.

The lights went out 20 years ago when the hotel owners decided to close it down, and there is still no power.

The windows are broken; torn curtains blow in the breeze like forlorn spirits and the corridors are filled with broken glass and crockery. In places one must wade through hallways flooded with old stationery and postcards.

I am part of a small group that descends into the depths. Torches in hand, we stumble upon the laundry room where dirty linen is strewn across tables and floor, seeming to have been quickly abandoned - as if the hotel's demise was as sudden as the sinking of the Titanic.

But the Hotel National was never submerged. For the past two decades, it has been an eyesore in one of the most prominent positions on the Lake Geneva shore. It was bought and resold, and plans by speculators to turn it into apartments were rejected by the authorities.

The latter held out hope it could be reborn as a hotel. But instead, squatters took over.

Former glory

The turning point came in 2005 when it was purchased by property developers who agreed to respect the integrity of the original building. The grand ground floor will be restored to its former glory, as will the façade.

The structure is to be surrounded by three modern apartment blocks, and in total, there will be 77 flats – 17 in the former hotel. Nearly half have already been sold, even though it's the priciest real estate in this part of Switzerland and the development won't be completed until 2009.

"Our customers are buying property in a wonderful location but they are also buying a piece of history," says Blaise Carroz, partner in the firm, Le National de Montreux. "This hotel is filled with the spirit of all the people who spent time here and we want to respect that."

But the story does not end there. The hotel spirit will live on through its old, broken furniture, panelling and bathroom fixtures, which are being relocated to three heritage hotels in different parts of the country.

When Montreux's archivist, Evelyne Lüthi-Graf, learned that much of the furniture and fixtures had not been auctioned off as thought 20 years ago, she quickly alerted members of the association, Swiss Historic Hotels.

Carroz agreed to give it all away providing the hotels did the repairs and put it back to its original use.

Valuable antiques?

"Is the furniture worth keeping?" asks Lüthi-Graf rhetorically. "If it is then we must be dealing with valuable antiques, but they are not since they are replicas. Hotel owners purchased cheaper imitations since they could not afford to buy the originals.

"Tourists in the 19th century stayed in hotels for months at a time," she explains. "They were substitutes for their homes, so hotels were, to an extent, illusions, and the furniture was part of that illusion. Re-using this furniture in other hotels brings it back to life and shows respect for the past."

The hotel registers from 1914-1919 and 1936-1951 were also recovered and reveal the most minute details of everyday life in the hotel, such as how often guests paid to take baths or make phone calls.

The art nouveau hotel Paxmontana in the mountains of central Switzerland is recreating an entire salon of the Hotel National using the original furnishings, and is installing a complete 19th century bathroom.

The Grand Hotel Bella Tolla in the ski resort of St Luc will label the furniture with explanations about its origins.

"Each piece of furniture has its own story to tell about the guests it's seen," says Claude Buchs, owner and manager of the Bella Tolla.

"When we took over the hotel, we bought furniture that was made to look antique, but it's not the same thing. The old furniture from the National doesn't have to be as good as new.

"It has much more value if it's not perfect."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Montreux

Key facts

The Hotel National became Montreux's first "chateau-style" hotel when it opened in 1875. It closed for good 110 years later.
The property is now being converted into luxury apartments.
Members of the association of Swiss Historic Hotels are salvaging much of the remaining furniture and fixtures.
The Montreux Archives have recovered the hotel's registers from the First World War years, as well as those from 1936-1951. The latter are the only registers from Montreux known still to exist from this period.

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Swiss Historic Hotels

Around 30 of the estimated 80 well-preserved heritage hotels in the country belong to the association, Swiss Historic Hotels.

Hotels must meet strict criteria before being rewarded membership. The process is monitored by building conservation experts.

Many of the listed properties have received citations from the Swiss branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos).

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