Hotel crowned for preservation efforts

The south facing rooms have fantastic views over Lake Geneva and the French Alps

The Hotel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey has been named Switzerland's historic hotel of the year.

This content was published on September 26, 2002 minutes

The Shah of Persia, Russian tsars and Hollywood stars have all passed through its doors. But until a few years ago, it looked as if only the memories would survive.

"This hotel was dying. There were very few clients. We had to do something," explained Sylvie Buhagiar, the hotel's administrator, before accepting the award on behalf of the Trois Couronnes' anonymous owner.

Buhagiar said the hotel's owner had pumped in SFr11 million ($7 million) to restore the 55 rooms and ornate atrium.

"It may take decades to recoup it. But you also have to take risks," she said.

Marble floors

"Our concept was to preserve as much as we could and rediscover things that were hidden, like the marble floors under the old carpets. We also wanted to innovate and introduce new comforts, like the spa."

Built in 1842, it was one of the first grand hotels on the northern shore of Lake Geneva - the Swiss Riviera - which met the demands of wealthy English and American travellers on grand tours of Europe.

The Trois Couronnes, with its lofty ballroom, glittering chandeliers and marble floors, was the epitome of European elegance to the likes of novelist Henry James whose novel, "Daisy Miller", was set at the hotel.

Neat German waiters

"... neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon."

According to the president of the jury, Roland Flückiger, the Trois Couronnes was awarded the honour of historic hotel of the year for faithfully preserving the spirit that Henry James captured in his novel in the second half of the 19th century.

Roman columns

Flückiger says this is best represented by the atrium where light floods down four floors from huge skylights.

Each floor is supported by Roman columns, and ringed by wooden banisters. The whole scene is reflected in a gold-framed mirror on every storey and the marble floor of the atrium.

"It's the most beautiful hotel atrium in Switzerland," Flückiger gushed while standing in the natural light cascading from above.

Flückiger is a monument conservator and also president of the Swiss branch of ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

It is ICOMOS, together with the Switzerland Tourism and the Swiss Hotel Association, that has awarded the prize annually since 1997.

ICOMOS wants to raise awareness of the importance of old hotels to Switzerland's cultural heritage, since tourism played a major role in the country's history over the last two centuries.

Top address

In its heyday, the Trois Couronnes as one of the top addresses on Lake Geneva's shores, attracted a who's who of celebrities and royalty.

Following in the footsteps of Daisy Miller were real flesh and blood characters - Tchaikovsky, Thomas Mann and Charlie Chaplin.

As jury member Evelyne Lüthi-Graf says, every preserved detail in the Trois Couronnes is a contribution to the preservation of the rich culture of the Swiss Riviera.

"In keeping with the spirit of history, they left the antique windows and the antique shutters even though they are very difficult to close," says Lüthi-Graf, who is the town archivist in neighbouring Montreux.

"Many famous people have passed by these windows through the centuries."

Tsars and shahs

Among the royal visitors were Russian tsars and Persian shahs. In 1873, the Shah of Persia threatened to decapitate one of his valets for failing to deliver a message.

The hotel director at the time intervened and using great diplomatic skill convinced the Shah that carrying out an execution at the hotel would not be in keeping with Swiss traditions.

Thomas Brugnatelli, the current hotel director, is aware of what he has inherited and says he has to pinch himself every morning to make sure he is not dreaming.

Brugnatelli is proud of some of the smaller touches, like the hotel's small lift, fitted with blood-red upholstery.

"It doesn't meet today's safety standards and it's too small, but it has an 'Orient Express' feel about it that we don't want to lose," he says.

Retain magic

"We want to retain the magic and atmosphere of the place, so I think our guests would be very disappointed if we installed a new elevator."

"We have a duty of memory, as we archivists call it," says Lüthi-Graf. "Lake Geneva is where Byron wrote 'Childe Harold' and the 'Prisoner of Chillon'.

"He was with Shelley and of course Rousseau came before them. And Henry James set Daisy Miller here."

"It's our duty to ensure that these buildings are preserved," she adds.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

Built in 1842.
Setting for Henry James novel, Daisy Miller.
Prices range per night from SFr310 for a double room, up to SFr1610 for a "Suite Royale" and prices on request for a "Suite Impériale".
Due to become member of "Leading Hotels of the World" next year.

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In brief

The Hotel des Trois Couronnes was built in 1842.

The historic hotel of the year award is presented annually by the Swiss branch of ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites in association with Switzerland Tourism, the Swiss Hotel Association and Gastro Suisse.

The goal of the prize is to raise awareness of the importance of old hotels to Switzerland's cultural heritage.

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