St Moritz celebrates electrifying pioneer

Christmas lights have a long tradition at the Kulm swissinfo.ch

The reputation of the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz is still burning bright, 125 years after its founder switched on Switzerland’s first electric lights.

This content was published on January 21, 2004 - 14:06

The installation of the primitive arc lamps to illuminate the dining room is one of several pioneering achievements associated with the hotel and its founder.

Christmas lights frame the Greek columns at the entrance to the Kulm Hotel, which sits on the crest of the hill rising up from the resort.

To the west are St Moritz’s designer boutiques; to the east, the outdoor curling rink and the resort’s legendary skeleton and bobsleigh tracks. Above are the ski slopes; below, the frozen lake.

St Moritz, arguably the most exclusive resort in the Alps, is considered the cradle of winter sports and the first place in Switzerland to have electric light.

Its fabulous history is intertwined with that of the Kulm, whose founder, Johannes Badrutt, did more than most to make St Moritz what it is today.

Rich legacy

Badrutt’s picture hangs in a back office in the oldest part of the Kulm, where current hotel director, Dominique Godat, talks about his legacy.

“His picture inspires me,” says Godat, indicating the rather grim-faced portrait. “We are proud of Johannes Badrutt because he was such a pioneer.

“He had a vision of what St Moritz could become and knew that to survive he had to find new ways of generating business.”

In 1856, when alpine tourism was still in its infancy, Badrutt took over the small Faller Inn and converted it into St Moritz’s first hotel.

Within a few years, he almost single-handedly made St Moritz a leading summer resort and convinced his sceptical British guests to return in winter.

If a winter holiday did not live up to the billing, he said, they could have their money back. Badrutt won the wager and winter tourism was born.

Toboggan runs

Winter sports soon followed and Badrutt had a hand in their invention as well, providing the land and manpower to build icy toboggan runs to keep his guests amused.

The early toboggan races eventually developed into the skeleton and bobsleigh competitions of today.

Always on the lookout for new ideas, he travelled to the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris and saw a demonstration of the “Jablochkoff Candle”.

The relatively cheap and simple arc lamp was a breakthrough in electric lighting since several could be hooked up to a single energy source. It preceded Edison’s incandescent lamp by a couple of years.

Badrutt returned to St Moritz and immediately set about building the hotel’s own hydroelectric plant to provide the power for several arc lamps which he installed in the hotel’s grand dining room.

“It cost him about SFr11,000 ($8,500), which was quite a sum at the time,” says Godat.

Shed light

“I was amazed to find out that these lamps only burned for about one and a half hours,” he adds.

“I can’t imagine what it must have been like to change the light bulbs so often, but he made it possible that the hotel had electric light on Christmas evening, on the 25th of December, 1878.”

Historical records do not support this date, suggesting that it was in fact half a year later. No matter, Badrutt and his hotel were still ahead of their time.

By 1880, there were only 160 of these electric lights installed in the world, and eight were in the Kulm Hotel.

Other hotels would follow the Kulm’s example, but, until the 20th century, Swiss cities continued to light their streets with gas and the Swiss continued to use petrol lamps in their homes.

Pioneering spirit

The First World War put an end to the pioneering spirit of the Belle Époque, which was driven by men like Badrutt.

And the Kulm Hotel would not find itself in the limelight again until 1928 when it served as the headquarters for the St Moritz Winter Olympics.

Since the 1960s, the hotel has been owned by a small group of shareholders led by the Greek shipping magnate family, Niarchos.

The family is more discreet than the flamboyant Badrutt and prefers to put the accent on tradition, decorating the hotel with classic furnishings and demanding of the staff impeccable and friendly service.

Thanks to its timeless appearance, Badrutt would probably still recognise the hotel, even though its current owners do not share his spirit for innovation.

But they, too, are successful. Members of the jet set continue to call the Kulm their winter home and leading Swiss business magazines are equally impressed, naming it the best winter hotel in the country.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in St Moritz

In brief

In 1856, Johannes Badrutt bought a small inn and converted it into St Moritz’s first hotel, the Kulm.

Only eight years later, he scored a major success by convincing some of his guests to spend the winter in the resort, which gave birth to winter tourism.

He decided to install fixed electric lights in the hotel after seeing a display of new arc lamps in Paris in the summer of 1878.

A year later, according to a local newspaper, several electric lights were turned on in the Kulm dining room, powered by the hotel’s own hydroelectricity plant.

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Key facts

The five-star hotel has 183 rooms in its three connected buildings.
Among its facilities is a 1,400 square metre modern health spa.
The hotel has its own curling and ice-skating rink, and in summer a nine-hole golf course and three tennis courts.
Single rooms start at SFr250 per night and suites cost up to SFr3,000 a night.

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