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Time stands still in award-winning hotel

The hotel is reminiscent of a medieval castle (Hotel Waldhaus)

A dream-like castle hotel towering above the village of Sils Maria in the Upper Engadine valley has been named Switzerland’s historic hotel of the year.

The aim of the award, presented by the Swiss branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, is to promote the preservation of Switzerland’s rich hotel heritage.

As I step into the grand lounge of the Hotel Waldhaus, a three-man orchestra is playing, much as they have always done since the hotel first opened its doors in 1908.

A musician is rehearsing for a concert in her room on the floor above. The strains from her violin seep into the spacious hallway.

The wooden floorboards make their own music underfoot, creaking with the memory of the many illustrious guests who have walked these floors.

Over the decades, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Marc Chagall, and Neville Chamberlain – to name but a few – have stayed here.

Creaky floors

“The creaking floorboards are a symbol of what we have tried to achieve,” says Urs Kienberger, who, along with his sister and brother-in-law, is the fourth generation of the family to own and manage the hotel.

“I was in Las Vegas recently where you have huge hotels trying to reproduce a past that never was,” he adds. “They have the forms of the past but are newly made. Their floors would never creak like ours.”

Thankfully, Kienberger’s view of what makes a hotel special is shared by others.

“The Hotel Waldhaus is one of the real gems among Swiss hotels,” jury president Roland Flückiger told swissinfo.

“It has been owned and operated by the same family since it was built in 1908 and it is today much as it has always been, which is quite unusual in Switzerland.”

Authentic

Lording over the picturesque Engadine valley from its exceptional hilltop location, the hotel was chosen by the jury for its careful restoration.

“The majority of the renovations have been carried out while maintaining its authenticity,” stated the jury.

“Numerous original furnishings and fixtures down to the tiniest details have been excellently preserved and new, modern elements chosen to blend in with the décor.”

The impression that time has stood still is no sleight of hand, but often the result of hard work and dedication.

The restoration of a 94-year-old one-of-a-kind automated piano was carried out by the hotel’s engineer, who took it on as a labour of love and succeeded in making it play again after decades of silence (see video and audio).

Mahogany toilet

Kienberger recovered an original mahogany toilet from a private home in France and had it reinstalled in one of the bathrooms that have been painstakingly restored.

“It’s our idea to have the Waldhaus survive as a functioning five-star hotel but at the same time to pay tribute to the past – and not just a token tribute – to really integrate the past into the present,” he says.

The hotel was built near the end of the Belle Époque when palatial hotels were all the rage, often claiming the most exclusive locations in the Swiss Alps.

Presenting the award, Flückiger said the Hotel Waldhaus was “an example for all Swiss hotels”, and he complimented the owners for their “unconditional commitment to the hotel’s heritage and the well-being of their guests”.

The Waldhaus is the ninth recipient of the historic hotel award, which was founded in 1997.

Sea change

“The prize is very important, because ten years ago owners of historical hotels could not get loans or credits to restore their buildings, yet money was available to finance the demolition of old hotels in order to build new ones,” says Flückiger.

The conservator says the prize has helped to change attitudes in the Swiss tourist industry, which began this year to actively market the 120 hotels it deems to be historic (see “Swiss Historic Hotels” under “related sites”).

“I hope we don’t get too much attention or become too fashionable [due to the award],” says Kienberger.

“If we ever become the in-place to be, that will be the beginning of the end, because after every rise there’s a fall, and we certainly don’t want that.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Sils Maria

Key facts

The Hotel Waldhaus in Sils Maria has been named Swiss Historic Hotel of the Year.
Honourable mention went to the Albergo della Posta in Astano; the restaurant Höllgrotten in Baar; Zurich’s Zunfthaus zur Schmiden; and the Park Hotel Waldhaus in Flims.

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In brief

The hotelier, Josef Giger, had the Hotel Waldhaus built in 1908 by Karl Koller, a prominent architect who was responsible for many hotels in Switzerland and abroad.

Its current appearance is much as it was in the late 1920s, when it was renovated following a fire in part of the building.

The five-star hotel, which has 160 rooms, is still owned and operated by Giger’s descendants.

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