A brief farewell to the Grande Bretagne

It was around 11 p.m. one summer evening in the early 1970s, and dinner in the brightly lit Royal Room at the Hotel Grande Bretagne was going smoothly. The women were wearing wispy silk dresses and the men white linen suits with subdued ties. Suddenly a young man came through the door wearing sandals from Myconos, shorts, his shirt half unbuttoned and tied in a knot at the waist. Angrily, the maitre d’hotel moved swiftly to tell the man that he wasn’t allowed in without a jacket and tie; the rules were strict and must be complied with. The conscientious employee had failed to recognize Rudolf Nureyev, who was in Athens rehearsing for his performance at the Herod Atticus Theater. Neither man was ready to yield, but just before matters became serious, the hotel’s general manager, Apostolos Doxiadis, appeared, and suggested setting up a good table in the dining room entrance where the honored guest could dine. New era The Hotel Grande Bretagne is closing for restoration, getting ready for the stars who will visit Athens for the 28th Olympiad. It is the beginning of a new era for the grand building that dominates the main square of Athens. The Grande Bretagne has been a landmark in recent and modern history. It is a significant example of the French Revival style chosen by its creator, Theophilos Hansen, in a change from the prevailing neoclassicism of the time. It is a brilliant hotel that has been visited by great politicians, famous artists, singers, conductors, Hollywood stars and business giants. An oasis of urbanity, it has linked Athens with Europe for 158 years, and is rightly seen as a symbol of Athenian extroversion. Kathimerini looked into the history of this important hotel with the help of Apostolos Doxiadis, chairman of the hotel’s board of directors, an offshoot of the Lampsas family, and one of the few Athenians who knows the history of the Grande Bretagne from the inside. Shipowner’s mansion In 1842, Antonios Dimitriou, a Greek shipowner from Lemnos, moved from Trieste to Athens, which only had 20,000 inhabitants at that time. Dimitriou built himself a villa opposite the palace. Danish architect Theofilos Hansen designed the villa in the French Revival style and the king himself approved the plans. For some years, the villa was home to diplomats, foreign officials and courtiers, until Dimitriou decided to sell it, since he viewed Athens as nothing but a dreary town which got dusty in summer and muddy in winter. In 1874, Dimitriou’s home on the corner of Vasileous Georgiou (King George) and Panepistimiou streets was bought by Savvas Kentros, who transferred to it the hotel already in operation on the corner of Stadiou and Karagiorgi Servias streets. Efstathios Lampsas, a businessman from Odessa, came in as a partner. In the small society in Athens, he represented the fulfillment of the Greek dream. His family had started out from Kalavryta to seek their fortune in Odessa. But they had failed, and the father returned to Athens with his son Stathis. The boy got work as a kitchen hand in the palace, where his talent and industriousness soon got him noticed, to the point that the king sent him to Paris to learn more about cooking. While working at the Maison Doree he met Palmyra Palfrois, married her, and they decided to unite their diligence and their considerable savings. French name King George encouraged the young couple to set themselves up in the hotel opposite the palace, wanting to keep his courtiers close at hand. Most of the guests at that time were Britons doing their Grand Tour through Greece to Egypt, the Suez Canal and India. So the hotel was called Great Britain, but in French, as the owner’s wife was French. And that was how the luxurious and impressive Hotel Grande Bretagne began its illustrious career. By that time, Athens had 67,000 inhabitants, and was suffering water shortages and problems of supply. Mayor Skarlatos Soutsos had built a 2,500-cubic-meter supplementary reservoir on the slopes of Lycabettus and had water sent down from Pendeli, Kifissia and Varibobi, but Athenian neighborhoods still got their water from municipal taps. At the Grande Bretagne, anyone who wanted a bath had to request it a day in advance, because despite its famed luxury, the hotel had only two bathrooms. But it did have its own generator – the first in Greece. In 1888, Kentros died and Stathis Lampsas bought the hotel outright, and started developing it by adding a wing on Panepistimiou. That year was the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Athens University, and the Grande Bretagne took on a social role. The dinner dances the hotel introduced added luster to its fine halls, and soon changed Athens’s nightlife. In 1896, during the Olympic Games, most of the representatives of foreign countries, including the Baron de Coubertin, stayed there. There are no photographs of them but their names are recorded in the hotel’s visitors’ book. In the 20th century Lampsas kept up to date with tourism in Greece and Europe. At that time, Theodoros Petrakopoulos from Patra used to write for the Estia newspaper. The son of a tailor, he had studied on his own at night then gone to Rome to complete his studies. Lampsas was impressed by the young man’s acuity and asked to meet him. In 1909, Petrakopoulos returned to Greece and met the Lampsas family. Both sides were evidently charmed and impressed and soon the young man married Lampsas’s adopted daughter, Margarita. A thinking person, Petrakopoulos soon gained the favor of premier Eleftherios Venizelos, and all Athens knew about the monumental verbal battles that took place between Venizelos and Prince Constantine, the heir to King George, in the Grande Bretagne on the eve of the First World War. Petrakopoulos was proud to have been present at the signing of the Treaty of Bucharest, and Venizelos gave him the pen with which it was signed (now held by the Benaki Museum). Changes to Athens Meanwhile, the appearance of Athens was changing. In 1904 the Athens-Piraeus electric railroad began operating, and in 1908 the trams started running on electricity. In 1925 there were 25 brand-new buses servicing the most remote neighborhoods. The Grande Bretagne had running water, central heating, telephones and even an elevator. In 1918, Petrakopoulos completely took over the administration and management of the hotel. Ten years later, the building was extended to its present frontage on Panepistimiou; the hotel became a limited company and applied for a large bank loan. Until 1938, when the Kalkanis family built the King George Hotel next door, all the celebrities who visited Greece stayed at the Grande Bretagne. The rich, the famous, the eccentric, industrialists, shipowners, lawyers and diplomats used to meet there every day. From Helen, Grand Duchess of Russia, who wanted to spend her last days in the Grande Bretagne, to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford, who wanted an extra room just for her shoes, the visitors’ book contains many famous signatures. Richard Strauss, the Aga Khan, the Kennedys, Dwight Eisenhower, the Krupps, the Rockefellers, Sir Laurence Olivier, Margot Fonteyn, Aristotelis Onassis, Henry Fonda, Giscard D’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt all stayed there, as did the London Philharmonic and renowned conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwangler. The big surprise In 1940 the Grande Bretagne was requisitioned. King George and Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas decided that the hotel had to be put to the service of the country, and all the guests were given a day’s notice. Even the owner lost his room and went to stay with his children in Kolonaki. The executive branch of the government ruled the fate of the country from the Grande Bretagne, but they retreated in 1941 when Third Reich officers took over the hotel and turned it into Werhmacht headquarters. The Germans were able to keep Syntagma Square under surveillance from the windows of the hotel that Goering had regularly visited before the war. Himmler arrived in May 1941 to review the Gestapo units, and Rommel briefly reviewed German forces in July 1943. In the fall of 1944, the atmosphere in the city changed. The end of German occupation was at hand. Georgios Papandreou returned to Athens at the head of the post-liberation government, and the Grande Bretagne became the headquarters of the British expeditionary force. After a few weeks of euphoria, police shot demonstrators at a protest rally in December 1944. People fell dead in the square and on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Inside the hotel, the Papandreou government held frantic discussions with Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill himself. Churchill’s stay at the hotel was postponed when informers told the police that Communists had planted three tons of dynamite in the hotel’s foundations. It is generally believed that the Russians leaked the story to prevent events from taking what they saw as an undesirable turn. The beautiful building ended up being something between a fortress and a refugee aid center. The British soldiers who stayed in the hotel called its bar, the Fortress Bar, while the Greek and foreign journalists who frequented it called it the Snake Pit. Restoration In 1956, the Grande Bretagne was demolished and rebuilt from the ground up by architect Costas Voutsinas, retaining all the stylistic features of the old building while enhancing the French Revival features. In passing, it is worth mentioning that the architect’s daughter, Angela Voutsina, is the collaborator of Pantelis Masouridis, the architect who has undertaken the current major refurbishment of the hotel. History has continued to unfolded in front of the hotel’s impressive facade. The members of the national unity government formed after the fall of the military dictatorship were chosen in the fifth-floor suite, and Constantine Karamanlis lived there for four months after democracy was reinstated. Archbishop Makarios addressed his message to the Greek people from the balcony of the second floor as he returned from Cyprus after the Turkish invasion. The latest change made to the hotel was the creation of the restaurant, the G.B. Corner, an important addition made in 1976 on the initiative of Apostolos Doxiadis, vice-chairman of the board of the hotel, with the intention of opening up the Grande Bretagne to everyday Athenian life. …And don’t try and book a room in the Athens Hilton Hotel instead When the agreement was signed between Hilton International and the Peza Group to build the Athens Hilton in the then unorganized area on the boundary of Kaisariani, all kinds of contradictory rumors spread. Some observers pronounced that certain people would do very well out of the project, while town planners were angry because they believed that such a large building would disrupt the scale of constructions in the area. Architects spoke of a depressing structure which competed with the harmonious relation between the Parthenon and Hymettus, wrote architect Costas Biris. Local residents also voiced strenuous objections when the entire city plan was changed just to permit the hotel’s construction. But nothing altered the original plan. Not only did certain people not do very well, they were brought to their knees by the huge amount of capital needed to complete the project – 450 million drachmas, at that time an astronomical sum. The original contractor withdrew and the Ionian Bank came in to complete the project. The architects of the hotel were a select group: Vassiliadis, Vourekas and Staikos. The consulting architects were Warnes, Burns, Toan and Lunde of New York. On the building’s facade above the entrance, on the northwest side of the building, is a carved composition by Yiannis Moralis, artist and professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts. The 38.9-meter tall work contains images related to ancient Greece. It was first carved from 520 tiles of ocher Ioannina marble in lines of unequal depth, which link it to its surroundings and portray the mobility of the Attic light. Six years later, the 450-bed hotel opened to the public. On April 21, 1963 it was opened by Constantine Karamanlis and Conrad Hilton, who kept saying that the Athens Hilton was the best of the 53 hotels in the chain at that time. Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Frank Sinatra (who was escorted by the Greek police), Alexandros Onassis, Raquel Welch, and John Le Carre – who wrote The Little Drummer Girl while staying there under another name – were all guests. Now the hotel is closed until December 2002 while a thorough refurbishment is carried out at a cost of 60 million $, in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

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