A second chance for capital’s old hotels

A century-and-a-half ago, they were the first hotels in Athens. They marked the transition of the town from an ancient-place name to an emerging 19th-century capital. Now they are in a state of dilapidation and neglect, with an air of bankruptcy about them. Could they be restored inside and out and made functional again as traditional boutique hotels, thus helping revive the city’s historic center? This is the gist of an interesting proposal made by members of the public to the Culture Ministry’s Directorate for the Preservation of Contemporary and Modern Monuments. They requested funding (possibly within the framework of an EU program) in order to restore several small, old downtown hotels to their original use. «When we go abroad we see many old hotels in operation. It’s a unique experience to stay in them,» Venetia Kantza, who presented the proposal, told Kathimerini. Using private research, publications and the National Research Foundation’s Archive of Modern Monuments, researchers selected 12 old buildings (11 of which used to be hotels), which could again operate as hotels. As representative examples of Greek architectural heritage, all the buildings have been listed for preservation by the Culture Ministry, but that is no excuse for allowing them to become dilapidated. «The sad, criminal outcome is that our city is being hopelessly impoverished, with only very few points of reference to its recent life,» said Kantza. «Now and then you’ll see a pitiful theater set, when a building is supposedly restored but only part of the facade is preserved, while the rest of it is gutted rather than being protected in its entirety and restored to its original use.» Dimitrios Kyriakidis, director of the National Research Foundation, insists we must protect historical memory. «The state could fund renovations up to 40 percent, probably with the help of EU programs. There could be provision for tax breaks for a certain period.» He pointed out that Athens has a shortage of hotels: «When there’s a big conference, for instance, there aren’t enough rooms for all the participants. I think a network of small traditional hotels would be popular, if they are renovated and cater to modern needs.» Kyriakidis would also like to see the interior layout and decor retained in hotels and other traditional buildings – «not a mere shell.» Restoring old hotels and putting them to appropriate use is «an adornment, not just a note of nostalgia» and it helps counteract the over-commercialization of the city that has become apparent, according to Justice Michael Decleris, honorary vice-president of the Council of State and president of the Chamber for Environment and Sustainability. «One of the state’s greatest failures was to obliterate the face of prewar Athens, which was one of the most attractive European cities. There was also a failure to preserve buildings that helped maintain the city’s character and which ended up being mere shells and subject to ferocious exploitation,» said Decleris. The proposal to save Athens’s old hotels and put them back in use needs more work and clarity concerning issues such as ownership status, incentives and sustainability, which is presumably the task of state services. The fact that the 12 buildings selected for the proposal are in the rapidly declining historic center is both an obstacle and an opportunity. Not surprisingly, people who work downtown as well as those few who live there or nearby believe that protecting historic uses can prevent the center from becoming a ghetto in a way that no amount of policing can. «Old workshops, stores and traditional hotels must stay in the area,» said Vasso Nikolakopolou, president of the Panathinaia association and a member of the Citizens’ Movement to save the historic center.