Paris glitterati holds breath over Ritz renovation

PARIS Thu Apr 26, 2012 5:47am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - Enter the Ritz Paris and a well-heeled hush envelopes the senses.

But the calm will soon give way to the sound of construction, as the five-star hotel undergoes a two year renovation designed to refresh the gem on the Place Vendome known as one of the most elegant addresses in Paris.

The former home of fashion designer Coco Chanel and author Marcel Proust - and a favorite drinking hole of Ernest Hemingway - the Ritz Paris was last renovated over a decade beginning in 1979 after its purchase by billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed.

In ensuing years, the hotel maintained its cachet as the elite stomping ground for heads of state, Parisian society and the international jet-set despite tragedy, as it was here where Princess Diana spent her last night in 1997 before the car crash that killed her.

Now hotel officials say it's time to upgrade many things invisible to the eye, such as air conditioning, heating and plumbing. That will help keep the Ritz competitive with a slate of Paris luxury hotels that have recently opened or renovated, from the Shangri-La, to the Bristol and Royal Monceau.

The Hotel de Crillon on the stunning Place de la Concorde - one of the venues where the Allied victors of World War I negotiated the carving up of Europe - is also closing for a two-year renovation beginning in the fall.

Staff at the Ritz - most of whom will lose their jobs due to the 27-month closure - are busy reassuring clients that the upcoming renovation won't change the essence of the classic.

"It's not going to change. All our clients have called us saying, 'Please don't change anything,'" explained Matthieu Goffard, press attache for the Ritz Paris. "The idea is to keep the very French Ritz spirit of Parisian luxury."

When it opened in 1898, the hotel that Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz converted from the Duke of Gramont's private mansion was ahead of its time. It was the first Paris hotel to boast of electricity on all floors and bathrooms that were inside rooms.

Passing through the wood revolving door today, a discreet "Bonjour" greets the visitor, who is quickly seduced by the overflowing tulips, the pillars of marble and the grand staircase which takes guests to the prestige suites.

The feeling that you're a "guest in a private home" won't change after the renovation beginning August 1, Goffard said.

"Many are afraid that they won't recognize the hotel. We try to reassure them. Their biggest fear is that the Ritz will become completely modern," he said.

A tunnel is being constructed to connect the underground parking lot in the Place Vendome with the hotel so celebrities anxious to avoid the paparazzi can enter without fuss.

Thierry Despont, the designer leading the renovation, has not yet revealed his plans, but is not expected to tinker much with the winning formula of gilt and heavy chandeliers, chintz fabric, and the occasional nymph supporting a candelabra.

The overall effect is of old-world opulence, Louis XV-style.

"She's a beautiful old Dame but she needs a little work," winked one client.

DISCONSOLATE BARFLIES

The closing of the Ritz's Hemingway Bar, one of the world's most famous bars, in mid-April in advance of the hotel renovation was met with wringing hands by many.

Though a dry Martini or the signature "Serendipity" cocktail with Champagne and Calvados will set you back 30 euros, the bar attracts a steady stream of regulars, who enjoy the clubby atmosphere of bartenders in white jackets, leather armchairs, a rack of antlers and photographs taken by Hemingway on the walls.

"We're worried! Where will we go for two years?" lamented Serge Adam, who said he has haunted the bar for the past 16 years. "There's such conviviality here, it's hard to imagine where we'd find the equivalent."

At a closing night party, head barman Colin Field, a celebrity in his own right, tried to reassure the regulars: "Nothing will change. It will stay just like it is today."

While clients may cherish continuity, the luxury hotel industry in Paris has been in a state of change.

The Ritz's occupancy rates of around 75 percent in 2011 are threatened by a new wave of 5-star options for A-list clientele, who might opt for the trendiest hotels rather than the one where Audrey Hepburn seduced Gary Cooper in "Love in the Afternoon."

The Royal Monceau near the Arc de Triomphe emerged from renovation in 2010, while the Hotel Bristol just steps from France's presidential palace completed its remake a year later.

At the same time, the opening of the Shangri-La in late 2010 and the Mandarin Oriental in 2011 have added new pressure on first-class Paris stalwarts, while the Peninsula and the Cheval Blanc are scheduled to open in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The Ritz received a surprise rebuke last year when its name was kept off a list of "palace hotels," a new prestigious label won by only three top hotels in the city.

Still, there are few places in the world where a hotel room is registered as a national monument. Such is the case with the 13,900 euro-per-night Imperial Suite overlooking Place Vendome.

"It's a little bit of Versailles," said Goffard.

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage, editing by Paul Casciato)