From the invention of red velvet cake and secret underground railway lines, to accidental architecture and unsuccessful royal dating, these surprising facts will shed a new light on some of the world’s most famous hotels…
Mother of invention: The Waldorf Astoria in New York
This famous New York landmark has always been ahead of its time. The Waldorf Astoria was the first hotel to have electricity on every floor, the first to have en-suite baths, and the first to offer 24-hour room service. It also has its own secret railway platform, Track 61, located under the hotel and connected to Grand Central Terminal. While it was never intended for public use, the platform was used by President Franklyn D. Roosevelt during World War II, and General McArthur in the 1950s – as well as playing host to an Andy Warhol event in 1965. Other surprises include its knack for invention: the Waldorf Salad, Rob Roy cocktail and Red Velvet Cake are all inventions of the Waldorf Astoria New York. The hotel is currently closed, as the landmark is transformed to include the luxurious The Towers residences, and will reopen in 2022.
Keeping time: The Balmoral in Edinburgh
The Balmoral originally opened in 1902 as the North British Station Hotel, situated directly above Edinburgh’s Waverly Train Station at the prestigious 1 Princes Street address. It’s famous clocktower is one of the Scottish city’s most recognisable landmarks, but we wouldn’t recommend setting your watch by it. To this day, the tower’s clock runs two minutes fast – all to ensure travellers did not miss their trains.
Canape surprise: The Donovan Bar at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, London
A little known treat for guests at Brown’s Hotel’s Donovan Bar may just have us racing for an aperitif or two once lockdown is over. In a nod to the hotel’s opening in 1837, the bar serves up complimentary canapes to any present guests every evening when the clock strikes 18:37. Considered London’s oldest hotel, and has long been a favourite of Britain’s greatest literary figures, including Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The hotel itself was established by James Brown and his wife Sarah Willis – former valet and maid to the infamous Lord and Lady Byron, respectively. Lady Byron in fact helped the couple purchase 23 Dover Street where the hotel began.
Stalin's accidental architecture: Four Seasons Hotel in Moscow, Russia
Hotel Moskva's distinctive asymmetrical design – which was replicated for the Four Seasons Hotel Moscow – almost never came to be until Soviet leader Joseph Stalin got involved. Hotel architect Alexei Shchusev submitted two plans for the 15-storey building, both on the same sheet of paper. But when Stalin put his signature in the middle of the page, it was unclear which design he preferred. Rather than question the Soviet leader, Shchusey went ahead with both designs: classical columns on a central portico flanked by asymmetrical wings.
A friendly prison: Hotel Amigo in Brussels, Belgium
Situated in the historic heart of Brussels, a few cobbles away from Grand-Place, Rocco Forte Hotel Amigo is one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. But the site has a much darker history. In 1522 the original building on the site was sold to the city to be transformed into the prison that may have given the hotel its name – it’s said that 16th-century Spanish soldiers mistook the word ‘vrunt’, meaning prison, for ‘vriend’, meaning friend. Several of the original flagstones remain part of the property that is now Hotel Amigo, rebuilt in the 1950s for the Brussels World Fair in 1958, and the hotel is home to fine art and antiques such as 19th-century Flemish tapestries.
A royal affair: Four Seasons Hotel in Hampshire, UK
Today, Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire offers guests a quintessentially English countryside escape, with outdoor activities to enjoy across the 500 acres of Dogmersfield Park, but the site is bursting with British history. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and, most notably, was where the infamous English King Henry VII first met the first of his six wives, Catherine of Aragon – on the 4th Noveber 1501, just 10 days before her arranged marriage to his brother Prince Arthur, then heir to the throne.
Hotel to hospital: Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg, Russia
Built between 1911 and 1912, the Hotel Astoria was designed by renowned St Petersburg architect Fyodor Lidval. Since its opening, it has remained the most famous hotel in the city and a key landmark of St Petersburg. But in 1941, following the outbreak of World War II, the hotel's rooms and large spaces were utilised to station a hospital in the centre of the city. Writers, artists and musicians who were trapped in the city during the siege were treated in the glamorous Astoria.