Lights out at the Savoy

The historic London hotel, formerly owned by The Blackstone Group and Colony Capital, may temporarily close for the first time in its 117-year history.

There was a time when the Savoy Hotel in London rang its bell whenever royalty entered the building, but the practice had to be abandoned because it was ringing too often.

Such is the pull of the luxury hotel that it boasts dozens of stories involving some of the most famous people ever to have set foot in London—from kings and queens to movie stars and celebrity chefs. The Savoy hosted them all.

Marilyn Monroe chose the hotel for a press conference in the mid-1950s shortly before filming The Prince and the Showgirl. Charlie Chaplin marked his return to Britain by introducing his fourth wife, their four children and his oldest son to the delights the Savoy had to offer. Later, it was deemed cozy enough for Elizabeth Taylor to spend her honeymoon night there with her first husband, Nicholas Conrad Hilton—given that Taylor has now been married seven times, it was probably not the hotel’s fault that the marriage ended seven months later. Sir Winston Churchill, who led Britain through the Second World War with his trademark cigar, visited every week. And on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, it was the scene of, reputedly, the biggest ball of the century. Nowadays people head to its restaurant, The Savoy Grill, run by London’s top chef Gordon Ramsay.

Mirroring its clientele, the hotel’s owners have been celebrities in their own right, starting with the theatre impresario Richard D’oyly Carte, who built the property in 1889 to cater to audiences of The Savoy Theatre. In 1998, Blackstone and Colony Capital bought the property as part of The Savoy Hotel Group for £520 million (€768 million; $983 million). Six years later, the hotel portfolio was sold to investors represented by the former Irish tax inspector Derek Quinlan for £750 million. But he flipped The Savoy the same year for approximately £200 million, selling it to a group of investors including the Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal.

Even for a hotel with as much history as the Savoy, the new owners have managed to make some headlines of their own: for the first time in its 117-year history, The Savoy is temporarily closing. The reason: a £100-million refurbishment that could last up to 12 months.

Renovation is to start at the end of 2007 and will see all the corridors and two-thirds of the 263 bedrooms and suites overhauled, while the Thames Foyer and River Restaurant will be redesigned. The last time the hotel was given a boost was in the mid-1990s when the front hall underwent a £60-million renovation to restore its former glory. Reports indicate that the Prince wants the Savoy decorated in a style similar to that of the George V in Paris, an asset he also transformed in 1996.

The Savoy’s original owner, who launched an opera company called Opera Comique, may not have seen the funny side of such developments.