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London Makeover for Brown's

Ditte Isager A Brown's doorman

Photo: Ditte Isager

There are hotels and hotels, and then there is Brown's. Like the famous patch of green that is forever England, Brown's Hotel might once have been described as representing everything well-bred and unaffected about the British character. (The kind of Brit, in other words, who understands that you're either born into a country estate or you're not—and if you're not, no use trying to buy your way into the good graces of the landed gentry.) For those who considered this cobbled-together bunch of townhouses (11 in all), with its higgledy-piggledy hallways, endless expanses of dark-wood paneling, and stylish Mayfair address, the only place to stay in London—if you weren't, that is, a sweaty aspirant to the bespoke life (in which case you went to the Connaught or Claridge's), or a trend-following social flea (in which case you went to Dukes or some equally newfangled boutique outfit)—Brown's had no rival for hospitality. It was sui generis, a trusted retainer of a beloved institution from a time before anyone had heard of thread counts, spa treatment rooms or, heaven forfend, celebrity sightings. Kate who?

You had only to look at Brown's centuries-old history and the elevated guests it discreetly welcomed—including Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, Theodore Roosevelt, and Haile Selassie—to understand why its habitués considered it a noble and totemic entity. Brown's came into being as a "genteel inn" (as hotels were then called) in 1837, when one James Brown, a former valet of Lord Byron's, acquired four adjacent houses in Dover Street. In 1859 the hotel was sold to James John Ford, who installed one of the first elevators and eventually extended the property to include the St. George's Hotel on Albemarle Street, which backed onto Dover Street. Brown's rapidly established a name as an understatedly elegant accommodation, one that focused on creating an atmosphere of privacy as well as providing top-notch service. Alexander Graham Bell made the United Kingdom's first telephone call from the hotel in 1876, before electricity had been introduced, with the help of a private telegraph line that had been set up between Brown's and Ford's household. In 1882 a smoking room for gentlemen and a public dining room were added. (Prior to this, guests who wished to dine at the hotel had either eaten in their own rooms or rented licensed suites for the purpose.) Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor, although she never stayed overnight, as she had Buckingham Palace nearby, and Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book there. Three more townhouses were incorporated in 1905, a banner year, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent their honeymoon on the premises. In 1941, the Dutch government in exile declared war on Japan from Brown's, and in 1965, Agatha Christie, another frequent visitor, published At Bertram's Hotel, a novel based on her experiences there. Finally, let's not forget Winston Churchill, who is purported to have said, "I never stay in hotels. I stay at Brown's," and whose magisterial spirit hovers over the enterprise. (A photo of Churchill, as well as a selection of his best quips in Wicked Wit—along with V.S. Pritchett's London Perceived and Christopher Ricks's edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse—can be found in every room.)

So that, in a nutshell, was Brown's: irreplaceable, unrenovatable, intractably anti-trendy, immune to contemporary notions of destination chic. When I stayed at the hotel for a luxurious 10 days in the late eighties—having been advised by a Brown's-besotted editor at the publishing company where I worked to request a room on the quieter Dover side, and to make sure to leave time for their famously traditional tea—I thought I had found my dream lodging away from home, an earthly piece of paradise fitted out with creaking floors and worn carpeting. I loved everything about it, from the courteous and well-informed concierge, who was forever ordering me up recondite books from Hatchards and advising me which restaurants didn't live up to their billing, to the winding staircase that I often chose to use instead of the rickety lift.

Most mornings, instead of meeting with agents and publishers as I was supposed to, I ordered breakfast in my beige-on-beige room, content to stare out the curtained window over my tray of brown toast and soft-boiled eggs and imagine myself reborn as Eliza Doolittle, after she had wormed her way into Henry Higgins's heart. I remember feeling acutely sad on the day I was set to leave; I had gotten so accustomed to the place and its uniformly friendly staff—the top-hatted doormen, the bellmen and porters—that it seemed as though I was leaving behind a trusted, if slightly dowdy, nanny to venture into the heartlessly glossy world on my own. So enamored was I of my experience, I might add, that I never tried to repeat it. I am a subscriber to the Proustian belief that the best paradises are lost paradises, so there seemed no point in my returning to Brown's on the few brief trips I made to London in the intervening years. Instead I sampled other varietals: the trendy (Charlotte Street Hotel); the eccentric (Hazlitt's); and a sleeper called the Cranley, a townhouse-hotel located on a quiet, tree-lined street in South Kensington. They were all appealing in their way, but none of them displaced the unique hold Brown's had on my affections.

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