Luke Barr
September 16, 2014

At the newly opened Peninsula Paris, there are two entrances. The first is on Avenue Kléber, where steps lead up to a large terrace café and then into the lobby restaurant. The stairs are flanked by two imposing Chinese lion statues in white marble, among the few overt signs of the hotel group’s venerable Hong Kong heritage. The 19th-century limestone building and slate-tiled mansard roof are otherwise classically Parisian, overlooking the wide, tree-lined avenue. Indeed, the hotel is an emblem of Haussmann’s Paris—stately and confident, a block away from the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées, in the 16th Arrondissement. The stonework façade is intricately detailed and like the entire building has been carefully restored; a glass-and-steel canopy extends origami-like over the entrance. This is the public face of the hotel, promising glamour and the cosmopolitan rush of the city, a place of coming and going, a place to see and be seen.

Around the corner, meanwhile, on Avenue des Portugais, is a second entrance, this one set discreetly on a side street and opening directly into a tall, serene second lobby where guests check in and the reception and concierge staff work behind long wooden desks. Hanging from the ceiling at the center of the room is a dramatic crystal chandelier, from the Czech company Lasvit, a dazzling, ethereal artwork that reaches almost to the floor. This is the more private, welcoming side of the hotel, an embrace of light-filled calm and luxury.

It is this interplay of public and private that is at the heart of the drama at the hotel, whichever entrance one uses. The Peninsula Paris is a self-contained world of fantastic beauty, soaring spaces, gilt-edged moldings, and an unmistakable air of aristocratic grandeur. But there is also intimacy here—in the warmth of the service, in the essential elements of civilized living that the hotel provides, in the handmade artistry of the renovation itself.

The Peninsula joins a constellation of iconic Parisian hotels, each with its own history and mythology, an astounding number of them currently undergoing or having recently completed significant renovations—Le Bristol Paris, the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, the Hôtel de Crillon, and the Ritz Paris. As an international brand, the Peninsula has its own powerful mythology, and has brought it to life for its European debut in a building that was once the Hôtel Majestic, opened in 1908 and closed just before World War II. The Majestic was a hub of Paris’s Belle Époque and 1920’s social scenes—​famously the site, for example, of a late-night encounter in 1922 between James Joyce and Marcel Proust (they did not get along). Pablo Picasso, Sergey Diaghilev, and Igor Stravinsky were at the same dinner. It was that kind of place.

The renovation took four years. A vast team of architects and engineers, stonemasons and tile and mosaic artists, metalworkers and woodworkers, stucco and plasterwork restorers, gilders, glaziers, and wallpaper experts restored every detail of the original building.

“This was not restoration but reconstruction,” says James Mercer, the project manager—a top to bottom, inside-out re-creation, from the basic structural elements to the delicate gold leaf on the walls. It was an extraordinary effort, combining state-of-the-art technology and methodology (not to mention 21st-century building and safety codes) with the deep and idiosyncratic knowledge of artisans in many fields.

Thomas Fancelli, for example, the third-generation owner of Atelier Fancelli, took apart the elaborate floor-to-ceiling oak paneling in the lobby and Kléber bar piece by piece in order to clean, repair, and restore it. He carefully numbered and labeled each element to keep track of how to put it back together. “It was like a three-dimensional puzzle,” he says.

Fancelli’s firm is small, with only 12 employees, and was one of many such family-run businesses involved in the renovation. Declercq Passementiers dates back six generations to the 1850’s—a trimmings- and tassel-making company now run by Jerome Declercq. Woven silk tassels are a decorative flourish that seems almost entirely archaic, yet they are undeniably beautiful, particularly in the hotel’s signature Cantonese restaurant, LiLi, where they contribute to a rich, over-the-top, operatic interior. Declercq also worked with the artists Clementine Chambon and Françoise Mamert on a dramatic portrait of the fictional LiLi just outside the restaurant entrance at the end of the hallway, made of silk and fiber-optic cable.

The guest rooms are among the largest in Paris: plush, elegant, and high-tech. The company is renowned for its intuitive in-room technology, showcased here in the form of a tablet controlling everything from lights and temperature to the television. Still, it isn’t technology or design that sets this hotel apart, but its recalibration of luxury as something both spectacular and artisanal.

“This building has no soul without the people,” says Nicolas Béliard, the general manager, referring to his staff, but also to the craftspeople who put their work, and something of themselves, into the construction. “We are bringing a bit of excitement back to travel,” he says. And from the Peninsula’s rooftop bar and restaurant, L’Oiseau Blanc, with all of Paris spread before you, punctuated by the Eiffel Tower off to the south, it is impossible to disagree.

Luke Barr is the features director of Travel + Leisure.

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