As the iconic hotel shutters for a two-year overhaul, T+L wanders its hallowed halls and wonders what becomes a legend most.

By Guy Trebay
September 06, 2012
Credit: Courtesy of Ritz Paris

“Are you here for the last rites?” asked Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of Yale University School of Architecture. We were standing in the lobby of the Ritz Paris hotel.

In a sense he was correct; I was. If not to memorialize the place, I was on hand to fix in memory the elements that impart to the Ritz Paris its sometimes confounding but also wonderful quiddity, the singularity that is a denominator of every great hotel. The pleasures of the Ritz Paris, like those of other grand hotels—Claridge’s or the Connaught, in London; the Oriental, in Bangkok; Raffles, in Singapore—take time to appreciate fully. And yet in a sense Ritz Paris had run out of time. In two weeks the hotel would close its doors altogether to undergo a 27-month renovation, leaving many longtime guests to wonder whether the Ritz Paris as they knew it would really be reborn.

Far from a regular myself, I have, though, been fortunate enough to stay at the Ritz over the years on assignment in Paris. Hearing of the closing, I hopped the overnight train from Milan for a last look around.

“You have to allow for change,” Stern said, adding quickly that Thierry Despont, the designer charged with overseeing the delicate project, was not likely to muck up the place.

One thing that will never change, of course, is the setting. And if it is true that a thrill of being a guest at a great hotel involves the theater of arrival, there is nothing anywhere to rival the feeling of pulling up to the Ritz through the glorious square of the Place Vendôme. Less, in fact, a square than an octagon—corners canted, each angle part of an interlocking stage set of limestone arcades, severe Neoclassical pediments, and steeply pitched mansard roofs—the Place Vendôme has at its center a landmark column, originally forged of melted cannons from the Battle of Austerlitz, and with a bronze statue of Napoleon Bonaparte on top.

Oddly, few pedestrians ever seem to take much note of the monument. Partly this is because it is marooned in the middle of an unfortunate automotive rotary. Partly it’s because there is almost always some billionaire’s bauble idling outside to steal the show. On my visit it happened to be a canary yellow Maserati parked for days at curbside. (Whose? No one would say.) But it could just as easily have been the midnight blue Bentley from which I once saw Victoria Beckham emerge, rail-thin, a crocodile Hermès Birkin in the crook of one arm. Mrs. Beckham smiled tensely that time and gave a little queenly wave to the paparazzi and tourists who were clumped near the entrance. Then a uniformed doorman whisked her through the revolving door.

While Mrs. Beckham wasn’t in residence during my stay, the hotel was crammed to the rafters with other forms of rare bird. It was Fashion Week, a time when the Ritz Paris functions as a kind of fashion aviary and it is no rarity to bump into Anna Wintour or Daphne Guinness or Anna dello Russo, the Italian editor much given to strange headgear (and a woman who often changes her outfits entirely, she once told me, five times in a day), or Madonna or Jessica Alba or else the French designer Inès de la Fressange, who in her modeling days once posed as Marianne, the symbolic face of France.

It happened that the weekend I hit Paris was an exceptionally fine one, cool and with marine blue skies filled with fast-moving cloud armadas. Ordinarily it would be logical in such weather to head out onto the boulevards of Paris. But, taking a cue from Hemingway—who once wrote that in his dream of an afterlife in heaven the action always takes place in the Ritz Paris on a fine summer evening—I decided to stay put.

Prowling the corridors of the hotel’s six-floor main building (a second, facing the Rue Cambon, had already been closed), the lobby and terraces, the gardens and subterranean pool, I spent my time taking inventory of the hotel’s glorious peculiarities and wondering how much will still be there in two years.

Will guests still encounter the florist Djordje Varda’s baroque displays, immense glass cylinders overflowing with tree branches, sheaves of delphiniums, swags of greenery like floral cascades; or find the sarcophagus-size baths large enough even for this six-foot-four man to lie in at full length; or puzzle over the porcelain-handled pull chains for summoning the valet or the maid? Will the long, carpeted hall that serves as both lobby and informal catwalk be replaced by a generic hotel reception area? Will the renovation preserve the wall coverings of padded silk damask; the chinoiserie pendant lanterns; the fuchsia pelargoniums in balcony window boxes; the almost universally atrocious artwork; the cake-icing paneling; the gilded sconces; the statuesque Belle Époque figures that must have tired after all these decades of holding candelabras aloft?

And will staff members like the genial chief concierge Michel Battino, who started at the Ritz in 1976 as a 17-year-old flunky, in fact return to jobs promised them when the renovation has ended? Even with a social-welfare system as generous as that in France, two years is a long time to wait. In short, will the hotel’s owners in some way preserve the impeccable if fusty, the clearly outdated but in many senses sublime experience of staying at the Ritz Paris?

“Look, it’s not very sexy to talk about plumbing, water pressure, heating, handicap access, but it had to be dealt with and the best way was all at once,” Christian Boyens, the hotel’s young general manager, said over drinks on the Ritz Paris terrace.

Although a previous renovation was completed in the 1980’s when the hotel’s current owner, Mohamed al Fayed, first took it over, the Ritz Paris has never in its 114-year history altogether shut down. What war could not force the place to do, a lack of consistent water pressure has. Yes, Boyens said, the lobby elevator encased in a cylinder of limed oak may be chic. “But when the elevator breaks down regularly, it only has a certain charm.”

Finally the old thing had to be modernized to save itself. It was easier to justify the scarifying cost of a room at the Ritz before the field of competitors strengthened, before the new Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental hotels opened and before the French Tourism Ministry, when handing out its coveted Palace hotel designation last year, conspicuously snubbed the Ritz Paris. It was obvious to all that the future of urban luxury travel was not likely to include rooms where guests were obliged to crawl around looking under table skirts for an electrical outlet to charge their phones.

“The last thing I would want is that people will say this is not the Ritz anymore,” Manfred Mautsch said one morning as I trailed him through the bowels of the hotel. To call Mautsch the Ritz’s guest-relations manager hardly does justice to his 30 years with the hotel, or to the singular role he plays. With his German-inflected French; alternating air of hospitality lavished or withheld; knowledge of guest quirks and frailties (and kinks); understanding of the wealthy, the famous, the louche, the titled, the rentable-for-an-evening; Mautsch is more like an institutional spirit-familiar.

He can tell you which of the hotel’s 159 rooms and suites have been favored by whom (both the American philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman and the designer Oscar de la Renta like the same suite with panoramic views of the Palais Garnier, but it is Wrightsman who gets first dibs when she’s in town); or about the suite where Kate Moss stages her uproarious all-night parties; or the set of rooms in which a Canadian moneybags arrives to find the wardrobe she stores at the Ritz “unpacked and ready for her, home sweet home.” He can tell of guests who have stayed at the Ritz since just after World War II and he talks of bidding farewell to one such person, who remarked that she would probably not live to visit the hotel again. “On August 1, the last of the departures will check out and there will be no new arrivals,” Mautsch said. “That really hasn’t sunk in.”

Just then, though, the hotel was at near capacity. There were guests with lost luggage to be retrieved from the airport, cars to be arranged for a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, disgruntled members of the Ritz Health Club to be mollified when they learned the pool was being covered over to accommodate the Versace show.

Juggling a cell phone, a BlackBerry, and a walkie-talkie, Mautsch conducted me through the hotel’s nooks and crannies. At a near trot, we moved from sixth-floor maids’ and private butler rooms now turned into suites to a corridor off the kitchen on the Rue Cambon side where—as none who saw the security video will ever forget—a hunted-looking Diana, Princess of Wales fatefully ducked into her waiting limousine, and to the École Ritz Escoffier cooking school, where an American family was spending a small fortune learning how to roast chicken and where, in an adjacent chamber, a chef instructed Japanese pupils on the fine points of petits fours, which they would later take home in a little box.

I felt a bit like those students on that weekend, boxing up my experience of the Ritz Paris, carrying it to my room to be savored with some chilled Burgundy. Glass in hand, I wandered around my snug chamber—a butter-yellow square with a marble mantel, small hallway, and French doors giving onto a balcony with a view of the Place Vendôme. There on his plinth stood the great Napoleon. And there on my perch, almost at eye level with the tiny emperor, stood little me.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

The Ritz, Paris

An institution since 1898, the lavish, opulent Ritz—near the Louvre museum and Tuileries gardens—has maintained its stature as one of Paris’s leading hotels despite a plethora of trendy newcomers. Of course, not everyone can claim the Ritz’s history: it was the world’s first hotel to have a private bath in every room, and everyone from Edward VII to Coco Chanel has called it home (in Chanel’s case, for 37 years). The hotel is undergoing massive renovations and will be closed until summer 2014, but Belle Époque touches will remain. Swan-shaped, gold-plated faucets grace the tubs; a surfeit of period Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Empire furniture fills the rooms; and thousands of euros worth of flowers scent the air each week. Traditional white-glove service, a Roman-style pool ringed with columns, and a Michelin-starred restaurant only add to this lap-of-luxury experience.