After years of being overshadowed by sleek new competitors, America's historic grand hotels are making a major comeback. Stephen Drucker finds out why everything old is new again
David Tsay

Do you know Svend? Everybody knows Svend.

For 42 years Svend Peterson was the pool manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was Svend who decided which chaise or cabana would be yours, a simple gesture that could confer social life or death. Svend listened to poolside confessions, advised on problems, managed assignations. Svend invented the frozen towel.

This year Svend has a new business card, which reads Hotel Ambassador. There he is, in the lobby, catching up with a guest who has just checked in for the hundredth time. There he is, in the coffee shop, flashing his smile at a newcomer who has heard about him for decades. It's like meeting Cary Grant. Svend is the thread—the silk thread—leading back to another time at the Pink Palace, the days of Old Hollywood. Those days are over; they are not coming back. Until you run into Svend.

The chemistry of a great old hotel has no formula. It cannot be quantified, written out, or duplicated. It is deep in the DNA of the institution, in a person, a lobby, a bar, a color, a logo, a cocktail, a dress code. And it is sensitive beyond belief. Change everything except that one critical detail, and the soul of the hotel will remain undisturbed. But make one wrong move and the magic is lost.

America's classic hotels are more aware of this than ever: they are polishing themselves up, making themselves over, and generally searching their souls as never before. It's a matter of survival. A "freshening up" is hardly noticed anymore, not when boutique hotels are spreading the gospel according to Miuccia, Tom, and Karl. Nor is reputation enough to compete with lily-filled lobbies and marble bathrooms and "My pleasure, sir" service from global webs of branded comfort like Four Seasons. Striking the pose of a grande dame can carry a hotel for only so long. Anybody who has spent time with real grandes dames knows that the Auntie Mames are few and far between. That charming old bouclé suit sometimes just belies dirty fingernails and an arrogant streak.

With the debut of every smooth new competitor, the old buildings' problems grew more apparent. They were not so comfortable, with rooms that were all different, bathrooms that were too small, and "the perception that they represent an inability to satisfy contemporary needs," says Brian Richardson, vice president of brand marketing and communications at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Service was starting to feel stale, too; good old-fashioned obsequiousness had become either comical or deadly. "Guests had much different expectations not so long ago," says Peter French, managing director of Manhattan's Carlyle hotel. "There would be silver chafing dishes and a waiter hovering over a room service breakfast. People won't tolerate that level of intrusion now."

Europeans have been confronting their own legacy of grandeur for years, and adapting it quite naturally. Even the most moribund of the great hotels of Paris have reinvented themselves in recent years; the Plaza Athénée and the Meurice, to name just two, have found fresh, stylish voices without even changing their names. In London, Claridge's has a whole new feeling, with its shimmering Art Deco bar and Dale Chihuly chandeliers, yet it is still unmistakably Claridge's.

So now it is our turn. Every classic hotel holds certain high cards: sentiment, location, a name that confers instant status, a staff that has seen it all. And there is a new card that trumps any hand: they are unique. They are today's true boutique hotels. Just look around and see what they're doing with that extraordinary realization. From the Willard in Washington, D.C., to the Driskill in Austin to the Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the classics are striking back.

How far do you dare to go?

Remaking a hotel is not a science. Nobody is ever sure where to draw the line between tradition and progress. "Think of a Jaguar," says Deborah Damask, public relations director at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. "People don't really want an old car. They want a new car—with a retro look."

When Ian Schrager gets his hands on a down-at-the-heels hotel, he usually obliterates the past. The Clift, a beloved old San Francisco property he acquired in 1998, certainly deserved no mercy. A few years earlier it had been ejected from the Four Seasons group, and from there it was downhill, until Schrager reopened the hotel last July. He has had all his usual fun: a lobby where it's always two in the morning, an Asia de Cuba restaurant whose maître d' looks like a movie star, and the "Dude, where's my car?" style of service that helps people not feel like their parents. His guest rooms have never been sexier, with waterproof nylon upholstery borrowed from Prada ready-to-wear and billowing silk curtains on the mirrors as well as the windows.

Still, the Clift is different, the most luxurious and mature of Schrager's hotels. Vice president of openings and brand management Tim Miller calls it "the most sacred." What's sacred is the Redwood Room, an Art Deco bar off the lobby dating from 1933. When Schrager bought the Clift, San Franciscans got out their candles and held a vigil for it. Schrager is no fool, though; as long as there was a Redwood Room, the Clift would be the Clift, even if everything else was purple and orange. Schrager's Redwood Room turned out better than ever, and now everybody is coming again, not only to see the zigging and zagging of the old woodwork, but to sit at the new etched-mirror bar under the changing digital artwork.

Up on Nob Hill, the Fairmont has been moving at full speed too, but in reverse. A mammoth renovation last fall brought the guest rooms up to date but turned back the clock everywhere else to 1907, when the hotel was completed.

"The Fairmont was built for a person who came off a ship with steamer trunks and an entourage," says Mark Huntley, the general manager. And once again it is ready for such people. The lobby is voluptuous and golden, with tassels hanging from tassels, and palms and torchères and pinwheels of curving sofas. Three long-forgotten oval rooms have had their dropped ceilings removed and have returned to service as a restaurant, bar, and foyer. James Cameron could have filmed Titanic here.

The one thing that has not changed is the Tonga Room, a Polynesian restaurant built in 1945 around the old basement swimming pool. It has always been a sentimental favorite for its middling Chinese food, its band floating on a thatched barge, and guaranteed thunderstorms every half-hour. Preservationists consider it a prime example of the postwar fascination with the architecture of paradise. Everybody else just thinks it's fun. Nobody dared touch the Tonga Room.

If you hadn't seen the Fairmont before, still wearing rather eccentric clothes from a 1946 renovation by Dorothy Draper, you would think this is the way it has always looked. Stroll through the lobby and you feel all the privilege and status of a Nob Hill perspective on the city. Sit on one of the velvet sofas, and you hear old-fashioned sounds: footsteps echoing on the newly revealed marble floor, the whoosh of a revolving door. Everybody who walks in stops cold, looks up, and gasps. Some sit down and catch their breath on a gilded recamier chaise, kicking up their Nikes. The past is a lot to live up to.

Renovate all you want; you won't know the result until a few years have passed, as everybody learned at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After a 21/2-year makeover, it reopened in 1995 to a lot of world-class kvetching.

Where did all the Hollywood legends go?(They died.)

Where did the old staff go?(They took other jobs.)

What happened to the shabby-genteel hotel everybody loved?(It smelled of mildew, and it was falling apart.)

The Polo Lounge and the Fountain Coffee Shop remained intact, but everything else was so shockingly different, people felt overwhelmed. The authentic new pink was too pink; the gilding was too brash; the Venetian glass chandeliers were simply too much. Excuse me, isn't this Beverly Hills?

Today, seven years later, the hotel's classic banana-leaf wallpaper and pink and green stripes have triumphed. Svend is back. As is the old tennis pro, Alex Olmedo. The Polo Lounge is jammed. The old dress code has been all but abandoned, because if a jacket were required, Brad Pitt wouldn't come. Plans for a new spa are being finalized, tying the pool, cabanas, and restaurant into a Jackie Collins fantasy. Every day feels like the Vanity Fair Oscar party. "This place has always been about power struggles—for booths, for rooms, for chaises at the pool," says Wendy Schnee, director of public relations. "It still is."

Guests are pampered, babied even, with a modern brand of service aimed at the sort of person who orders off the menu just to prove he can. "You ask, we deliver," says Alberto del Hoyo, the general manager. "You don't like the décor?We'll change it."

Yes, it's over-the-top, but so is the New Hollywood. The Beverly Hills Hotel didn't need a careful restoration—it needed to be pumped up, like Pamela Anderson. And that's what has guaranteed its next 75 years.

No, this is definitely not a science.

Can this resort be saved?

The grand old resorts have their own sensitivities, their guests now as likely to use their frequent-flier miles and head for an infinity pool in Bali as they are to "take the cure" at some stuffed shirt of a hotel. If you do decide to go—and these resorts are often not easy to get to—you'll wonder until the minute you arrive: Will the clientele be ancient?Will I feel like an outsider?Will it be suffocatingly formal?Will there be anything to do?

Massive spas and family programs are bringing a new generation and new energy to many old-line resorts. The Fairmont group has started rolling out Willow Stream spas at its former Canadian Pacific resorts like Banff Springs. The Boca Raton Resort & Club recently opened the luxurious Spa Palazzo, with an assortment of bath treatments themed to the "fountain of youth," which people start dipping into at a rather young age these days. In February the hotel also added the Yacht Club: waterfront rooms, personal butlers, and a marina with 27 slips for seriously big boats.

The Breakers in Palm Beach has spent the last eight years and $150 million changing its image from exclusive to inclusive. Renovation was the least of it; the real changes are a 20,000-square-foot Guerlain spa, a golf and tennis clubhouse, a beach club and oceanfront fitness center, and—most important—a cultural shift toward dressing comfortably and bringing the children. The atmosphere may be newly democratic, but the name Breakers still has the same old ring: Palm Beach, money, privilege.

Sometimes more-complete redos are in order. Until recently the Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888, sat on the beach in San Diego like Victoria in mourning. But a repositioning by Destination Hotels & Resorts has accomplished the unlikely. "We've become less formal and more upmarket," says Michael Hardisty, the managing director.

None of the rickety charm of the old wooden structure, with its cage elevator and Crown Room brunches, has been lost, but the rooms are newly comfortable, and cottages are planned to meet the modern lust for privacy. Air-conditioning has finally been installed. And a handsome new oval lawn lets the whole place breathe—you can finally see the beach, and stroll the grounds, and eat outdoors.

Some Like It Hot, the 1959 classic with Marilyn Monroe, was filmed at the Del, and you're never allowed to forget it. The movie plays several times a day in guest rooms, free of charge. Throughout the hotel, grainy photographs of stars romping in a black-and-white past remind you that Hollywood history is all around you. By the time you go to sleep, you're convinced Marilyn is in the next room. This theming is so effective that there's a shop called 1888, which focuses on the Del's history. Its most consistent seller is Taschen's annotated screenplay of Some Like It Hot, a coffee-table book bound in yellow Ultrasuede. It costs $150.

At the Greenbrier in remote White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, such change could happen only after the equivalent of hotel psychoanalysis. Here's what you would have found in the seventies: black-tie five nights a week; an interminable dinner served with Mateus; lots of golf, though no women on two of the courses; no television; children out of sight and out of mind; and a spa called the Medical Baths & Clinic. "Whatever they were going to do to you, it looked like it was going to hurt," says Ted Kleisner, the president and managing director.

Opened in 1913, the Greenbrier had its modern identity forged after World War II by the decorator Dorothy Draper, who, as they like to say here, "had an unlimited budget, which she overspent." Romance with Rhododendrons was her theme. Giddy florals and stripes, outrageous plaster scrollwork, the world's largest lampshades—her formula, a sort of MGM Baroque, simply sparkled, and to this day it is nurtured along by her successor, the decorator Carleton Varney, no shrinking violet himself. Draper's black walls and flocked wallpaper may have quietly disappeared, but the design keeps moving forward in her spirit, with pink ombré curtains, pink crystal chandeliers, and psychedelic carpets of sculptured roses and rhododendrons that were not technologically possible in her day. Somehow it still feels original. "When you come back to the Greenbrier," Varney says, "you want it to be the Greenbrier you remember."

With the décor as its constant, the Greenbrier was liberated. It's now possible to eat dinner without a tie, and the meal is a reasonable three courses, served with Merlot or Chardonnay. The clinic has been joined by the 37,000-square-foot Greenbrier Spa, and should you have the classic treatment involving mineral baths, Swiss shower, Scotch Spray, and massage, you have it in rooms of extraordinary luxury, followed perhaps by a healthful meal at the spa café. Children are courted with elaborate family programs. If you don't play golf, you can shop for a St. John dress or local twig crafts. You can go mountain-biking or white-water rafting, take up falconry or target shooting, or attend one of only two Land Rover off-road driving schools in the country. (The other is at another classic, the Equinox, in Vermont.) Kleisner says proudly, "The Greenbrier is now about going to the mountains."

Getting to those mountains remained a problem. The Greenbrier was built in the era of railroads, with a station opposite its porte cochère. It's a long drive from almost anywhere, so long that management recently arranged to be served by plane, at least seasonally: Delta now flies to the Greenbrier from Atlanta, US Airways from Pittsburgh and Charlotte. The old train station has become a Christmas shop.

It seems the great resorts have reached the same conclusion that the cruise industry, which faced many of the same problems, came to in recent years: Lighten up. And make sure you keep adding ports.

What's in a name?

If you don't know Svend, perhaps you know Hans. Hans Rosenberg has managed the door at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel for more than 30 years. Hans is no hottie; he looks as if he has opened doors for kings and queens, which he has. When you return to the hotel after two months or two years and he recognizes you, or at least acts as if he does, you feel good. And even if you are booked into the new wing of the hotel, it is Hans who welcomes you, which is to say, some of the luster of the old wing rubs off on you.

Hans has seen many changes at the hotel. The most critical moment came in the mid eighties, when its legendary owner, Hernando Courtright—a man of charm and social position, and the face of the Beverly Wilshire—decided to retire. How do you replace one man's word that you will enjoy your stay?You bring in an even bigger reputation, that of a brand. What used to be known as Hernando Courtright's Beverly Wilshire is now known as the Regent Beverly Wilshire/A Four Seasons Hotel. Regent is code for finely tuned Asian-style service. Four Seasons is a guarantee of that famous bed and all possible creature comforts. Everybody got the message, and the Beverly Wilshire today is thriving.

The Ritz-Carlton Boston is the archetype of the American grand hotel. Built in 1927 by César Ritz, it inspired a brand. Did you know that those cobalt-blue glasses on the dining tables in every Ritz-Carlton are meant as little reminders of the chandeliers at the original hotel in Boston?

Yet even the original has to keep changing, to bring itself up to the standards of the brand it launched. Currently it is closed, scheduled to reopen in October with a brighter palette, its old furniture refinished, its bathrooms modernized, and its marble lobby gently restored.

Last fall Ritz-Carlton opened a second hotel in Boston just two blocks away, a contemporary building that has sleek rooms and a restaurant with an open kitchen. "They're so different, people don't even try to compare them," says John Rolfs, general manager of both Boston hotels. The newcomer nevertheless put pressure on the old hotel to evolve. "You try to keep the classic elements and expand the offerings, make them a little more modern," Rolfs says. "You would never take away teatime, but you can add Chinese black tea and improve the sandwiches."

Another classic that more recently launched a brand is the St. Regis in New York, known for its worldly airs and personal butlers. St. Regis president and CEO Atef Mankarios says, "There will be no St. Regis look. A hotel cannot be an alien being that's parachuted in." The new brand, part of Starwood Hotels (which also includes W and Westin), will have something for every taste: the St. Regis name has been attached to hotels as diverse as the old Remington in Houston, the Carlton in Washington, D.C., and the former Ritz-Carlton Aspen. And Starwood is building five new hotels. In two years, the group will have doubled in size.

So what will St. Regis stand for?More than anything else, service. Mankarios places great faith in a state-of-the-art "guest-recognition computer program," which invisibly does much of the fussing that annoys today's guests. "We know the rooms you've had, the seats you've requested in our restaurants, the pillows you like, the CD's you've borrowed, the hour you like your room serviced," Mankarios says. "There are a lot of these programs floating around out there. But it's a very delicate balance, getting as much information as possible and not being intrusive." He feels he has found the way.

Rosewood Hotels & Resorts is the quiet brand, one that has traditionally allowed the hotels it owns and manages—such as the Lanesborough in London and the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas—to speak for themselves. The company's conservative strategy is currently being tested again at the Carlyle hotel in New York, a classic that was always the breed standard, and that the company acquired last year.

Voice mail was finally introduced at the Carlyle in February—a clue to the magnitude of the task ahead for Rosewood and Carlyle managing director Peter French. People of substantial worth, he says, are asking for assurances that the soap will not change. "Any changes have to be seamless," French says.

The Carlyle is changing, one revolution at a time. This past winter it got off to a good start: Bemelmans Bar is glowing once again after a restoration by the decorator Thierry Despont. Many details were quietly improved: cocktail recipes were adjusted, vases were filled with usually unfashionable gladioli, an old touch picked up from vintage photographs.

The lobby, executed in one of Dorothy Draper's less manic moments, is next. "The front desk is pretty ropey," says French, who is looking forward to installing "a great traditional key rack with silk key fobs." But the residential feeling will remain, as will that ultimate luxury, manned elevators. Despont will start "cheering up" the corridors next month, adding new lighting and walnut surrounds to the doors.

And then, the rooms. "We're not going to roll out 'an approach,'" says French, who intends to keep the diversity of the old rooms rather than pound them into submission. Closets will shrink; bathrooms will grow and become more luxurious.

It is all going well, yet it's scary tinkering with any hotel where a guest might very well be checking in for the 300th time. "Actually," says French, speaking for every hotelier playing with the soul of an old building and the hearts of those who love it, "it's terrifying."