The Dorchester Hotel
London W1A 2HJ
Tel: +44 207 629 8888
The Dorchester opened its doors for the first time on April 18th, 1931. A Gala Luncheon was held to mark the occasion with a guest list from the cream of society, including the Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon, Lord Halifax, the BBC’s Lord Reith, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston, the Earl of Rosebery and Margot, Countess of Oxford.
The colossal, pillarless Ballroom, with its mirrored walls set with sparkling studs, just as now, could accommodate a thousand in splendour. The Dorchester was immediately adopted for the grandest balls and parties of the Season. The Dorchester soon became synonymous with all that was most fashionable in British society.
By the end of the decade, two new banqueting rooms, the Holford Room and Orchid Room, and a new bar had been added to The Dorchester. The barman became something of legend for his dexterity with the cocktail shaker. Examples of his Martini, White Lady and Manhattan were sealed into the wall of his new bar for posterity, to be rediscovered during building work in 1979, apparently as good as on the day they were mixed.
The Dorchester was the creation of Sir Malcolm McAlpine and Sir Frances Towle, chairman of Gordon Hotels, who had shared a vision of what would make the ‘perfect hotel’. It would have to be ultramodern and ultra-efficient, with every convenience modern technology could supply, from telephones in every room to draught-proof windows and soundproofed walls.
The two had bought the old Dorchester House, a palatial 19th century building on the site, in 1929, and promptly demolished it. They commissioned Sir Owen Williams to design their new hotel, to be called The Dorchester. The development of reinforced concrete allowed the architect to create vast public spaces completely uncluttered by pillars, to float unsupported balconies from the walls of the hotel and flank the façade with octagonal window towers.
Forty thousand tons of soil were dug out to create basement kitchens, garages and luxurious Turkish baths, while over the public rooms he swung a raft of concrete three feet thick, to support eight floors of bedrooms.
Even though Williams resigned when the architect Curtis Green was asked to contribute embellishments to the elevations and exteriors, work continued without interruption. Through the autumn of 1930, the hotel rose at a dizzy rate of one floor per week. The roof went on in November, and the hotel was completed in the spring of 1931.
After all the partying and high-life of the Thirties, war was declared in September 1939 and London suddenly went quiet.
But thanks to The Dorchester’s reinforced concrete structure, it had the reputation as the safest hotel in London. So as the ‘Phoney War’ dragged on, guests began to drift back, and a number of Cabinet Ministers, including Lord Halifax and Duff Cooper, moved in for the duration.
When the Blitz finally began, the restaurants were moved to the Gold Room and the Ballroom to avoid the danger of flying glass. The Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, likened dining here during the Blitz to cruising on a luxury liner on which the remnants of London society have embarked in the midst of this storm.
Indeed, at intervals the building shook like a vibrating ship with the shock of an exploding bomb falling nearby. The only direct hits sustained by The Dorchester was by a handful of firebombs, which were soon dealt with.
War meant that the great literary and political hostesses such as Mrs Grenville of Polesden Lacy, Lady Sybil Colefax and Emerald, Lady Cunard, were forced by short rations and lack of servants to abandon entertaining at home. They moved their celebrated dinner parties to The Dorchester instead.
Cultural luminaries of the day such as T S Eliot and Edith Sitwell, Harold Nicholson and Cyril Conolly were summoned to dine, and discreetly presented the following morning with a bill for 10/6d. Invitations from Emerald Cunard were the most coveted - for her dinners alone were free. When the air-raid sirens sounded, she would crawl under the table and read Proust and Shakespeare to her imprisoned guests.
In 1942, America entered the war. General Dwight D Eisenhower arrived in London and soon moved into two rooms on the first floor (now named the Eisenhower Suite) where, to give him greater privacy, Winston Churchill had a wall built between his balcony and the one next door. The wall remains to this day.
The decade following the war was a period of sad decline for many of London’s grand hotels. The Dorchester, however, became popular with the industrialists, actors and entertainers who formed the new elite of the post-war world.
The Ballroom and banqueting rooms were constantly busy with the fund-raising efforts of the numerous charities set up after the war. The Royal Family was keen in its support of these causes, and The Dorchester was regularly honoured with their presence. It was here that on July 9th the news was announced of Princess Elizabeth’s engagement to Prince Philip. The Prince also held his stag party in the Park Suite on November 19th the same year.
By the Fifties, a seemingly endless stream of the famous discovered that a visit to London had to mean staying at The Dorchester, among them Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Brigitte Bardot and Danny Kaye.
The Dorchester was extended towards Deanery Street in the Fifties. The hotel continued to lead the way in hotel design, creating 30 new bedrooms, all with private bathrooms, plus the first purpose-built luxury hotel suite in London. And to decorate it, they hired Oliver Messel, the most celebrated theatre designer of the day.
Messel created a pastoral extravaganza, with flowers, fruit and fern fronds bursting exuberantly through gilded lattice work, while on the floor above, the Penthouse dining room was transformed into an enchanted forest. These rooms were completed shortly before the Coronation. The response was instant and overwhelming. So great was demand that another floor was added to the hotel, with room for four more equally attractive suites.
Generations of artists and performers have invested the hotel with something of their own flamboyance. The Oliver Messel Suite was the particular favourite of both Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich, while Cecil Beaton was waspish about the paint work and rhapsodic about the view. Both Judy Garland and Duke Ellington made The Dorchester their London base, while Somerset Maugham would stay for two or three months every year. In the Sixties even the Beatles couldn’t resist.
But it is actors who have always been most beguiled by the special glamour of The Dorchester: among them, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, James Mason, Charlton Heston (who liked the Italian marble baths), Yul Brynner, Julie Andrews, Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kim Basinger.
In 1988 The Dorchester closed for two years. There had been a number of changes of ownership and, after nearly 60 years, the hotel could no longer claim to be the paragon of modernity envisioned and realised by McAlpine and Towle.
So the present owners conceived a bold plan to return The Dorchester to its former pre-eminence. During two years of closure, all the services of the hotel would be completely overhauled to equip it for the twenty-first century. At the same time, the areas of historical importance, particularly the Promenade, the Grill Room and the Oliver Messel Suite, would be carefully restored to their former glory.
The Dorchester reopened in November 1990, sparkling, refreshed, with superb new facilities including the Oriental Restaurant, the Boardroom Suite and the luxurious new Dorchester Spa. Within a week, loyal guests had reclaimed their favourite tables in the Grill Room.
The superb standards of service, comfort and modernity experienced when The Dorchester first opened its doors in 1931 were back.
Determined to hold its place at the very top, further work on the hotel at the turn of the millennium included the sumptuous redecoration of rooms, suites and other public areas under a programme called the ‘New Flowering'. Now also with all the latest entertainment and business technology installed for guests, The Dorchester continues to pursue its founders’ dream to be the ‘perfect hotel'.