100 years on, this emblematic hotel still stands proud on the seafront in Nice, and remains beloved by local and visitors alike.
If you have ever driven down or walked up the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, you will most probably have stopped for a minute or two in front of the mythic Negresco Hotel to stare up at its pink domed roof (allegedly inspired by the décolletage of the architect’s mistress), or to marvel at the doormen who are always dressed impeccably in frock-coats, knee-breeches and top hats, whatever the weather outside. The Negresco Hotel is famous the world over. It has featured on countless postcards and guidebook covers, is one of the most photographed buildings in the world and over the past 100 years, its pink and white façade has become an emblem of Nice and the French Riviera.
The Negresco’s history is long and star-studded, countless celebrities, heads of state and politicians have passed through its doors and the visitors’ book is a veritable “who’s who” of the great and the good of the 20th Century. It is also currently the only palace hotel to belong to a private owner in France and has been so for the last 56 years. Since it opened, the Negresco has played host to both the world’s most glamorous movie stars and to wounded French soldiers during the First World War, it has been the setting for both extravagant celebrations and illicit affairs, and its 6 floors are crammed full of antiques, art, and period furniture dating back from Louis XIII’s reign, right up to the 21st Century. 2012 and 2013 mark the 100 year centenary celebrations of the Negresco, a centenary which has been spread over two years as the hotel first opened in 1912, closed for a brief hiatus and then reopened and was inaugurated on the 8th January 1913 by its founder and namesake Henry Negresco.
Since the hotel first opened its doors to the public one hundred years ago, it has only known 3 owners: Henry Negresco, Gérard Marquet of the Marquet Group, and Jeanne Augier, whose father Jean-Baptiste Mesnage bought the hotel and then gave it to his daughter and her husband to manage.
Henry Negresco, the first owner and founder of the hotel was described by those who knew him as “an elegant man with a good head for business”. Negresco arrived on the Côte d’Azur in 1893 from Bucharest, Romania. The son of an inn-keeper and himself a gifted Tzigane violinist, he set off for Europe from Bucharest at the age of 15 and toured the major European capitals, playing his violin and learning the hotel trade. He worked his way up from kitchen hand to waiter, then head waiter to eventually become maître d’hôtel in the Helder Restaurant, Monte-Carlo in 1893. His natural gift for managing luxury establishments and his flair for languages (he spoke 6 languages fluently) meant that he was soon promoted to hotel manager and then left Monte Carlo to manage hotels in England, Belgium, Austria and Germany before returning to the Côte d’Azur to open his own establishment on the Promenade des Anglais.
Already owner of the restaurant at the Casino d’Enghien in Enghein-les-Bains where he spent most of his summers, Henry Negresco decided to use his experience of the luxury hotel trade and of working for fabulously wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Singers to build his own palace hotel. In 1904 during the renovations of the Casino d’Enghien restaurant, Negresco had met Edouard Niermans, a celebrated Dutch architect who had moved to France years before and who had already gained a certain notoriety in Paris, designing amongst other buildings the Moulin Rouge, the Théâtre Marigny and the Folies Bergère. Negresco had spoken to Niermans about his desire to open his own palace hotel in Nice, a project which interested Niermans and in 1909 Niermans and his family moved to Nice from Paris to start a new architectural agency on the Riviera. In the same year Negresco, whilst in Enghein-les-Bains for the summer, met Pierre Alexandre Darracq, an automobile manufacturer and cofounder of the “Darracq-Talbot” company, and persuaded him to come on-board as the chief financer of his luxury hotel project. With the backing of Darracq and with Niermans to design the building, Negresco’s plan to build his own hotel in Nice could finally begin.
After initially planning to renovate an older hotel on the Avenue Félix Faure, Negresco and Niermans then heard of a plot of land for sale on the Promenade des Anglais. The land belonged to a religious sect and was very close to the Villa de Masséna owned by the Prince de Rivoli, André d’Essling. After much negotiation, Darracq succeeded in buying the 6,482 m² plot in 1911 and Niermans immediately started drawing up plans for the new hotel. Negresco and Niermans then left Nice to tour Paris, London, Berlin, and Brussels, studying the grand hotels in each of these cities and making notes of the latest developments in luxury hotellerie. Darracq, the project’s financial backer, insisted that the new hotel contained at least 400 bedrooms to make it financially cost-effective, and Negresco himself coming from a hotel background was interested in the world hidden away behind the scenes – his plans included a full floor of kitchens, breakfast kitchens, dessert kitchens, a dishwashing room, a laboratory for the wine sommelier, a bread room, a warming room, garages, a doctor’s office, and a dining room for servants travelling with their employers.
On the 6 June 1911, Pierre Alexandre Darracq filed a building permit with the city of Nice and work began on the new hotel. The initial opening of the hotel was to be held on the 1st November 1912, but the building work and several ensuing legal battles took much longer than expected, and the opening had to be pushed back until 1913. However a rich American client, one Mr. Guerney, insisted on spending Christmas 1912 at the hotel, so a suite was prepared for him in the middle of the building site and the Negresco’s first ever guest stayed in the hotel in December 1912. After the work was completed, the Negresco then opened its doors on the 4th January 1913 with the third, fourth and fifth floors remaining shut until the inauguration on the 8th January 1913.
The inauguration was the event of the year in Nice, and amongst the crowds who came to marvel at the new hotel were seven European sovereigns and countless members of the aristocracy. The Negresco was an instant hit and the guests were amazed by their luxurious surroundings with private telephones in every room, electric light that could be turned on and off at the touch of a button, mink bedspreads on every bed, and a revolutionary heating and air conditioning system which also cleaned the air in the hotel by means of a steam turbine. The Negresco was a huge success, and by the 31st May 1913 the takings had already exceeded a million francs with a clear profit of 200,000 francs for Negresco and Darracq.
For two years the Negresco enjoyed huge popularity and became the place to stay for wealthy families visiting the Côte d’Azur, Negresco and Darracq recouped their investment and Niermans was feted for his “Ritz-style” hotel design. Then in 1914, the First World War intervened and the hotel was requisitioned by the French government along with the Hotel Ruhl, the Hotel de l’Impérial and Winter Palace, and was transformed into an auxiliary wartime hospital. The Negresco was renamed ‘Temporary Hospital N° 15’ and the first wave of injured soldiers arrived at the hotel in September 1914. Because of the sheer number of injured men, not only were the hotel bedrooms requisitioned but beds were set up in the corridors, hallways and dining rooms to accommodate the wounded. Negresco himself was pressed into service as hospital bursar and paid for an additional 100 beds for injured soldiers out of his own pocket, while his daughter also joined the war effort as the hospital librarian.
Temporary Hospital N° 15 was eventually relinquished back to Negresco in September 1915 but the 12 months in which it had been occupied by the military had wreaked havoc on the luxurious surroundings and the entire hotel had to be renovated before it could open its doors once again for the season. The golden age of luxury hotels was over on the Côte d’Azur, the aristocratic and wealthy families who had once wintered at the Negresco could no longer afford to do so, and Henry Negresco was ruined. The hotel remained open for the 1916-1917 season, but the tourists didn’t return to the Riviera as the hospitality industry had hoped, so the Negresco failed to make a profit. When the Armistice came in 1918, Henry Negresco made the difficult decision to sell his hotel to try and pay off his ever increasing debts and in 1920, Gérard Marquet, head of the Belgian Marquet group bought the Negresco from him.
Henry Negresco left the Riviera in 1920 and returned to Paris where he died two years later in 1922 at the age of 54, bankrupt and far from the hotel he loved.
Join us again next week for the second part of the story of the Negresco.
37, Promenade des Anglais
Tel: 04 93 16 64 00
All images courtesy and © Mike Colquhoun