The pearls that are the grand hotels of Paris are strung around a slender neck on the city’s Right Bank, from the Place de l’Étoile on one end to the Place Vendôme on the other. But there is one that isn’t: the Hôtel Lutetia in St.-Germain-des-Prés. It is the jewel in the city’s core, tucked away from the hurly-burly of business north of the Seine and set dead in its romantic solar plexus on the left. The scale of the city is tidier there, which makes the sight of this looming ocean liner even more astonishing when you happen across it at the crossroads of the Boulevard Raspail and the Rue de Sèvres. Despite the Lutetia’s great size, its undulating curves give it a pillowy softness. Wrought-iron balconies, grapes of stone dripping from cornices, and windows encircled by thick stone arches—this is Art Nouveau at its most abundant, and it is a joy to behold.
The sight of it always lifted my heart as I rode my scooter down Raspail from Montparnasse, where I live, except that, for the past four years, it has caused an irritating traffic bottleneck. The Lutetia had gone somewhat to seed, and a new owner, the Set Hotels Group, means to bring it back to its former glory. Behind a giant scaffolding that jutted well into the boulevard, an army of artisans employed their painstaking father-to-son (and -daughter) skills while I fumed on my scooter, inching past in single-file traffic.
I got the chance to walk through the hotel a few weeks before it reopened. The main floor was still mostly a construction site, but I understood better why they made me wait so long at the Sèvres-Babylone intersection. A graceful fresco of pale pink-and-green garlands now adorns the ceiling of a salon facing the boulevard, which now houses the main bar. It was painted on the wet plaster by Adrien Karbowsky, a pupil of Puvis de Chavannes, when the Lutetia went up in 1910. When the restorers Stéphanie and Cyril de Ricou discovered them, Karbowsky’s garlands were smothered under seven layers of paint added over the years. The de Ricous had to flake each layer off with a scalpel to protect the fresco underneath. They say it took their team 17,000 hours.
“The building has such a strong personality, but it really needed to be refreshed,” says Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the architect for the Lutetia renovation, expected to be completed by summer. (You can see his work every time you throw away a croissant wrapper: He designed the public poubelles.) “Everything inside was false—even the wood on the old bar. Fake!”
Fortunately, Wilmotte hasn’t put authenticity on too high a pedestal. He has tried instead to reanimate the Lutetia’s original spirit, restoring a detail here, reimagining it there. Playful renderings of Santa Claus and the Michelin Man hover on the glass ceiling of a new salon. The artist Fabrice Hyber painted them directly on the panes with glass powder, so they light up when the sun shines through. The new bedroom chairs recall the hotel’s original Art Deco pieces, which all came from the Bon Marché department store, just across a small park and clearly visible from most of the rooms. But Wilmotte’s designs manage to avoid the staginess that make so much classic Art Deco look like a set for a Noël Coward play.
There’s a good reason why the Lutetia’s original furniture came from the Bon Marché. The store built the place—the Lutetia’s Bar Aristide is named for the Bon Marché’s founder, Aristide Boucicaut, who died in 1877. By 1907, when the Lutetia’s first stones were laid, the Bon Marché was already a retail phenomenon, immortalized in Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames. The store needed someplace to put all the customers and tradesmen who flocked there from the provinces. The hotel’s design stayed in the family: Louis-Charles Boileau drew up the plans for the Bon Marché; his son, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, and architect Henri Tauzin created the Lutetia.
Its genes have shaped its character. The Lutetia has always been less hoity-toity and more neighborly than its sisters on the Right Bank. More French, too. It seeps into the local life of its quartier, instead of floating above it in some kind of cosmopolitan bubble. From early on, the writers, artists, and intellectuals who colonized the bohemian Left Bank went there to drink and fulminate—as did the many political exiles who took refuge in Paris between the world wars.
This was not lost on Wilhelm Canaris, the canny chief of the Nazi counterintelligence service, the Abwehr. While the German High Command and the Nazi military authorities in Paris were living it up at the Ritz and the Meurice across the Seine, Canaris chose to install the Abwehr at the Lutetia during the occupation. “Canaris thought that by all accounts he had the best chances of infiltrating Resistance cells in the world of artists, writers, and theater people who gravitated around the Lutetia,” writes Willi Jasper in his book Hotel Lutetia: A German Exile in Paris.
When the war ended, and the lucky French men and women who survived the camps came home, the Lutetia served as the reception center where they were dropped off. It was the scene of joyful reunions and also of anguished waiting by families holding posterboards with the names of those who would not return. A plaque on the hotel’s wall bears eternal witness. The hotel’s barmen report that for many years afterward, an older gentleman would return to the bar on the anniversary of his homecoming to drink a cognac and smoke a cigar.
The artists and writers came back, too. Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron ended their long-running feud here in 1979. The sculptor Arman had his own suite. I was invited inside once to meet his widow, an African American woman from New York, who was looking for someone to help write her life story. The bronze dining chairs were shaped like the violins that Arman liked to slice and dice in the name of art.
The Left Bank crowd—such as singer Juliette Gréco, or Sonia Rykiel, who redesigned the property in the 1980s—never stopped showing up even while the hotel itself gathered dust and the tourist trade dwindled. In the taxonomy of the quartier, the Café de Flore was where you went to be seen; the Lutetia was more discreet.
My friend Thomas is a Left Bank aristo who wouldn’t cross the river if you paid him. For much of the ’80s and ’90s, you could find him in the Lutetia bar drinking straight vodka. The time came when he had to stop, but he kept going to the bar (Diet Coke with ice, no lemon). “I was under surveillance by the whole crew,” says Thomas. “One day, I ordered a vodka for a friend. The barman told me to forget it—I should never expect them to pour me booze.”
Thomas hasn’t been around much in recent years. A mutual friend of ours died young, and the place where they spent so much time just made him sad. But it’s a new Lutetia now, and he expects it will soften those painful memories. “I am definitely going back,” he says. “It’s home.”