A five star stay at the Athenaeum Hotel in London
Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise
- Credit: Chris Tubbs Photography
Athenaeum - the classical name conjures up a vision of a grand library where bewhiskered gentlemen of science, politics and the arts arrange their tailcoats on deep red leather chairs and sit back to read and learn, and engage in discourse in hushed tones in quiet corners.
Back in the 1860s such an atmosphere would undoubtedly have pervaded 116 Piccadilly in London’s Mayfair, home to the newly-formed Junior Athenaeum Club.
Today the quiet corners and their Victorian ghosts still remain, but once through the ornate front door the welcoming words from the reception staff, the convivial chatter of guests, and the bark of a dog sweep you into a very different world, one of a vibrant, characterful luxury boutique hotel.
A splendid house was built here in the 1840s for MP Henry Hope, a friend of Charles Dickens, and it later became a gentlemen’s club.
Fast forward to the 1930s, when the huge house was transformed into stylish, Art Deco apartments.
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Then in 1973, having been bought by the Rank Organization, it began life as a hotel and the spirit and character of the place, so evident today, was born.
With its Hollywood connection, the Athenaeum Hotel established a reputation as a home from home for America’s best-known actors and directors, earning the sobriquet Tinseltown on the Thames.
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The likes of Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Liza Minelli, Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss spent time here.
Elizabeth Taylor took up lengthy residence during one film project in England, while Stephen Spielberg installed an editing suite in his Athenaeum residence while completing E.T.
The hotel’s legendary executive manager Sally Bulloch – herself a child actor - was its guiding light.
The stars returned year after year just to be reacquainted with her effervescent personality.
Her spirit lives on, for today the ‘Grand Dame of Piccadilly’ is no staid five-star hotel, but a lively, open and relaxed place to stay.
The family friendly nature of the hotel even extends to dogs - an eager King Charles spaniel was checking in with its family when we arrived.
Special mattresses and other accoutrements are available for the pooches, and helpful dog-walking maps are provided for the adjacent Green Park.
As for the humans, well, they have 135 comfortable bedrooms and eleven elegant suites to choose from, along with the 14 residences for those wanting a prolonged stay in town.
All were renovated just a few years ago at the direction of acclaimed interior designer Martin Hulbert, who has successfully blended the hotel’s 1930s Art Deco look with contemporary flourishes.
We had one of the stylish Green Park suites, where our floor to ceiling windows gave us a spectacular vista over the historic grounds on the other side of the road.
Our classic marbled bathroom contained a huge walk-in shower, while the King-sized bed gave us a restful night’s sleep after an afternoon’s long walk around Piccadilly and its environs.
Equally soothing was our visit to The Athenaeum’s Spa, located in the hotel basement, where we sampled the hot tub, steam room and sauna before enjoying one of the signature treatments, a superbly relaxing hot stone massage.
Those who have run The Athenaeum over the years have had the imagination to try unusual projects to make it stand out from the elite crowd.
So it was in 2009, when the renowned French botanist Patrick Blanc was commissioned to create a vertical garden at the hotel’s corner with Down Street.
And 12 years on we were able to gaze up 10 storeys into the air at The Athenaeum’s Living Wall, an extraordinarily verdant carpet of flora and fauna.
This magnificent wallscape has been created through the hydroponic method, which involves growing plants without soil, by using mineral nutrient solutions in an aqueous solvent.
The engaging and informative guest relations manager Kim Whitehorn took us up to The View, the exclusive lounge for residents on the top floor which has panoramic views out over the city.
Now also a venue for business meetings and informal gatherings, it was once the hotel’s majestic penthouse suite.
Here, Kim told us, Mrs Thatcher stayed for three months while waiting to move into a new London home.
Another famous prime minister also has fascinating links with this part of town.
Opposite The Athenaeum townhouses at the Piccadilly end of Down Street there used to be an underground station; it went out of use in 1932, presumably because there was little call for it among the wealthy denizens of these parts who took cabs, or perhaps had begun to own cars.
But at the height of The Blitz, in autumn 1940, it was turned into safe offices for the Railway Executive Committee.
Then Winston Churchill visited one day and felt it would make an excellent alternative to the underground War Cabinet Rooms in Whitehall – and backup sleeping quarters for himself and his wife Clementine.
There were several government meetings here in October 1940 and Churchill slept in ‘The Barn’ as he dubbed it, twice that month.
It was a treat to sit in the sunshine on the terrace and enjoy a delicious breakfast while watching the world go by.
Five star it may be, but The Athenaeum provides guests with a welcoming, down-to-earth approach.
It draws strength from its famous past, but keeps its eye very much on the developments in the present – and the future.
Plan your trip
Rooms start from £305 and look out for special offers at athenaeumhotel.com