Tag Archives: Charles Baehler

Once Metropolitan, now Cosmopolitan

Cosmopolitan
The Cosmopolitan, scaffolding free, May 2018

Tucked away off Kasr al-Nil Street in Downtown Cairo, the Cosmopolitan has always been an overlooked hotel. It has never featured large on the tourist map, so it has usually been blessedly free of large groups. It boasts a fantastic central location but its amenities have always been limited (and well worn), which meant its rates have been competitive. Instead it has attracted an intriguingly assorted clientele, the sorts of people who are too old for the backpacker joints of Talaat Harb but aren’t prepared to fork out for air-con luxuries of the likes of the Hilton and Sheraton. It’s a place where you would find businessmen from the fringes of Europe, journalists and visiting academics – as well as locals happy to take advantage of the cheap beer in the Kings Bar. Or at least that used to be the case, before the Cosmopolitan closed for restoration last year as part of the larger-scale project to beautify and revitalise the whole Bourse area. Recently the scaffolding that has been wrapped around its façade for many months came down. However, word is that work on the interior is far from complete as the hotel’s owners – EGOTH, the state body in charge of most of Egypt’s hotels – is looking for a tenant to complete the refurb and manage the hotel. I wonder when they do find that outfit if they will decide to retain the hotel’s name. After all, it has changed twice before.

P_162_a
The Metropolitan, as it was, some time soon after 1929

The Cosmpolitan began life as the Grosvenor Hotel, back in the early 1920s. In 1929, the building’s lease was purchased by Egypt’s premier hotelier Charles Baehler, who did his own refurb and reopened the place in May 1929, renaming the hotel the Metropolitan. Baehler was the chairman of Egyptian Hotels Ltd, which already owned almost every grand hotel in Cairo but there were not as many big spenders around as there had been (and there would be even less when the Great Depression kicked in towards the end of 1929) and the company wanted a smaller hotel with cheaper rooms to cater for the new breed of traveller of more modest means. At some point – and the Cosmopolitan was rarely mentioned in travelogues or the press, so accounting for its precise history is difficult – the hotel underwent another change of name to its current one of the Cosmopolitan.

208_Metropolitan_2_label

208_Cosmopolitan_label

It is impressive that it has survived at all when so many other Cairo hotels haven’t. I’m intrigued to see who comes in to run it and whether they can continue to attract a suitably global and eclectic clientele to justify the hotel’s present name.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Hotels then and now

Pagnon and the Grand Hotel, Aswan

AH_Aswan_Hotel

A few days back a visitor to this site, Amina Niazi, posted a request for information on the Grand Hotel, which used to be on the Corniche at Aswan, so here’s what I know.

The story starts with Ferdinand Pagnon, who I haven’t written about before on this blog, which is a bit of an oversight given that he was the major hotelier in Upper Egypt at the tail end of the 19th century – so thank you Amina for the prompt.

Albert Ferdinand Pagnon was born on 1 January 1847 in Bourgoin, not far from Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France. His family had a hotel there but it burned down the year of Ferdinand’s birth and so they moved to Marseille and then Egypt. The baby was left behind in France in care of an aunt, until at the age of 12 Ferdinand was sent to study in Malta. He returned to France to work in a bank in Romans until in 1868 his father died and the young man was called to Egypt to take his place running several hotels in Ismailia and Port Said. These almost certainly catered to engineers and company officials associated with the Suez Canal, which was then under construction and opened the following year.

Somehow Ferdinand also came to run the Hotel Victoria in Venice, which is where he met John Cook, son and heir of the international travel agent Thomas Cook. John made Pagnon the agent for the company’s growing Nile business in 1876. Pagnon was based down in Luxor, where Cook & Son built its first hotel, the Luxor Hotel, which opened in 1877 and was managed by Pagnon. Not long after, the company bought a second Luxor property, the Karnak Hotel, which I imagine was again managed by Pagnon. He later bought these two hotels from Cook.

1470_Seti

From Luxor, Cooks’ steamers continued south to Aswan, where they stayed for two days before heading back downriver to Cairo. There were no hotels at Aswan, so for passengers wanting to extend their stay the company maintained a permanently moored steamer, the Sethi (above), as a floating hotel. That was until 1894 when, with money borrowed from Cook & Son, Pagnon opened bought the Hotel Assouan, which had opened on the Corniche close to the wharf where the steamers moored a couple of seasons previously. At some later date this hotel would become the Grand Hotel d’Assouan and then just the Grand Hotel. It was not a particularly large property and when the rival Anglo-American Nile Company launched the far fancier Savoy on Elephantine Island, Cook & Son responded by building the Cataract, which opened in 1900.

AH_Grand_Hotel_Aswan_card

AH_Grand_Hotel_Aswan_card_2

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 21.01.10

f502309f01d163d25670e09842280b2d

Initially, the Cataract was leased to Pagnon, but in 1904 it was sold to the Upper Egypt Hotels Co, a consortium headed up by Charles Baehler, owner of Shepheard’s in Cairo, but in which both John Cook and Pagnon also had stakes. The Upper Egypt Hotels Co also built the Winter Palace in 1907. Pagnon did not live long to enjoy his hotel empire – he caught a chill while boating on the Nile and died of pneumonia in 1909.

He left behind a wife, Kitty, and two daughters who returned to France to live in a farmhouse purchased by Ferdinand in Romans. There’s a small archive of correspondence between Pagnon and his wife held by the Municipal Archives of Romans, while the family property is now a health and therapy centre. A shrewd operator, while in Egypt Pagnon also amassed a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, which were left to his family and fetched decent prices when auctioned off at Christie’s in 1993.

As for the Grand Hotel at Aswan, it survived Pagnon by at least two decades because it was listed in the last Baedeker guide to Egypt, published in 1929. Beyond that, I don’t know. If anyone else has any information, please do drop me a line.

5 JUNE 2017
Some additional information comes courtesy of Dr Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institute, Cairo:

Dear Andrew,
The later fate of the hotel goes as following: the Assouan Hotel was renamed some time around 1900 as the Grand Hotel Assouan before it was destroyed by fire on April 23rd 1903. In the summer of the same year it was newly built and reopened as the Grand Hotel that winter. It was a completely new building, with three floors, a fourth floor was added the following year. It burnt down again in summer 1985.

2 Comments

Filed under Grand hotels, Nile steamers

Victor’s watch

Today I received another email from Peter Kuonen – who sent me the wonderful images of his grand-uncle Victor, who was concierge at the Winter Palace in its heyday (see here). Here’s the text of Peter’s email:

Much to my surprise, I found the gold watch which Victor received with a dedication from Charles Baehler for his excellent work during 30 years in Egypt. You surely wonder how and where I found it. In my research, I have of course spoken with many relatives. Thus, it happened that I was talking about this watch and then I held it in my hand. You cannot imagine how I felt. It was just great… like getting a reward for my work. The person that keeps this memorable piece is Toni Kuonen, a hotelier in Sierre, Switzerland. He received it from his father Richard, a son of Victor Kuonen.

And here is the watch, courtesy of photos from Peter.

Uhr3_bearbeitet-1

Uhr27_bearbeitet-3

Incidentally, the Charles Baehler who Peter mentions in his email was the king of Egyptian hotels. A former accountant from Switzerland, he arrived in Egypt on 21 October 1889, aged eighteen. He went to work at Shepheard’s in a junior role but so impressed his employer with his confidence and knowledge of hotel administration that he was soon appointed manager. By 1905, he owned the hotel. By the time he died, in 1937, his companies not only owned every major hotel in Egypt (including the Winter Palace), but also 72 shops and 130 flats, a stable of race horses, a kennel of prize-winning St. Bernard dogs, and a museum-worthy collection of paintings and tapestries. He married three times and fathered three sons. His obituary in The New York Times on 28 September 1937 called him “one of the world’s greatest hotel men.”

Now if any of his descendents read this, I would love to hear from them.

1 Comment

Filed under Grand hotels, Travellers' tales

Victor Kuonen 1875-1949

I was recently contacted by Peter Kuonen of Urdorf in Switzerland, who wondered if I would be interested in seeing some photographs of his grand-uncle, Victor, who spent more than 20 years employed at Luxor’s Winter Palace, and before that Shepheard’s, in the early years of the 20th century. Of course I was interested. So Peter sent me the photographs and they are wonderful – he’s permitted me to post some of them, below. I also asked Peter if he could tell me a little about Victor, and he responded with the text that follows.

Victor_001

“Victor was born on May 4, 1875 in a small mountain village called Guttet in the picturesque canton of Wallis in Switzerland. He grew up together with five sisters and fourteen brothers. After completing his compulsory schooling he had to help to support the family. Therefore, he went to work in a hotel at the age of 16 years. As a young man, he already had jobs in different cities like San Remo, Basel and Lucerne. In 1897, aged 22, he travelled to Egypt for the first time. He sent back travel reports, which were published in a local Wallis newspaper Briger Anzeiger from February 1902 onwards. His first report described the trip from Switzerland via Genoa to Port Said. He not only wrote what he had experienced on the trip but also about the people and the land of Egypt. He continued to file reports right up until 1923 and his most interesting are now preserved in the archives of the Canton Valais.

“He found employment in Egypt in the first-class hotels, including Shepheard’s in Cairo and the Winter Palace in Luxor – both hotels owned by fellow Swiss Charles Baehler.

Victor_002

Victor_003
Top, Victor, at Shepheard’s in 1905; bottom with the staff at the Winter Palace, c.1930

“Victor worked in Egypt during the winter (which was Egypt’s prime tourist season) and returned to Switzerland or Germany during the summer. In Switzerland, he worked in the Hotel Mont Cervin, Zermatt and in the Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne. In Germany, he was a concierge in the Hotel Europäischer Hof, Baden-Baden where he met his wife Sophie Mohl. They had three more sons and one daughter.

Victor_004
Victor at the Winter Palace in 1932

Victor_005
Victor outside the main entrance of the Winter Palace. The photo has been taken by Attaya Gaddis, who had one of the shops in front of the hotel; it’s now run by his grandson Ehab

Victor_006
At the Winter Palace reception desk

Victor_007
An illustration of Victor, presented to him as a gift. I can’t be sure but it looks like the work of Tony Binder, who I have posted about previously, here

“In 1927, after working 30 years for Charles Baehler, – during which time he was present in Luxor when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered – Victor received a Diploma of the Swiss Hotelier Association and also a gold watch with a dedication from Baehler.

Victor_008
Howard Carter and the former Spanish king Alfonso XIII in front of the Winter Palace

Victor_009
Leopold and Elizabeth of Belgium at the Winter Palace

Victor_010
Pioneering Swiss aviator Walter Mittelholzer dropping by the Winter Palace while making the first north-south flight across Africa in 1926

Victor_011
More Mittelholzer

“Victor said good-bye to Egypt in 1931. He moved with his family to Algeria, where his second-oldest son, Oscar, had a job in a hotel. They settled in the coastal town of Bône (today called Annaba), where Victor opened a restaurant, Au Rosbif. The family ran this for about 10 years but then World War II came along and they packed up and returned to Switzerland. Back in his homeland, Victor bought the Hotel Mont Cervin in Visp/Wallis in 1941 and was a successful hotelier for the next 8 years until he died on October 13, 1949.”

Victor_015

13 Comments

Filed under Grand hotels, Shepheard's

Lions in the garden

In Grand Hotels of Egypt, I tell the story of two roaming lions. One morning, just before the 1914–18 War, the Gezira Palace hotel was visited by Lord Kitchener, then the British Consul-General, who was escorted around the grounds by hotel impresario Charles Baehler. Baehler asked his guest if he would allow himself to be photographed at the hotel, but Kitchener said no. A short time later Baehler received a message from Kitchener’s office saying he would reconsider the photo if the hotel would make him a present of a pair of marble lions that he’d spotted in the grounds. Baehler agreed and the statues were transferred to the grounds of the British Embassy in Cairo, where they remain today, one either side of steps leading up to the garden entrance to the Residence.

We searched long and hard for a photograph of the lions for the book and, eventually, one was found, supplied by the British Embassy in Cairo itself. Now I find another (below), this one in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London; it shows British ambassador Sir Miles Lampson with Lady Lampson in the garden of the Embassy at Cairo, taken possibly in 1942 but definitely by Cecil Beaton, of whom more in a future post.

iwm205125084

Leave a Comment

Filed under Grand hotels

Then and now: the Savoy

Savoy

For the brief 16 years it was open to guests, the Savoy was Cairo’s most aristocratic hotel. It was a third venture for the indefatigable George Nungovich, the earliest of Cairo’s hotel czars (who I’ve blogged about earlier, here).

A palace belonging to Prince Djemil Toussoun didn’t meet requirements and the building and its grounds were bought up by Nungovich. The site was at the heart of the new Ismailia quarter, on Qasr al-Nil Street, overlooking the Rond Point Qasr al-Nil (see map below). Nungovich had the palace pulled down and replaced with a grand new building of three stories topped by a rotunda.

Hotel du Nil 01 map

This he named the Savoy Hotel and it opened on 28 November 1898. It was described at the time as being remarkably modern with a large dining room and smaller restaurant, spacious lounges, smoking rooms, a reading room in ornamental Egyptian style, electric lift and a wide terrace overlooking Qasr al-Nil Street. Each bedroom had a fireplace and new furniture from Waring and Gillow of Oxford Street, London, and there were suites with private bath and toilet on each floor.

AVQ-A-004137-0056

It was aimed at the class of people who might find Shepheard’s and the Grand Continental, then Cairo’s leading hotels, a bit vulgar. High society checking in at the Savoy in its early years included a young Winston Churchill, fresh from his adventures as a war correspondent in South Africa, Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Aird, the architect and contractor of the Aswan Dam, then under construction, and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes. When General Kitchener and his officers arrived in Cairo triumphant after victory at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1899, they were honored with a grand banquet on the Savoy’s terrace.

Flags were flown over the hotel whenever a royal was staying. First to be hoisted was the white elephant on red, in respect of the visit of the King of Siam. King Albert of Belgium, however, objected to the practice and demanded the flag be removed or he’d leave. In 1905, when the white-haired, 80-year-old ex-empress Eugénie returned to Egypt 36 years after opening the Suez Canal, she took rooms at the Savoy. King George V and Queen Mary, then Prince and Princess of Wales, stayed on their way back from India a couple of years later.

The Crown Prince of Germany being greeted by the manager of the Savoy, Auguste Wild

The Crown Prince of Germany being greeted by the manager of the Savoy, Auguste Wild

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, in October 1914, the hotel was taken over by the British Army – as I noted in a previous post, TE Lawrence worked out of an office here from December of that year. When the war ended, the British Government elected to hold on to the hotel and it became a business address for British-owned companies. In 1924 it was sold to Charles Baehler, chief shareholder of Egyptian Hotels Ltd, who tore the building down. He replaced it with a grand commercial and apartment complex that still stands today facing onto what’s now Talaat Harb Square. Ironically, the Baehler Buildings, as they’re known, have themselves now become a totem of modern Downtown’s architectural heritage, cherished by conservationists, who are possibly unaware that the buildings in fact took the place of an establishment of far greater pedigree.

The Baehler Buildings on Talaat Harb Square now occupy the site of the former Savoy

The Baehler Buildings on Talaat Harb Square now occupy the site of the former Savoy

4 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now

A hotel for amphibians?

Last month I posted a complete early 20th-century promotional booklet for Shepheard’s hotel. It was put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd, who at this time owned several major Cairo properties, another of which was the Semiramis.

A riverside location is now almost a perquisite for any five-star Cairo hotel, but when it opened in February 1907, the Semiramis was the first hotel in the Egyptian capital to be built beside the Nile – previously all the hotels had been clustered around the Azbakiya or close by in Downtown. The insightful entrepreneurs behind the project were Franz Josef Bucher-Durrer and Josef Durrant, founders of a hotel chain with properties in their native Switzerland as well as Genoa, Milan and Rome. Unfortunately, Bucher-Durrer died before the new Cairo venture could be completed and just three years after its inauguration his heirs decided to sell the Semiramis to Charles Baehler of Egyptian Hotels Ltd.

It was the most aristocratic of Cairo’s hotels, attracting the highest class of clientele. It had a handsome wide veranda that overlooked the river and, at roof level, accessed by electric lifts, a garden terrace planted with flowers and shrubs, and with a café-restaurant and ‘tea-kiosks’. The roof had views across the city to the Citadel in one direction, and over the Nile to the Pyramids and desert in the other. Even at only four stories, at the time of its opening the Semiramis was the highest hotel in Cairo.

It would be soon after Baehler bought the hotel that the booklet below was published. Note that the text boasts that of the 200 bedrooms, 100 have ensuite bathrooms and lavatories. When London’s Savoy was under construction in the 1880s, its financier D’Oyly Carte also requested one bathroom for every two bedrooms, leading his contractor to ask if Carte was expecting his guests to be amphibious. Note also in the lists of ‘principal’ sights, number 8 includes an ostrich farm at Matarieh (sadly missing from the attractions of modern Cairo). It is also notably more expensive to board servants without their Masters.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Grand hotels, Memorabilia

Burger classics

We reproduced the postcard above in Grand Hotels of Egypt. It shows Cairo’s Opera Square seen from one of the terraces of the Continental-Savoy. It dates, I’m guessing, judging from the cars, from some time in the 1930s. Over on the far left is the old Khedivial Opera House, where Verdi’s opera Aida had its world premiere on 24 December 1871, with costumes and accessories designed by Egypt’s Director of Antiquities Auguste Mariette. (Just two months short of the opera’s centenary, on 28 October 1971, the opera house was completely destroyed by a fire.) It’s a lovely little painting, interesting because artists of the time rarely painted the modern city, saving their canvases instead for more picturesque (ie saleable) subjects like ancient temples and medieval mosques. The painter in this case was the Swiss Willy Friedrich Burger (1882-1964), a graphic artist of some talent, responsible for numerous beautiful posters advertising the attractions of his homeland, such as the one below, which sell for a fortune these days at auction.

It was only after Grand Hotels had gone to print that I discovered the Continental-Savoy wasn’t the only hotel Burger painted and that it was, in fact, part of a set. I now have four more Burger cards and they are all equally lovely. All employ the same dusky, Cairo-sunset palette of pinks and purples. The Semiramis card (top one, below) is the only representation I’ve ever seen of that old hotel’s Nile terrace. The really intriguing card though is the one below it, which unlike the others (the third card shows the Moorish Hall at Shepheard’s, the bottom the pool at the Grand Hotel Helwan) is not a Cairo hotel. It is the view of the Dormition Abbey at Mount Zion from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Why include a Jerusalem hotel in a set of postcards showing Cairo hotels? Because the postcards were put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd, owned by Charles Baehler, which in 1929 extended its activities into Palestine with the building of the King David. At what point the King David ceased being owned by an Egyptian company I don’t know, but it’s pretty unlikely this arrangement extended beyond 1948 and the creation of Israel. If anybody knows more, I’d love to hear from you.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Art and artists, Memorabilia

Then and now: Hotel d’Angleterre

Unreasonable if you think about it, but you somehow expect a handwritten document penned a century ago to offer a little insight into how greatly different life was back then. The letter above, written in the first decade of the last century, just complains about a missing key. What is evocative of another era though is the hotel’s illustrated notepaper, which is just gorgeous (click to enlarge). The hotel in question, the Angleterre, originally stood on the northeast corner of Cairo’s Azbakiya Gardens, but this is its second incarnation, after it had been relocated to premises on Maghrabi Street (now Adly Street), next door to the Turf Club and the site on which the local Jewish community would shortly raise the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue.

Hotel du Nil 01 map

The proprietor of the Angleterre was a Greek-Cypriot from Limassol named George Nungovich. His name is all but forgotten these days but he was one of Egypt’s greatest hoteliers, a man who embodied the glamour and get-rich-quick spirit of Cairo as it hustled from the 19th into the 20th century.

Nungovich arrived penniless in Egypt in 1870, aged fourteen, but by the end of the century he was said to be worth over a million pounds sterling. His entry into business came courtesy of the British Army, which was then campaigning in Sudan. He was engaged in the officers’ mess of a Highland regiment and was so successful he returned to Cairo in the late 1880s with enough money to purchase the lease of the Hotel d’Angleterre. Not long after, Nungovich learnt that a British regiment had arrived in Cairo unexpectedly with no accommodation arranged. He rushed over to the station and offered to take all the officers at his hotel. When they were leaving and requested their bill, Nungovich refused to issue one, saying that he was only too honored to have had the officers of the British Army as his guests. It was a shrewd bit of PR that ensured his popularity with Her Majesty’s subjects, who were at that time pouring into Cairo, both in uniform and civilian attire.

Screen Shot 2012-06-17 at 16.52.44

In 1894, the year after he moved the Angleterre to its new Adly Street premises (above), he was able to add a second Cairo hotel to his portfolio, which was the Continental on Qasr al-Nil Street; when the lease on this building expired he moved the business to new, far larger premises, reflected in the new name, the Grand Continental (the hotel was later renamed the Continental-Savoy, which I wrote about last post). By the time of the letter at the head of this post, Nungovich’s empire numbered eight establishments, including the Savoy Hotel, also in Cairo, which he built in 1898, the San Stefano in Alexandria, which he bought in 1900, and the Mena House out by the Pyramids, which he acquired in 1904.

hotel_dangleterre

By the early years of the 20th century – boom years for Egypt – Nungovich’s interests had outgrown the hotel business, and he was speculating heavily in land, property and shares. The slump when it came, came quickly. The panic of 1907 began in New York but the shock reached even Egypt, where shares on the stock market plummeted. Millions were lost and lives ruined. A no-longer wealthy George Nungovich suffered a heart attack in summer 1908 and died. His hotel empire passed into the stewardship of a protégé, Auguste Wild – his name appears as General Manager on the letterhead above – before being bought out by Charles Baehler.

The Angleterre didn’t make it that far. It had never been a particularly glamorous hotel. Located away from the hum of the Azbekiya it appealed to a serious and sober clientele, and it provided them with spacious apartments rather than just bedrooms (in the letter, the author refers to the ‘doors of our flat’). Gertrude Bell stayed here in 1911. I don’t know the exact date of its closure but the last reference I’ve found to the hotel is in 1914. Many hotels failed to survive the lack of guests caused by World War I and the slowness of tourism to return in its aftermath, and I’m guessing this was the fate that befell the Angleterre. The building still survives – here it is:

Angleterre building

If you compare this photograph with the postcard above, you can just about recognise the Angleterre under all the clutter. A clothes store occupies the space that was the front terrace and portico, and the other street façade has been obliterated at ground and first-floor level by more shop fronts and ugly, ill-mannered signage. Perhaps the name of the man who was once called ‘the Napoleon of hoteliers’, George Nungovich, means nothing any more, but really, no building should be treated with such disrespect.

16 Comments

Filed under Hotels then and now