Tag Archives: George Nungovich

Graphics before graphic designers

Although the term was not coined until 1920s, graphic design existed long before there were any graphic designers. The art of combining text and pictures for a range of printed material has been at the heart of the printer’s craft for hundreds of years. While the early pioneers of printers focused on books, others began using their presses for more humble uses, from handbills, signage, trade cards and timetables to popular reading material, games, advertisements and packaging. From Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700–1914 by David Jury (Thames & Hudson, 2012)

The same printers that provided Egypt’s hotels with their fabulous posters and luggage labels, also designed some terrific letterheads and decorated envelopes (click and click again to enlarge).

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The other, other Savoy

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I’ve posted previously on Cairo’s Savoy hotel, at one time the flagship for George Nungovitch’s Egyptian hotel empire, here. I’ve also mentioned in passing the Luxor Savoy, here, which used to stand on the east bank, a little north of the Luxor Temple, and survived, albeit in a sorry state, until the 1970s when it was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished to make way for a shopping development. But there was a third Savoy. This was in Aswan and by all accounts was quite a grand affair. Here’s Amédée Baillot de Guerville writing in the first years of the 20th century: “At Assouan there are three excellent hotels, two of which are large modern houses. The Cataract, belonging to Cook, is admirably looked after by M. Pagnon (proprietor of the hotels at Luxor) … On the Elephantine Island, in the midst of a charming  garden, there is another palatial building, the Savoy Hotel, belonging to the Anglo-American Company, and which enjoys equal popularity with the Cataract.”

(The third hotel was the Grand, which was apparently misnamed.)

The Anglo-American was a recently formed Nile steamer company, which came into being toward the end of the 1880s and entered into direct competition with the well established Thomas Cook & Son passenger services. Naturally enough, having transported boatloads of tourists up the Nile, the last thing the new company wanted was to hand them over to its rival to accommodate, so the Anglo-American took to building hotels of its own. Its Savoy was a palatial, boomerang-shaped structure with accommodation for 80 guests and a riverfront setting among the palm groves at the northern tip of Elephantine. There was a magnificent dining hall, bar, ladies’s lounge and a billiard room. Any inconvenience arising from being separated from the town by water was more than made up for by a luscious terraced garden coloured with golden-plumed parkinsonia, crimson poinsettia, and bushes of chrysanthemums which had to be drowned every day to keep them alive; a long hedge of oleanders overhung the river.

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Officially opened on 20 January 1900, the hotel was affiliated to the Nungovich Hotel Company, which supplied its manager, a Mr Brey, formerly of the Savoy Hotel, Cairo, and handpicked the staff. In 1905, the hotel became part of the Upper Hotels Company, of which Nungovich was a founder board member and shareholder.

Thomas_Cook-Sudan approaching Aswan (1930)

Although I’ve never heard of anyone staying there, the Aswan Savoy survived until modern times, only being demolished in the 1970s. It was replaced by a new Oberoi hotel, notable for being the worst eyesore in the whole of Egypt (and that is a hotly contested title); it recently changed hands and is now the Mövenpick Resort Aswan, although it still looks as hideous. (With thanks to Cornelius Von Pilgrim)

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The New Hotel

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I recently managed to acquire the interesting photo, above. If it looks familiar but at the same time something seems slightly off, that would be because you might recognize the view but not necessarily the hotel. The scene is Cairo’s Opera Square – in most photos and postcards the large building across the empty expanse of carriage way would be the well-known Grand Continental/Continental-Savoy (see pic below). Except this a very early photograph, dating from the 1880s, and what you are looking at is the forerunner of that hotel, the New Hotel.

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Here are extracts from a description of the hotel from the Scientific American magazine dated 2 September 1871.

As the opening of the Suez Canal is turning men’s minds towards Egypt, our readers may be glad to know something of the Oriental Hotel Company’s new hotel at Cairo, in Egypt, which has recently been opened for the convenience of travelers to the Nile, and by the overland route to India, as also for the reception and accommodation of the many invalids who find benefit from a winter residence in Egypt.

The hotel is beautifully situated, facing the gardens of the Ezbekieh and the Rue de Boulac, and commands a good view of the Pyramids. The foundation stone was laid with great ceremony by His Excellency Nubar Pasha, Minister of Pubic Works, on the 10th of January, 1865, being the anniversary of the accession of his Excellency the Viceroy.

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The hotel, when completed, is intended to form a quadrangle, with a large open garden in the centre. The building is Franco-Italian in style, and has been erected from the designs under the superintendence of Mt. Christopher G. Wray of London, who, from a long residence in India as an officer of the Public Works Department had knowledge that enabled him to arrange an hotel suitable to the requirements of the climate.

It is constructed with stone from the neighbouring quarries, with terra cotta enrichments, which were sent from London, as also were all the woodwork and fittings. The hotel is surrounded on all floors by wide verandahs, affording a passageway around the building and supplying a comfortable lounge. The table d’hôte room is supplied with an orchestra for evening entertainments, and is laid with parquetrie, so as to afford a dancing floor. The various apartments throughout are supplied with Bregnet’s patent electric bells.

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Those verandahs that offered guests fine views over the city also ensured the sun never warmed the interior; one traveller wrote, “We found the hotel exceedingly cold and damp, and we were made ill by it”.

What’s also fascinating about the photo at the top of this post is how undeveloped Cairo is. This is the period in which what’s now Downtown was first being developed; look at the map below, from 1878, and the street and squares that define modern Cairo are already in place, but the areas between them are plots, most empty, some with villas in large gardens.

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The New Hotel lasted until the 1890s, when it was pulled down and replaced by the similarly sized and proportioned Grand Hotel, which within a year of opening would be bought by George Nungovich and renamed the Grand Continental.

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Then and now: the Eden Palace

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Although it was hotel for only around 20 years, and the last guests checked out 93 years ago, the name of the Eden Palace lingers in Cairo – it’s there in large letters on the pediment of a corner building on modern Khazindar Square, across from the Sednaoui department store. It’s passed every day by thousands of people but likely noticed only by a very few.

The hotel opened around 1900 in a grand new building raised on the site formerly occupied by the original Hotel d’Angleterre, the first hotel run by George Nungovich (see earlier post). It was a good site, overlooking the Ezbekiyya Gardens; guests in the better rooms would wake to birdsong, and a view of trees and greenery when they opened the shutters. It had 145 rooms, with a lift and steam heating. Shepheard’s, the epicentre of the city’s social scene was just a stone’s throw away. Unlike Shepheard’s, which attracted a fashionable crowd, the Eden Palace catered to businessmen and long-term residents, who would sacrifice a little glamour for cheaper room rates – the 1914 edition of Baedekers gives Shepheard’s charging 80 piastres per night, same as the nearby Continental, while the Semiramis charged 90 pias and the Savoy 90-120 pias; by comparison, the Eden Palace was just 50 pias.

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eden palace card

An insight into the kind of person who stayed at the Eden Palace comes from a letter held by the Albany Institute of History and Art in upstate New York. Dated March 1909, it’s from Samuel W. Brown, a noted local businessman in the coffee, spice and mustard trade who was also on the board of trustees of the Institute. It’s addressed to Cuyler Reynolds, the curator of the Institute, and it concerns the attempt to acquire a pair of Egyptian mummies on the cheap:

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My Dear Mr. Reynolds

I received your letter with enclosures as stated I called at the U.S. Consulate several times but did not find Mr. Berry; later on learned that he was not connected with the Consulate but was a “Judge” of the Tribunal Court here. I called at his hotel then but did not see him there. He called on me at my hotel last evening. He did not hesitate to inform me that he could do little to assist me as he was not acquainted with the Director of the Museum. I am at a loss to understand why you should expect to get any of the Museum Curios for nothing. The Museum is a Government affair and everything going out of the Museum must be paid for at a fixed price whether for a museum or private collection. These people are not in the Museum business for their health, and I fully learned of that fact when I was in Cairo four years ago.

I called on the Director the following day and made my wants Known to him and have secured two Mummy’s [sic] which I am having packed for shipment. I have written to Mr. Ten Eyck the details of the transaction and I hope that they will be in Albany before I reach home.

We are having a delightful time Bright warm weather.

Sincerely Yours

Samuel W. Brown

Whatever his frustrations, Brown was successful and the pair of mummies he brought back form the centerpiece of the Institute’s Ancient Egypt collection until today.

While the front entrance of the Eden Palace was on Sharia al-Genaineh, facing the Ezbekiyya, the back door let out onto Wagh al-Birket, which at this time was notoriously a street full of brothels. This can’t have done much for the hotel’s reputation. And when Cairo became flooded with British and Commonwealth soldiers following the outbreak of World War I, it seems the Eden Palace might have taken on the character of some sort of Wild West saloon:

“We had our first pay day on Christmas Eve and leave was general and everybody went straight into Cairo. Our own party of four really disgraced outselves, AWOL for three days, finally and very ignominiously dragged out of the Eden Palace Hotel in the early hours of the morning by the picket and made to walk it home into the guard tent.”

Letter from an Australian soldier quoted in Peter Hart’s Gallipolli

Troops in the Birka by Edward Ardizzone, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Troops in the Birka by Edward Ardizzone, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The hotel seemingly never quite recovered, and trade post-World War I was sufficiently bad that when, in 1920, British Army HQ decided to vacate the Savoy for budgetary reasons, the owners of the Eden Palace made them an attractive offer. The army didn’t stay long in residence but after the uniforms left the place never returned to use as a hotel.

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The building today is in a wretched state, but with its arcaded pavements and low-rise, Italianate architecture, if your imagination can dust things off a little, then this dilapidated corner still gives a good impression of what the city once looked like when the Ezbekiyya was a pleasure garden and birds still sang in Cairo squares.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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