By Peter Higgins
Apr. 12 – In its 1920s and 30s heyday, the Peace Hotel, known as the Cathay Hotel until 1956, was considered the premier hotel of the Far East. Located along Shanghai’s famous riverfront promenade, the Bund, the establishment was the epitome of understated opulence and the premier place in the city to see and be seen.
The hotel was closed in 2007 for extensive renovations and will be known as the Fairmont Peace Hotel when it reopens later this year. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which is famous for its landmark hotels, hired Hirsch Bender Associates (HBA) to oversee renovations of the historic property located on the Bund. The firm has also been hired by Hilton Hotels Corporation to handle renovations of the former Shanghai Club at No. 2 The Bund, which will reopen as the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund in 2011.
According to HBA Principal Ian Carr, in recent years the Peace Hotel, “had become a time-warped and uninspiring hotel.” Fairmont is hoping that their ambitious investment will bring back the property’s former glamour and elegance by transforming the art deco gem into a global icon of the 21st Century.
Originally planned as an office, shopping and residential complex, historian Peter Hibbard, author of The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West, says that construction of the Cathay Hotel began in 1926. Victor Sassoon, the eccentric founder of Cathay Hotels, transformed the five-million-dollar project in 1928 when he altered the design to accommodate a hotel on the upper floors.
The Cathay Hotel opened its doors on August 1, 1929 at the heart of the International Settlement. Beyond the exquisite design of the building, the Cathay’s kitchen and its international group of chefs produced fine international cuisine with the world’s finest ingredients. The hedonistic Shanghailanders, as Shanghai’s expatriates were called, also found plenty of entertainment in the hotel.
Sassoon took up residence in the hotel himself and became a fixture on the Shanghai social scene. He threw extravagant and outrageous parties, which were attended by Shanghai’s social elite. The Cathay, and those who wined and dined inside of it, seemed naively impervious to the perils that lay outside of the city in the turbulent 1930s.
The good times were shattered on August 14, 1937 when two bombs were dropped right over the Cathay Hotel, one of which fell right into the top floor. According to Hibbard, there were 400 injured and about 150 dead. While the hotel remained open until 1951, war seriously affected its operations.
The Shanghai government officially opened the Peace Hotel, which encompassed both the former Cathay and Palace Hotels, in March of 1956. As the decades wore on, the hotel was unable to keep up with the times. However, Ian Carr says that HBA’s task is to restore the Peace Hotel’s place among the world’s finest hotels.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel will feature many dining and lounge concepts, including a deli café, the famous Peace Jazz Bar, sushi restaurant, wine and cigar lounge, Heritage Chinese restaurant, and the Peace Grill. A skylight Roman style pool and spa will be housed in a modern low-rise complex extension to the building and the Peace Hall, complete with original sprung timber dance floor, will be located on the eighth floor.
Carr says that the ultimate objective for the Fairmont Peace Hotel is to become a world-class hotel that balances, “historic appeal with contemporary luxury – and which contribute to the regeneration of The Bund.” The project is behind schedule and has pushed back its opening date. According to a representative of Fairmont, the hotel is expecting to be open for a private preview in May. There is no official word yet as to when the hotel will open for guests or what room rates will be.
While the Fairmont Peace Hotel will certainly open as an architectural gem, it remains to be seen whether or not it will be able to reestablish itself as a glamorous entertainment venue and residence. It will face stiff competition with other high-end venues throughout Shanghai, including those located closer to the heart of the city.