London's fabled Savoy Hotel slated for renovation

French impressionist Claude Monet, actor Charlie Chaplin, and U.S. President Harry Truman all stayed in the same fifth-floor suite at London's famed Savoy Hotel.

Frank Sinatra delighted guests by playing on a white grand piano in the restaurant. And the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth II have danced on the ballroom's oak parquet floor.

Yet, after 118 years as the hotel of choice for many celebrities and visiting Americans, the Savoy needs a face lift. Starting today, the furnishings in Monet's suite, the piano Sinatra crooned from, and even the tiles of the Lancaster Ballroom floor will be put up for auction as part of an unprecedented renovation that has seen the hotel close for the first time.

The hotel is eager to soothe the concerns of some Savoy regulars that the auction or the $200 million, 16-month renovation could ruin the antique charm of the hotel, whose blend of Edwardian-period and art-deco style once earned it the moniker of "The Palace by the Thames."

The Savoy stayed open during the World War II blitz and survived it, as did guests who took refuge in its bomb shelter. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had war-cabinet meetings there. After the war, the Savoy hosted the most lavish coronation ball for Elizabeth when she became queen on June 2, 1953.

Kiaran MacDonald, the hotel's general manager, says the hotel will keep its "family jewels" — items such as Kaspar, the legendary statue of a black cat — while more artfully rearranging its hodge-podge blend of decors and upgrading heating, lighting and other infrastructure that had grown a bit musty over the years.

"It will continue to be the Savoy, but to a higher level of elegance," he says.

MacDonald says the hotel decided to sell some items that might not have much historic value, but could have sentimental meaning to people who wanted some of the "spirit of the Savoy."

Among items that will go to auction:

•Prints hanging in the Monet suite of two of the artist's paintings he did from the windows in Rooms 512 and 513: Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather and The Houses of Parliament. Each is estimated to go for $400 to $600, according to Charlie Thomas, who catalogued the Savoy's property for the sale for the auction house Bonhams.

•A red armchair decorated with monkeys from Room 408, where suspense director Alfred Hitchcock once stayed. Estimated going price: $600 to $1,000.

•A striped, yellow and gray sofa from Room 415, where actress Katherine Hepburn was once a guest, estimated to sell for $800 to $1,200.

•Two mahogany, bedside tables from Room 309, a room where Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde once slept, estimated to bring $600 to $1,000.

There are also dozens of bed headboards, umbrella stands, silver-plated trays, lamps and writing tables, curtains and coffee tables, and hundreds of teacups and saucers, soup plates and spoons.

Thomas, who estimates the sale will fetch about $2 million, says he wouldn't be surprised to see an American, perhaps from Beverly Hills, come in to buy up the Savoy's dance floor and re-install it in their own home.

"The very name, the Savoy, is the greatest name in hotels," Thomas says. "It's not just loved by people in London, it's almost a home away from home for many Americans."

The Savoy's American connections are strong.

One of its large ballrooms, used as a regrouping point for U.S. troops returning to the States at the end of World War I, was named the Abraham Lincoln Room after the U.S. government gratefully presented the hotel with a bust of the president.

The list of the Savoy's American guests is long, and reads like an A-Z of Tinseltown, sports-page, literary, musical and political lists from the Jazz Age on: Al Jolson, Josephine Baker, Babe Ruth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Robert De Niro and Andy Warhol.

Elizabeth Taylor had her first honeymoon there. Liza Minnelli announced her engagement to British actor Peter Sellers there. Movie cowboy Gene Autry took a bow with his horse, Champion, inside the hotel.

In the American Bar, there's an artist's fictional gathering of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson hoisting a glass along with actors Rita Hayworth, W.C. Fields, Marlene Dietrich, songwriter George Gershwin, and authors Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

There are photos of actors Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. On other walls are prints of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

"Everyone has something they are nostalgic about here," says Ruth Butterfield, a native of Ireland who hopes to purchase one of the hotel's night tables for the London home that she shares with her husband, Eric, a former Chrysler executive.

Butterfield, who has lived in London the last 15 years, used to meet American friends at the hotel's American Bar. She is concerned the renovation could damage the hotel's character.

"It's a lot of memories," she says. "It's sad to see it change."

The American Bar will remain untouched, as will the statue of Kaspar the cat, which joins meeting-goers or diners as an honorary "14th guest" when the number of people present is an unlucky 13.

"There are no price tags in the American Bar," MacDonald says. "Nothing is for sale from there. You should be able to walk into the hotel (after the renovation) and absolutely recognize it."

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