Stepping through the immense front doors of the Alma Schlosshotel im Grunewald, an overwhelming sense of the building’s colourful and intriguing history is immediately evident. Painstakingly restored, this Baroque classical structure’s stories are as much a part of the design as the gleaming parquet floors and pressed ceilings.
West of the German capital, Berlin, in an area called Grunewald, this luxury five-star hotel started as a private palace – originally called the Palais von Pannwitz – and was built 100 years ago by Dr Walther von Pannwitz, the private lawyer to the last German emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Walther and his second wife Catalina Roth – a beautiful, wealthy heiress then in line to inherit impressive family estates in Argentina – moved to Berlin in 1910 to live surrounded by an enviable art collection and a life befitting their high-society standards of opulence and beauty;
and what high standards they were.
“Dr Walther von Pannwitz planned and designed the palace himself,” says Sara Torralvo-Castro, the general manager of the hotel, which is now owned by Spanish company Alma Hotels. “It was built around the couple’s impressively vast art collection, most of which can still be seen here. And the interiors were designed by 30 different Parisian artists.”
The detail used within the palace, whose first guest was Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, is dizzying. Beneath soaring ceilings held aloft by intricately carved wooden walls depicting smiling cherubs and musical instruments, a feast of French Baroque design awaits. Eighteenth-century wall mouldings and plaster friezes framed by striped silk wallpaper in berry and chocolate hues meet masterful stone sculptures in the form of a spiral staircase and fireplace.
When Sara reveals that the construction and interior design of the villa cost ten million Gold Marks – the currency used then, and a staggering amount even for the time – it’s no surprise. “Special architectural features, unusual even then, include double ceilings, a jagged cornerstone and Baroque-style front gates,” she says. “Some of the public rooms reflect the style of Louis XIV and there was more gold leaf used here than in any other private Berlin home.” Von Pannwitz’s extravagant style is evident in other architectural elements too. The main marble staircase was inspired by the Palazzo Gondi in Florence, with the lion on the banister – said to symbolise the power of the emperor – taken from a Gothic-style house in Nauen, Germany. The intricately carved spiral stone staircase that leads to what was Catalina’s room is said to be inspired by one at Chartres Cathedral in France.
In 1951, well-known German hotelier Wolfgang Gehrhus transformed the palace into a hotel with stars like Marilyn Monroe and Romy Schneider soon visiting. German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld was hired in 1991 to transform the space using a style he calls ‘reform architecture’. Blending modern amenities with traditional German design elements, the redesign was finished in 1994 and Lagerfeld was given a suite – decorated in his own style – which guests were allowed to stay in when he wasn’t there. Today, the room – which costs €2,000 (Dh9,500) per night – is called The Grunewald Suite and still houses a treasure trove of Lagerfeld’s personal possessions. “This is one of our most popular suites,” Sara reveals. “I think people like the idea of sleeping in the room that Lagerfeld did.”
As for Alma’s contribution to the hotel’s interiors, Sara says, “Our design philosophy is ‘less is more’, so when we bought it in October 2006 we restored the original architectural elements and then added simple yet luxurious contemporary furniture by Becara in royal-inspired hues. We also placed well-known contemporary artwork alongside the older pieces to give it a modern yet elegant feel. Lagerfeld’s suite was not changed.”
Today the hotel continues to attract high-profile people, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the band Muse, Joe Cocker and Henry Kissinger. “Kate Winslet stayed in the Library Suite with her family for two months while filming The Reader,” Sara says. “And members of the von Pannwitz family still visit the hotel today.”