Brussels, Saturday 15 November 1902. A royal cortege led by King Leopold II of Belgium was heading back through Rue Royale or Koningstraat from Sainte-Gudule Cathedral where a ceremony was held commemorating the recent death (19 September 1902) of Queen Marie Henriette of Belgium. King Leopold II would normally ride the third carriage, but this time, for some unknown reason, he opted for the first carriage.
Gennaro Rubino (or Rubini) waited patiently for his chance to prove his extreme anarchist beliefs. He mingled with the crowd in front of the Bank of Brussels in Rue Royale and when the cortège passed before him, fired three shots at the third carriage, slightly wounding the sole occupier, Count Charles John d’Oultremont, the Grand Marshal of the Royal Court. Rubino was immediately disarmed and handed to the police who only managed with great difficulty to keep him away from the lynching hands of an angry crowd. The court condemned Rubino to life imprisonment where he died on March 14, 1918.
Had Rubino succeeded in his devilish plot, King Leopold’s drive to enhance many buildings in his realm, giving rise to the epithet ‘builder king’, would have been severed. And certainly, the object of this article, the Hotel Astoria, would not have materialised seventeen years later in 1909. Leopold II was the catalyst spark which gave life to this hotel; he died shortly after on 1 December 1909.
The 1910 Brussels International Fair
The Brussels International Fair of 1910 was fast approaching. The previous World Fair held in Brussels some thirteen years earlier indicated that this would be another enormous attraction. And it was. Dedicated to science, the arts, industry and trade, the 1910 Fair drew about 13 million visitors from 23 April to 1 November and attracted the participation of 26 different countries. The Fine Arts included exhibitions of the highest level, displaying works of iconic artists like Rodin, Monet, Renoir and Matisse. Obviously, the glut of visitors required as many hotels as possible, especially in the vicinity. It is loudly rumoured that three years in advance, in 1907, King Leopold himself suggested to the owners of Hotel Mengelle to replace it with an attractive new hotel to accommodate VIPs and crowned heads who would be visiting this international fair.
Originally, Monsieur B. Mengelle owned a boarding house, at 35-37 Rue de Association (Block B coloured yellow in plan). In 1865 he purchased land, fronting Rue Royale, at the back of this property. (Block A coloured in red). Mengelle commissioned the well-established Architect Léon Suys to build a new hotel on both blocks, which carried the family name Hotel Mengelle. That hotel in new classic style which attracted many distinguished patrons also served as a Family Pension during winter.
The involvement of high calibre Architect Léon Suys in the Mengelle Hotel proves the high standard of that hotel. Suys had the architectural profession running in his veins since Leon’s father was architect to King Leopold I, father of Leopold II.
Monsieur Mangelle’s daughter, Martha, married a soldier Raphaël Devillers and it was this couple who rebuilt a more refined hotel in lieu of the Mengelle Hotel to cater for the influx of visitors for the International Fair. And this is how Hotel Astoria was born.
Yet, though almost everyone mirrors this story, Ellis Chadwick, in her book In the footsteps of the Brontes (1971), offers a somewhat different story and slightly mixes up the provenance, also suggesting that the architect was Cluysenaar. However, biographies of this Architect Cluysenaar do not include Hotel Astoria as one of his works, unlike Architect Henri Van Dievoet who is regularly credited with being the architect of this hotel.
In his 1986 book, Historical and anecdotal dictionary of the streets of Brussels, Jean d’Osta, writes, that the design of architect Van Dievoet, produced “a spacious, solid, proud, comfortable, aristocratic hotel. The entrance hall, built on the site of the former post-trunk relay, was particularly impressive by its size, its marble, its palm trees, its large polychrome glass roof. The furniture of its 108 rooms or ‘suites’ was of rare wood and the carpets came from the Orient. There was hot water everywhere, electric chandeliers, and two elevators, which are still very rare. In short, the Mengelle family had, it was said, to receive financial support in high places.” What were those high places which are being hinted? Royal assistance? King Leopold’s direct assistance? This has been loudly rumoured by many during the years.
Architect Dievoet’s involvement was further confirmed on 21 September 2000, in the Decree of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, which classified as monument the street facade, roof and certain parts of the interior of Hotel Astoria at 101A, 101B 101C 103, 103 A, B and C in Brussels: ‘This prestigious Beaux-Arts style hotel for tourists was built in 1907 according to the plans of the architect H. Van Dievoet…’
The said document of 2000 (in French and Flemish Dutch) makes fine reading as it graphically describes quite graphically the part of Hotel Astoria to be protected:
“This prestigious Beaux-Arts style hotel for tourists was built in 1907 according to the plans of the architect H. Van Dievoet. It was originally the Mengelle family guesthouse, which was already well known at the time. Its location in the rue Royale, in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Palace and the Palace of the Nation, was indeed very well located. The hotel counted many aristocrats and diplomats in its clientele. The guesthouse soon proved to be too small. In anticipation of the 1910 World’s Fair, the owner decided to demolish the complex and replace it with a larger, more prestigious hotel, similar to some existing establishments, such as the Metropole and Continental hotels. In order to realise his project, Mr. Mengelle took his architect to draw his inspiration from abroad. The imposing building has five levels and an attic floor. The distribution of volumes has been realised in a very rational way, with a light well surrounded by four wings. The central reception hall on the ground floor also receives light through a flat glass roof, which was originally a stained glass dome.
The facade is made of natural stone and bluestone. It has three fronts with heavy balconies, crowned by curved pediments. The monumental entrance, in the centre, is flanked by two Ionic granite pillars under a balcony supported by heavy brackets and surmounted by imposing ornamental vases. The name Hotel Astoria is inscribed above the entrance. On the street side, the building has six storefronts with attractive rounded windows and a mezzanine.
The original interior, much of which has been preserved, is luxuriously finished with precious materials, natural stone, marble, stained glass and gold stucco. It is characterised by a rich monochromatic décor in the neo-Louis XVI style, enhanced by gilding and beautiful double glass doors. Large mirrors accentuate the impression of space. Upon entering the building, the visitor is greeted at the reception desk. Then he enters the imposing central hall (lobby) with its colonnade. To the left is the monumental staircase, connected on the second floor to a charming gallery decorated with stained glass. The main staircase is a copy of the one in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. Opposite the staircase is the restaurant flanked by the bar, furnished with authentic elements from a Wagon-Lit dining car. Finally, the Waldorf Room with its gallery, the Carlton Room, the Blue Room and the Bridge Room are also noteworthy.
The Astoria Hotel is one of the few prestigious European hotels dating from the turn of the century that have survived to the present day.
The building was built in view of the 1910 World’s Fair, which was to attract a large crowd of tourists. Brussels already had some luxury hotels like the Metropole and the Continental, located in the lower part of the city. This hotel was meant to rival the two existing hotels in both elegance and comfort. Its location in the upper part of the city was also favourable and interesting for tourists. It was indeed located in the prestigious Royal Street, between the Royal Palace and the Botanical Garden. In the back, the Notre-Dame-aux-Neiges district had just been renovated and had many middle-class houses.
In the 19th century the hotel had already acquired a certain notoriety under the name of Family Pension Mengelle, frequented by aristocrats and diplomats.
The imposing building, built in Beaux-Arts style with Louis XVI elements, is typical of the beginning of the century. It is also an important milestone in the monumental axis of the Rue Royale and completes its patrimonial value.
The hotel has a rich history and has hosted famous guests such as Emperor Hirohito and Winston Churchill. It still retains its charm and luxury of the past and is still regularly visited by guests who love beautiful heritage.
The Astoria Hotel is to be protected as a monument because of its artistic and historical value
Henri Van Dievoet hailed from a noble family of Brussels, with several ancestors having distinguished themselves as goldsmiths, sculptors and architects. He distinguished himself in his studies, and his profession as architect immediately indicated an outstanding future. He won the Grand Prix d’architecture of the City of Brussel, and the Prix de Rome. He designed the Royal Military Academy, and amongst other shining examples, also designed the Hotel Astoria in 1909. For many years, he held the post of Secretary of the Central Society of Architecture of Brussels, was Professor at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and taught architectural drawing and perspective at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Gilles. He died on 24 April 1931.
Rue Royale, in French, meaning Royal Street, and Koningsstraat, in Dutch, meaning King’s Street, cuts through the heart of Brussels and is the address of some very interesting places, which patrons of the Astoria Hotel would certainly appreciate.
To mention a few:
The Royal Palace of Brussels, is the official palace of the Belgian King and Queen, though it is not used as a royal residence which is situate in Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels. The Brussels Palace is where the King grants audiences and deals with affairs of state. It also accommodates the Grand Marshal of the Court, the King’s Head of Cabinet, the Head of the King’s Military Household and the Intendant of the King’s Civil List. Receptions are held in the State Rooms and also accommodates foreign Heads of State during official visits.
The Centre for Fine Arts often referred to as BOZAR, is a multi-purpose cultural venue. It houses up to 10 exhibitions a year, which have included works of great artists, such as Frida Kahlo, Lucas Cranach and leading Venetian and Flemish Masters.
Brussels’ Park, sprawling over 32 acres, is the largest urban public park in the centre of Brussels and was designed and laid out between 1776 and 1783. It is home to several public buildings and monuments such as the Royal Park Theatre, and the Vauxhall, which is a meeting and concert venue.
The Botanical Garden of Brussels, still embellished by historical statues and a large collection of different species of trees, now serves as a cultural centre.
St. Mary’s Royal Church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, is an interesting church which serves as a parish church. It associated with Queen Louise-Marie, first Queen of the Belgians.
The style of Hotel Astoria is neo-Louis VI or Louis Seize. This style developed during the reign of Louis VI of France (1774-1793) and left its mark on painting, sculpture, decoration, architecture and furniture. It was mainly influenced by new discoveries of Roman architecture and works of art, especially in Herculaneum and Pompeii. Its orderly expression was a reaction against the busy, vivid movements of the preceding French Baroque period. Example of a leading sculptor in this style is Jean Antoine Houdon; the two leading cabinet makers were Jean-Henri Riesener and Bernard van Risenburgh; and Jacques-Louis David mirrors this style in his painting.
There was a re-appearance of antique motifs, such as trophies, greek friezes, and stylised acanthus leaves. Proportions are often derived from classical works. Structures have plain facades with minimal embellishments. Though there was a hailing back to the classical art, designers reproduced certain details in classical style but in the vast majority of cases did not copy entire buildings. Two examples of Louis XVI architecture are Place de la Concord, and Pantheon (Saint Genevieve), both in Paris.
Naturally Greek columns take prominence: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The last mentioned is by far the most ornate and carries a capital decorated with two rows of acanthus leaves and four scrolls. It has been Corinthia’s logo from its inception. Fate seems to have decreed that Corinthia becomes an important part in the story of this hotel. In fact, Corinthian capitals have always decorated its lobby, and they now welcome Corinthia’s recent participation in the life of this iconic hotel.
More recent history of Hotel Astoria
After a long period of offering sterling service to VIPs, including Emperor Hirohito, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, former US President Dwight Eisenhower, and artists Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, Hotel Astoria changed hands a couple of times and has been closed since 2007. Corinthia acquired 50% holding in 2016.
Plans were drawn up to expand the property by two floors, revamp it and get construction moving again. Progress has been registered but Covid-19 naturally restrained the process which, however, is now gaining impetus. The hotel will operate under the name Corinthia Grand Hotel Astoria, Brussels
What stage has been reached and what will be the end-result?
The contract for PHASE ONE of the hotel, which covers the demolition, foundations and construction to watertight finish, has been signed and works on site have commenced.
Once completed, in 2023, the property will comprise 126 bedrooms/suites with banqueting/dining and spa facilities.
IHI owns 50% of this hotel, and all of Corinthia sister companies are involved in the venture: Corinthia Developments International Limited is contracted to deliver the project, QP is the project manager, whilst Corinthia Hotels Limited is the operator. This is another example of Corinthia’s ability to use its multi-pronged approach for a harmonious wholistic achievement.
A main contractor has since been selected and work has started on transforming the landmark Grand Hotel Astoria into a 126-key luxury Corinthia hotel.
At the moment the work is connected with structures, so works such as underpinning, (solid foundation laid below ground level to support or strengthen a building) excavation, demolition, façade retention (where the external face of a building is preserved and a new structure is built behind ) and site clearance are taking place.
The site placard offers a graphic idea of all the leading hands on deck:
I think it was Benjamin Franklin who once said: ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person.’ Insider Plus contacted Mr Michael Izzo, Chief Financial Officer, Corinthia, and who, amongst several other onerous duties, is also Managing Director for investments in Brussels. We asked him about the latest developments on site and the near future. His informative response was generous and fast as he walked us through the works.
“We are pleased with progress to date. From the start, we had voiced our aim to provide the best hotel in Brussels. We have remained steadfast on this and I can assure you the end-result will be another Corinthia jewel,” commented Mr Michael Izzo as he proudly led us through the current activities on site.
1. BLOCK A (historical building on rue Royale) :
The retention structure of the listed façade on Rue Royale has been finalised, and hoarding is being completed as a support for Corinthia’s graphic design & banners.
Underpinning (solid foundation laid below ground level to support or strengthen a building) in the basement are currently at 30% completion and ongoing. Base area for Tower crane 2 is being prepared, and the listed areas have been protected with waterproof concrete slab on top, whilst dismantling works in these areas are carried on with utmost care and professionalism.
Items like stained glass and large chandeliers are being stored and registered. We are carrying structural investigations and unveiling the existing canopy structure behind the mouldings around the main glass canopy, and we are crash-testing the existing structure. Excavation works have started.
2. BLOCK B (4 mansions on rue de l’Association) :
The underpinning works are completed at 90%, whilst pinning under shear walls (structural panels that can resist lateral forces acting on it) and party walls have been completed. Some part of the street/façade has been put on hold for reason of site accessing and removal of a fuel tank .
3. BLOCK C (New build and Specialty restaurant on rue Royale)
The area currently serves for main traffic access from and out to rue Royale, storage
and working area for truck & mobile cranes.
The construction summer leave starts on the 9th of July and activities on site will be resuming in August.
Extended demolitions will go on, aiming for completion by mid-October simultaneously with the underpinning works. Tower cranes 2 & 3 will be installed on site by mid-September
Depollution (cleaning or reducing of pollution) of soil will start early August whereas excavation will proceed until end of October. The demolition of the existing floor slab in Block C is due for end of October.
Package B will cover the restoration works, MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering) and finishes. Depending on the award of Package B by end of August, MEP works would start in October
And completion date? The aim is to finish the works by the end of 2023 with an opening early 2024.
Mr Izzo’s face shone. ‘I am so much looking forward to show off this work of art which will certainly enjoy its pride of place in the hearts of all Bruxellois who have eagerly awaited the resurgence of this hotel. Corinthia is proud to be a main actor in this dream come true.’