Renovation is never easy, but when it’s being carried out on a multi million-dollar property that is hundreds of years old and a cultural icon… the pressure is really on. That was the deal at the Galle Face Hotel. Zara Horner has more
More than 150 years after its debut on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s grand dame Galle Face Hotel has emerged from a 30-month long restoration of 72 rooms and suites, restaurants and bars, lobby, ballrooms and executive lounge.
The current restoration is the most significant ever for the iconic property, which was opened in 1864 by four British entrepreneurs. Its north wing rooms have been “completely reimagined”; an ocean view executive lounge, the 25-metre Long Room has been added; and a new conservatory with towering arched doors now links the grand and jubilee ballrooms.
“With this restoration, we believe the property will resume its standing as one of the most storied hotels in all Asia,” says hotel chairman, Sanjeev Gardiner.
Many sources point to the Galle Face as the oldest hotel east of the Suez still in operation.
Its handwritten guest book includes a long list of heads of state and royalty, as well as actors, authors and other celebrities. An on-site museum displays the car Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Phillip drove when he lived on the island then known as Ceylon.
Remnants of the hotel’s past can be found throughout, from images of famous guests and vintage photographs of the property, to the original crockery, silver and glassware on display in cabinets.
The hotel last refurbished the south wing in 2006, and is now embarking on a complementary, albeit lower-impact redressing of those 84 rooms.
Although both wings are fully operational, the restored north wing commands centre stage.
The restoration stripped every room to the bone, and brought back each with striking new interiors and classic mahogany furnishings. Stylish grey marble cases the bathroom walls. Private balconies with sea views now jut from 19 rooms. The room sizes range from 26 to 60 square metres and studios feature a separate living room and workspace.
In addition, Galle Face Hotel unveiled its pièce de résistance, the Empress Eugenie Suite. Named for one of the hotel’s most illustrious guests, this 120-square metre signature suite’s 60-sqare metre terrace “consumes the roof of the hotel’s iconic carriage porch, a restored architectural feature that pays homage to the structure’s original façade.”
The ballrooms, verandah restaurant (doubled in size), a newly cultivated croquet lawn and poolside bar and terrace have all been included in the restoration while the north wing’s original high-ceilinged lobby, which features Corinthian columns, 17th century Dutch colonial chairs, and a wall-length terracotta mural of traditional Sri Lankan imagery have been lovingly restored.
The hotel is so proud of the results history tours for in-house guests have been launched. The half-hour tour unveils hidden art from a famous painter ushers guests into storied spaces not normally open to guests, and shares numerous tales of famous visitors.
“Over the last century and a half we have been the setting for historic events, both in fiction and in real life, hosted numerous famous visitors from royalty to movie stars, and we have more than our fair share of stories to tell,” says Antony Paton, the hotel’s general manager.
“These tours are designed to share those stories and give guests a taste of old Ceylon and the hotel.”
A cannonball from 1845 that misfired during artillery practice and crashed into the hotel (then a boarding house) is also on display in the museum. Each year in March the hotel hosts the cannonball run along the Galle Face Green to commemorate the incident.
“It has always been our long-term plan to bring the hotel back to the grandeur of its heyday,” Paton says. “We started the restoration of the south wing of the hotel in 1997, when the country was still in the grip of civil war, so it was a somewhat risky move. The 84 rooms were completely refurbished, along with the 1864 restaurant. We also added a spa, on-site museum, and meeting and conference facilities.”
The south wing rebuild was completed in 2006 and in 2013 it was decided to close the north wing for restoration.
“The last refurbishment of that space was in the 1970s, so it was time for a facelift. Now that’s complete we’re focusing on the south wing again.
“With our ‘perfect room’ project we’re upgrading five rooms at a time – polishing floors, repainting, varnishing furniture etc. So far we’ve refurbished 45 out of the 84 rooms,” Paton explains.
Wanting “to make changes that honoured the hotel’s history, whilst keeping with modern times,” was the focus. For example, “The original building had a carriage porch but it had been removed. We looked at vintage images when planning the restoration and this was one of the key architectural features that we wanted to reinstate,” Paton says.
“The hotel’s grand ballroom was once the city’s most happening nightspot. We decided to keep to the original, classic design but add state-of-the-art lighting and more soundproofing to better serve our guests. Back in the day the parties used to get pretty loud. So loud in fact that guests couldn’t hear the air raid sirens over the music during WWII.”
By his own admission the brief to the designers and architects was complicated and required expertise as it had huge structural and design implications added to which was a desire to recreate some of the earlier original interior design features. The brief was also to retain the heritage feel of the hotel whilst ensuring the modern conveniences today’s guests expect.
The construction was carried out by a local company and was chosen not only because they are Sri Lankan but also for their experience and expertise in dealing with old buildings.
The design team Ong&Ong from Singapore had strong ties with the iconic Raffles Hotel. “We have had a consultant from the Raffles Hotel Company assisting us throughout the restoration,” Paton says.
The hotel’s kitchens were also completely refitted and refurbished, while the rebuilt Sea Spray restaurant opened at the beginning of April, and all the front facing grounds were re-landscaped. An additional car park for 70 cars has been built underneath the main entrance.
“For those guests who remember the hotel previously, the reaction has been ‘Wow!’” Paton is pleased to report. “For thosewho have arrived for the first time, the reaction has been very similar. The general comment is that we have carried out the restoration with a great deal of consideration and care.”
Paton’s favourite room now the grand ballroom. “It has been restored beautifully and considering its history, the room has a charm and elegance all of its own. The museum and conference centre are thriving areas and the museum itself lends very well to many of the cocktail parties that we hold.”
Another step back in time has been a resurrection of the croquet lawn which is proving very popular, but Paton concedes this may have something to do with the three different Pimms cocktails the hotel’s mixologist has invented. The hotel was the first place in Sri Lanka to receive a case of Pimms back in the day.
Paton is understandably proud of the results, and excited for the future. “We have a very good forward booking schedule and have developed a full food and beverage programme for this year where we will have visiting guest chefs, wine makers and various food festivals taking place. We also have a number of events planned including the canon ball run, and French Culinary week.”
From June this year the hotel started working with hospitality management and building solutions provider Louis T Collection