The Negresco Celebrates its Centenary - Treasures of Provence

The Negresco Celebrates its Centenary

100 years on, this emblematic hotel still stands proud on the seafront in Nice, and remains beloved by local and visitors alike.

If you have ever driven down or walked up the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, you will most probably have stopped for a minute or two in front of the mythic Negresco Hotel to stare up at its pink domed roof (allegedly inspired by the décolletage of the architect’s mistress), or to marvel at the doormen who are always dressed impeccably in frock-coats, knee-breeches and top hats, whatever the weather outside. The Negresco Hotel is famous the world over. It has featured on countless postcards and guidebook covers, is one of the most photographed buildings in the world and over the past 100 years, its pink and white façade has become an emblem of Nice and the French Riviera.

The Negresco’s history is long and star-studded, countless celebrities, heads of state and politicians have passed through its doors and the visitors’ book is a veritable “who’s who” of the great and the good of the 20th Century. It is also currently the only palace hotel to belong to a private owner in France and has been so for the last 56 years. Since it opened, the Negresco has played host to both the world’s most glamorous movie stars and to wounded French soldiers during the First World War, it has been the setting for both extravagant celebrations and illicit affairs, and its 6 floors are crammed full of antiques, art, and period furniture dating back from Louis XIII’s reign, right up to the 21st Century. 2012 and 2013 mark the 100 year centenary celebrations of the Negresco, a centenary which has been spread over two years as the hotel first opened in 1912, closed for a brief hiatus and then reopened and was inaugurated on the 8th January 1913 by its founder and namesake Henry Negresco.

Since the hotel first opened its doors to the public one hundred years ago, it has only known 3 owners: Henry Negresco, Gérard Marquet of the Marquet Group, and Jeanne Augier, whose father Jean-Baptiste Mesnage bought the hotel and then gave it to his daughter and her husband to manage.

Henry Negresco, the first owner and founder of the hotel was described by those who knew him as “an elegant man with a good head for business”. Negresco arrived on the Côte d’Azur in 1893 from Bucharest, Romania. The son of an inn-keeper and himself a gifted Tzigane violinist, he set off for Europe from Bucharest at the age of 15 and toured the major European capitals, playing his violin and learning the hotel trade. He worked his way up from kitchen hand to waiter, then head waiter to eventually become maître d’hôtel in the Helder Restaurant, Monte-Carlo in 1893. His natural gift for managing luxury establishments and his flair for languages (he spoke 6 languages fluently) meant that he was soon promoted to hotel manager and then left Monte Carlo to manage hotels in England, Belgium, Austria and Germany before returning to the Côte d’Azur to open his own establishment on the Promenade des Anglais.

Already owner of the restaurant at the Casino d’Enghien in Enghein-les-Bains where he spent most of his summers, Henry Negresco decided to use his experience of the luxury hotel trade and of working for fabulously wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Singers to build his own palace hotel. In 1904 during the renovations of the Casino d’Enghien restaurant, Negresco had met Edouard Niermans, a celebrated Dutch architect who had moved to France years before and who had already gained a certain notoriety in Paris, designing amongst other buildings the Moulin Rouge, the Théâtre Marigny and the Folies Bergère. Negresco had spoken to Niermans about his desire to open his own palace hotel in Nice, a project which interested Niermans and in 1909 Niermans and his family moved to Nice from Paris to start a new architectural agency on the Riviera. In the same year Negresco, whilst in Enghein-les-Bains for the summer, met Pierre Alexandre Darracq, an automobile manufacturer and cofounder of the “Darracq-Talbot” company, and persuaded him to come on-board as the chief financer of his luxury hotel project. With the backing of Darracq and with Niermans to design the building, Negresco’s plan to build his own hotel in Nice could finally begin.

After initially planning to renovate an older hotel on the Avenue Félix Faure, Negresco and Niermans then heard of a plot of land for sale on the Promenade des Anglais. The land belonged to a religious sect and was very close to the Villa de Masséna owned by the Prince de Rivoli, André d’Essling. After much negotiation, Darracq succeeded in buying the 6,482 m² plot in 1911 and Niermans immediately started drawing up plans for the new hotel. Negresco and Niermans then left Nice to tour Paris, London, Berlin, and Brussels, studying the grand hotels in each of these cities and making notes of the latest developments in luxury hotellerie.

Darracq, the project’s financial backer, insisted that the new hotel contained at least 400 bedrooms to make it financially cost-effective, and Negresco himself coming from a hotel background was interested in the world hidden away behind the scenes – his plans included a full floor of kitchens, breakfast kitchens, dessert kitchens, a dishwashing room, a laboratory for the wine sommelier, a bread room, a warming room, garages, a doctor’s office, and a dining room for servants travelling with their employers.

On the 6 June 1911, Pierre Alexandre Darracq filed a building permit with the city of Nice and work began on the new hotel. The initial opening of the hotel was to be held on the 1st November 1912, but the building work and several ensuing legal battles took much longer than expected, and the opening had to be pushed back until 1913.

However a rich American client, one Mr. Guerney, insisted on spending Christmas 1912 at the hotel, so a suite was prepared for him in the middle of the building site and the Negresco’s first ever guest stayed in the hotel in December 1912. After the work was completed, the Negresco then opened its doors on the 4th January 1913 with the third, fourth and fifth floors remaining shut until the inauguration on the 8th January 1913.

The inauguration was the event of the year in Nice, and amongst the crowds who came to marvel at the new hotel were seven European sovereigns and countless members of the aristocracy. The Negresco was an instant hit and the guests were amazed by their luxurious surroundings with private telephones in every room, electric light that could be turned on and off at the touch of a button, mink bedspreads on every bed, and a revolutionary heating and air conditioning system which also cleaned the air in the hotel by means of a steam turbine. The Negresco was a huge success, and by the 31st May 1913 the takings had already exceeded a million francs with a clear profit of 200,000 francs for Negresco and Darracq.

For two years the Negresco enjoyed huge popularity and became the place to stay for wealthy families visiting the Côte d’Azur, Negresco and Darracq recouped their investment and Niermans was feted for his “Ritz-style” hotel design. Then in 1914, the First World War intervened and the hotel was requisitioned by the French government along with the Hotel Ruhl, the Hotel de l’Impérial and Winter Palace, and was transformed into an auxiliary wartime hospital. The Negresco was renamed ‘Temporary Hospital N° 15’ and the first wave of injured soldiers arrived at the hotel in September 1914. Because of the sheer number of injured men, not only were the hotel bedrooms requisitioned but beds were set up in the corridors, hallways and dining rooms to accommodate the wounded. Negresco himself was pressed into service as hospital bursar and paid for an additional 100 beds for injured soldiers out of his own pocket, while his daughter also joined the war effort as the hospital librarian.

Temporary Hospital N° 15 was eventually relinquished back to Negresco in September 1915 but the 12 months in which it had been occupied by the military had wreaked havoc on the luxurious surroundings and the entire hotel had to be renovated before it could open its doors once again for the season. The golden age of luxury hotels was over on the Côte d’Azur, the aristocratic and wealthy families who had once wintered at the Negresco could no longer afford to do so, and Henry Negresco was ruined. The hotel remained open for the 1916-1917 season, but the tourists didn’t return to the Riviera as the hospitality industry had hoped, so the Negresco failed to make a profit. When the Armistice came in 1918, Henry Negresco made the difficult decision to sell his hotel to try and pay off his ever increasing debts and in 1920, Gérard Marquet, head of the Belgian Marquet group bought the Negresco from him.

Henry Negresco left the Riviera in 1920 and returned to Paris where he died two years later in 1922 at the age of 54, bankrupt and far from the hotel he loved.

From 1920 to 1957, the Hotel Negresco remained open under the ownership of the Marquet group. After 1945 and following the end of the Second World War, visitors started to return to the French Riviera, but instead of the aristocratic families and wealthy tycoons of the prewar years, during this period the Negresco’s clientele primarily consisted of short-stay tourists and businessman passing through Nice, and gradually the hotel started to decline.

In 1957 the Negresco was struggling to keep its doors open and the Marquet group decided to put it up for sale to try and recoup some of their losses. Shortly afterwards, Jeanne Augier, the daughter of a Breton butcher turned real estate developer Jean-Baptiste Mesnage, heard about the sale. Jeanne and her parents had moved to Nice from Brittany following her marriage to Niçois politician and businessman, Paul Augier, and after her father suffered a financial setback, 34 year old Jeanne took over the family business and started looking for property to invest in.

The faded Negresco building was just a few metres further down the Promenade des Anglais from the apartment where the Mesnage family were living at the time, and the hotel primarily interested Jeanne because it was the only building in Nice with a full sized lift. Jeanne’s mother had recently become paralyzed following a botched operation and the Negresco lift was wide enough to allow her mother to be taken outside while lying in her bed.

Jean-Baptiste Mesnage purchased the hotel in 1957, and for the next 8 years Jeanne, her husband and her father worked tirelessly to restore the Negresco to its former glory, whilst building a family apartment on the 6th floor of the hotel. Jeanne Augier was determined to create a home away from home for her guests, and she and her husband visited auction houses and galleries all over France purchasing over 3,000 works of art and antiques with which to furnish the Negresco.

The couple restored the glass dome in the Salon Royal which was reputedly designed by Gustave Eiffel and created 2 restaurants on the ground floor- Le Chantecler and La Rotonde, which was designed around an 18th century carousel complete with wooden horses. As the Negresco flourished once again, Jeanne Augier increased the number of employees from 76 to 260, and, from the 1960s onwards, the rich and famous began to flock to the Riviera once more to stay at the Negresco.

Guests of renown over the years have included Royalty- Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Ibn Saoud and the Shah of Iran all stayed at the Negresco as did film stars such as Ava Gardner, Catherine Deneuve, James Dean, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Marais, Grace Kelly, and Gina Lollobrigida.

Legendary stories about the Negresco in the 1960s and 1970s include Richard Burton once leaving a jewelry case with a diamond necklace he had purchased for Elisabeth Taylor in the hotel bar, James Brown spending a night chasing his wife up and down the hotel corridors in a wild fit of jealousy, and the Red Army Choir holding a private concert in the hotel bar in honour of Jeanne’s husband Paul Augier.

Once the Negresco’s reputation started to grow again and Jeanne Augier’s love of art became widespread, artists and sculptors from all over the world came to the hotel to meet her and to enjoy her “museum-hotel”. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Marc Chagall became regular visitors to the hotel and some like Chagall became friends with Jeanne and would dine with her in the Chantecler restaurant on the ground floor.

During this period, Jeanne Augier became so well known in the world of luxury hotel design that 2 guests of the Negresco asked her to advise them with their own projects. The first guest was the Shah of Iran who invited Jeanne to design and furnish the hotel Shah Abbas in Ispahan in 1965, and the second was the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev who invited her to sit on the Soviet tourist board Intourist, for two years as an advisor to the Russian tourism trade. To thank her for her work on the Shah Abbas hotel, the Shah of Iran gave her a platinum watch which she still wears to this day.

Now only 10 years younger than her beloved hotel, Jeanne Augier still lives in the family apartment on the 6th floor of the Negresco today with her two dogs Lili and Lilou, and photos of her with well- known figures such as Louis Armstrong, Clint Eastwood, Yves Montand and many others are displayed around the hotel bar. Le Chantecler restaurant now boasts 2 Michelin-stars, and the Negresco is still famous as one of the most luxurious and well-known hotels in the world whilst remaining faithful to Jeanne’s original plan to provide a home from home for her guests by surrounding them with art and beauty.

The Negresco was classified as a National Historic Monument in 1974 and as a National Historic Building in 2003 by the French Government. Following a €12 million renovation in 2010 to repaint the façade and to update and enlarge some of the suites, the Negresco is instantly recognizable on the Promenade des Anglais today and its pink dome and green turrets have been fully restored to the glory of the golden age of the Riviera.

Since the death of her husband Paul Augier in 1995, Mme Augier has received several offers for her hotel, including allegedly an offer from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. (Negresco legend has it that Jeanne refused Gates’ offer by telling him that he simply wasn’t rich enough to buy her hotel). She has however turned down all of the bidders, stating that she wishes the Negresco to retain its French spirit and to remain the last independent luxury hotel on the Côte d’Azur.

To ensure that the Negresco remains untouched and her staff will still be employed once she dies, Jeanne created the ‘Mesnage Foundation’ in 2009. The foundation is an endowment fund which will inherit her wealth upon her death, including a villa in Saint-Vallier, near Grasse, and two George V apartments in Paris. Part of her inheritance will go to the development of the Negresco, and the rest will be shared amongst 3 charities close to Jeanne’s heart: animal rights, disability awareness and contributing to the “influence of French art”.

Since she had an operation on her knee a few years ago, Mme. Augier has been confined to a wheelchair and has to use the same lift to go up and down the 6 floors of the hotel as her mother did over 50 years ago, but she can still be found in the hotel bar and restaurant most days, sometimes with Lili and Lilou tucked beside her in her wheelchair, and she continues to reign over the hotel she rescued and renovated in 1957.

With her team she has organized 12 months of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Negresco, a centenary which began last year with a gala evening held at the hotel on the 5th July 2012 and which will culminate in June 2013 with a series of “Talent Days” to celebrate the different ‘behind the scenes’ trades which have helped to make the Negresco so successful over the years, including wine sommeliers, musicians, and artists.

If Jeanne Augier has her way, long after she is gone her world-renowned collection of art and antiques will still be on display in the hotel for its future guests and the Negresco which she has now called home for over 50 years will remain Nice’s most glamorous and well-known hotel for the next hundred years to come.

All other images courtesy and © Mike Colquhoun

Note from the editor: This article was first published in Riviera Buzz in January 2013. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Riviera Buzz and in particular to Iarla Byrne in granting me permission to reprint this excellent article written by Vicki Riley.