Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Middle East’s First Boutique Hotel: Part I

Remembering Jerusalem’s Grande Dame and her Fabled Hotel

As a child Valentine Vester would meet King Abdullah of Transjordan; The hotel’s historic salon with its painted wood ceiling; Valentine Vesper’s aunt Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and archeologist who helped create the modern state of Iraq

Hidden within Jerusalem’s twisted cobble stone streets lies one of the Middle East’s most luxurious and storied hotels, the American Colony.

It’s been voted the “Best Hotel in the Middle East” by Condé Nast Traveler and is a rarity in the region for being a member of the elite Relais & Châteaux association. Thumbing through the pages of its guest books reads like a who’s who of the last century. Sir Winston Churchill, Lauren Bacall, Peter O’Toole, Marc Chagall, and the Empress of Ethiopia are just a few of its famous guests.

Yet despite such notoriety, not many Arab guests have set foot in it, let alone know of its existence. Apart from Palestinians living in the country, travel restrictions to Israel and a long history of tensions in the region, have deterred many would be Middle Eastern tourists from venturing into this ancient city. But even more intriguing perhaps is Valentine Vester, the hotel’s proprietor, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 96.

Amongst the hotels famous guests was Lauren Bacall; Guests in the hotel’s lush courtyard

Mrs. Vester was one of those rare beings; the last of a generation to have bared witness to much of the upheavals that shaped the modern Middle East. The hotel, which she presided over like a private kingdom, is the last link to a more genteel time in Jerusalem’s history. A time before the Belfour Declaration, the end of the British Mandate in 1948 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which altered the city’s landscape.

Vester’s connection to the Middle East was already established by the time she was born in Yorkshire, England in 1912. Her mother's half-sister was Gertrude Bell, the renowned British diplomat and archeologist who helped create the modern state of Iraq after World War I. While her uncle Ernest Richmond, worked in the British administration of the Holy Land between the world wars. During that period he introduced the young Valentine to King Abdullah of Transjordan.

Jerusalem’s grand dame Velentine Vesper shortly before she passed away; A view of the hotel’s courtyard and fountain

She married Horatio Spafford, a Jerusalem-born British lawyer and heir to the American Colony. By the time they had arrived in Jerusalem in 1963, the legendary hotel was a failing enterprise. Vester recalled that "it was simpler then, and Jerusalem was a dear little town, a very social town."

Even before the concept of a boutique hotel existed, they set about transforming the American Colony into the most luxurious and tranquil oasis in the city. “In those days we were in Jordan, we didn't need licenses and things. You just showed up to run the hotel. He'd be called the CEO, and I'd be called the chief executive of the kitchen - I was the housekeeper," she once said, though she was also credited with resurrecting the hotels lush gardens. Once, pointing to those very grounds she recalled, "I never thought to create a luxury hotel, just a real one."

The American Colony as it appeared in the early 1900’s; Today the hotel is surrounded by lush gardens

The American Colony’s story begins at a much later time in reconstruction-era Chicago. It was there that Horatio and Anna Spafford, the scions of a wealthy Chicago family and the grandparents of Vester's husband, decided to relocate in 1881 from the booming city of Chicago to the ancient city of Jerusalem; a then neglected backwater of the Ottoman Empire. A series of tragic events that included the lose of their home in the Great Chicago Fire, the death of their four daughters in an Atlantic shipwreck as well as a son to scarlet fever, pushed the Spaffords to dedicate their lives to helping others through charitable works. In Jerusalem they established a Christian community of like minded Americans who made a point of providing help to Muslims, Jews and Christians, thus gaining the trust of the city’s diverse communities.

Empress Menen of Ethiopia; A view of the hotel’s swimming pool

In 1896 the family bought the former palace of a Turkish pasha and his four wives, and turned it into a hostel for pilgrims. The structure, built out of honey hued Jerusalem stone and boasting sumptuous interiors that have changed little in the Colony’s 122 year’s of existence, is a reminder of a forgotten era in Palestine’s history.

Taking a tour of the Colony’s grounds reveals Moorish arches and spacious corridors that provide a glimpse into inner courtyards strewn with jasmine, cypress trees, potted palms and trickling fountains. While inside, double height rooms boast vaulted or antique wood painted ceilings. Unlike many new luxury hotels springing up across the Middle East, the American Colony owes much of its elegant atmosphere to a patina of time that’s been cultivated over centuries. Turquoise and yellow tile work, Damascene wood inlayed furniture and flagstone floors strewn with Bedouin rugs transport guests to another time and place.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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