London’s Buzziest New Hotel Is an Old War Office

The new Raffles is opening after a $1.76 billion renovation, with nods to its historical heritage. Suites include Winston Churchill’s old office, bookable for £25,000 a night.

(Bloomberg) — The Old War Office is one of the most important historical buildings in modern London: It was a base for British military operations throughout both world wars, and plans for D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge were reviewed inside the halls of the Edwardian baroque building. Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence and other historical heavyweights worked from its chambers.

This month, after a seven-year, £1.4 billion ($1.76 billion) renovation, the building will reopen on Sept. 29 as the five-star luxury hotel Raffles London at the OWO, with 120 rooms and suites. There will be 85 private residences, nine restaurants—including an outpost of the buzzy Parisian restaurant Cafe Lapérouse—and three bars.

The property is the most anticipated London hotel opening of the year, even amid a luxury boom in London. Upscale brands such as the Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and 1 Hotels are opening properties, alongside boutique hotels like One Sloane, the Broadwick and Chelsea Townhouse. But Raffles London at the OWO is generating the most buzz because of its landmark location and the scope of the renovation.

Many London hotels are in historic areas and have royal connections, but the OWO is a unique reminder of British imperial splendor: The land was once the site of the largest palace in Europe; it’s the former home of MI6 and the birthplace of James Bond. The British government commissioned the building to centralize the offices for top army brass and secretaries of state for war. Construction was finished in 1906.

The buildings around the hotel’s Whitehall neighborhood are mostly used as government and civil-service offices. No. 10 Downing Street, home of the prime minister, is a four-minute walk away, while the underground bunkers known as the Churchill War Rooms are nearby. The hotel is so well situated among the top London tourist spots, it will be a draw for non-guests, who can pop for in coffee or cocktail with a view of the changing of the Horse Guards opposite the hotel.

“It’s almost embarrassing for a Frenchman to be in charge of this place,” Managing Director Philippe Leboeuf says. 

The features that make the hotel unique include black marble in some of the guest bathrooms, a gold French clock overlooking the grand staircase, elevators that wouldn’t look out of place on the Titanic and a 27,000-square-foot spa.

The Ministry of Defense sold the site to Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for £350 million in 2016—technically a 250-year lease. The family-run group headquartered in Mumbai formed a partnership with Raffles to develop the site. Raffles will manage the hotel. 

Room rates start at around £1,100 a night for a standard room. But Leboeuf says for £25,000 a night, guests can stay in one of the showpiece heritage suites, including one that used to be the Churchill’s office, with a replica of his desk in its old spot. Another suite features a gleaming wooden table in the same room where the Army Council used to meet during the world wars. Companies can rent it by the day for meetings. 

As to who he’s expecting for guests, Leboeuf says he’s had a lot of interest so far from Americans, who he calls fond of British history. He’s also seen interest from Australians, members of the Commonwealth. 

There are stories of underground tunnels beneath the Old War Office that lead to other governmental locations. Leboeuf says they’ve been boarded up—and that their existence was “classified.” (These hidden tunnels in London are an open secret. Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell explored the deep network of passages below Whitehall in 1980.)

What he can confirm is that there are homages to British spycraft in the hotel, including the Spy Bar in the basement. “It’s in the part of the hotel that used to be the bunker, so it’s a bit of a speakeasy,” says Leboeuf, who says intelligence officers may have shared a bottle or two in the same part of the building to celebrate a successful mission.

British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 both have ties to the Old War Office. There’s a side entrance on Whitehall known as the “spies entrance” where operatives would enter the building to receive orders and messages. Fictional spies came to life here too. While roaming the busy corridors, a British Naval Intelligence Service officer named Ian Fleming conceived the idea for James Bond. Several Bond films, including Octopussy (1983) and Skyfall (2012), filmed scenes there. And one of the hotel’s suites is named after Christine Granville, Churchill’s favorite spy during World War II.

The interior design was one of the final projects of famed designer Thierry Despont, who died last month. “He wasn’t the typical Frenchman,” says Leboeuf of the late architect. “He had the joie de vivre, but he was not narrow-minded at all, and I loved working with him.”

There are nods to heritage throughout the building, such as lush red hallway curtains with military button patterns reminiscent of the Horse Guard uniforms worn by officers across the street. Some suites incorporate meticulously restored antique fireplaces, moved from early 1900s offices on Pall Mall that were used by the likes of Earl Kitchener, famous for the “Your Country Needs You” poster campaign. Some former mail rooms have been incorporated as home offices in the residence portion of the building.

Despite all this, you don’t feel as if you’re walking into a museum. Instead, it feels as though a bit of history has been delicately brought to life in the 21st century.

Here are more historical facts about the Old War Office.

A royal residence

The OWO was built on the site of the Palace of Whitehall, a Tudor and Stuart palace that was once the largest in Europe. Henry VIII died there in January, 1547. It was the monarch’s main residence for much of the 16th and 17th centuries. The palace burned down in 1698, when a worker accidentally set linens on fire.

The grand staircase wasn’t for everyone

The grand marble staircase at the hotel entrance leads to the second floor. When the building was an office, only those with high rank could use it. Everyone else—spies, secretaries, messengers—had to take the backstairs. Leboeuf says he recently met a police officer who’d worked security at the Old War Office but never walked up the staircase until he visited the new hotel.

The Blitz years

During World War II, staff members would work nonstop—except to duck below ground during bombing raids, according to a history pamphlet written for the Ministry of Defense. Shelters doubled as night canteens. One person was killed when the building was hit in 1940, causing some damage. 

The Profumo affair

Although civilians weren’t supposed to visit the War Office, British politician John Profumo showed 19-year-old model Christine Keeler around his grand wood-paneled office during their affair when he was minister of war. Profumo’s affair was one of the biggest scandals in modern British history, setting off security worries because Keeler was also been involved with a Soviet naval attaché. The fallout from the affair brought down the Conservative government.

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