Oscar Wilde’s London haunt debuts after $50 million makeover

CNN  — 

Transforming the more than 130-year-old Cadogan Hotel, in the heart of London’s posh Chelsea neighborhood, into a world-class luxury address took four years and $50 million.

The ambitious renovation was finally realized on February 28 when the property opened its doors as the Belmond Cadogan Hotel.

And with the reopening, the hotel’s storied history breathes new life.

Social hub of London

The hotel is located in London's Chelsea neighborhood, on the corner of Sloane and Pont Streets.

You see, the 54-room impossibly elegant Cadogan, perched on the charming corner of leafy Sloane Street and Pont Street, was the home of late 19th century scandal involving one Oscar Wilde and his male lover (more on this later).

Although the Cadogan first opened as a hotel in 1887, it’s nestled within the 93-acre Cadogan Estate, which has a history that goes back more than 300 years, according to the estate’s archivist, Kira Charatan.

Hans Sloane, a renowned physician who counted three monarchs as his patients including King George I, bought the property in 1712 to store his collection of more than 70,000 objects such as books, drawings, coins and medals (they’re now part of the collection of the British Museum, the British Library and London’s Natural History Museum).

In 1717, his daughter, Elizabeth, married Baron Cadogan, a soldier and politician, and when the couple inherited the estate, it took on the Cadogan name.

From the outset, London’s Chelsea attracted the creative set, and The Cadogan Hotel was the epicenter of this scene. “Both risqué and respectable, it is where artists, authors and intellectuals would meet and socialize over dinner or a drink,” says Charatan.

The inviting bar resembles a posh early 20th century English watering hole.

The actress and socialite Lillie Langtry, who resided at 21 Pont Street, a quintessential and well-known street in Chelsea, was rumored to have met her lover, King Edward VII, at the hotel for secret trysts. When her house was later absorbed into the rooms of the Cadogan (a blue plaque outside celebrates this fact), Langtry would stay as an overnight guest in room 109.

Authors Bram Stoker and Mark Twain lived in the area and were likely regulars at the bar, but the most famous of them all was Oscar Wilde, who lived with his wife and two sons at 34 Tite Street, an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel.

The tragedy of Oscar Wilde

Frequently hosting friends at the bar while donning velvet smoking jackets in deep red and green hues, the Irish playwright was a Cadogan regular.

Even though Wilde lived nearby, Charatan says that he stayed overnight if his evenings stretched into the early morning hours.

Although there were whispers of Wilde’s homosexuality, his preference for the same sex didn’t really come into the public eye until April 6, 1895, when he was arrested at the hotel.

His sexual orientation was illegal at the time, and Wilde who was accused of “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons,” was taken custody in room 118.

Wilde’s affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensbury, explains Charatan, had come to light.

His arrest was immortalized by poet laureate John Betjeman’s tragic circa-1933 poem entitled “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.”

Many of the hotel's 54 rooms contain a fireplace. Bay windows with banquette seating is another new feature.

Wilde was one of the biggest personalities of his day, and his arrest and subsequent trial were a sensation, says Chartan. He was convicted and taken to Reading Jail, outside of London, where he spent two years doing hard labor. “He died [of meningitis] soon after his release, his health ruined and his reputation wrecked,” Charatan says.

His wife, meanwhile, humiliated by her husband’s arrest and the scandal surrounding it, fled with their sons to Switzerland for a fresh start.

The Cadogan changes

The hotel continued to be a popular gathering spot even after Wilde’s arrest, however, and had a loyal repeat overnight clientele.

But, over the years, it eventually became run down and worn and no longer caught the eye of discerning travelers who were seeking the best of the best in their accommodations.

Belmond’s connection with the Cadogan began in 2014 when the luxury brand signed the contract to manage the property. The British-based hotel company had long been keen on a London location and saw an ideal opportunity with the Cadogan.

“We were very drawn to the property’s location in a beautiful neighborhood and its history,” explains the hotel’s general manager Klaus Kabelitz.

Belmond group was set on keeping the Cadogan's character and adding modern, luxurious conveniences, including air conditioning.

When Belmond took over, the Cadogan was a collection of five interconnected Queen Anne-style buildings with poor plumbing and no air conditioning. “It was a higgledy piggledy British hotel with a lot of character but no luxury in the way of modern-day conveniences,” says Kabelitz.

All in the details

Belmond’s first step was to gut the inside and connect the five buildings in a seamless way. Bay windows that allow for lots of natural light were added, and the once-tiny public areas were revamped to be spacious gathering places. Coral-toned carpets and more than 400 original artworks, predominantly by British female artists, adorn the hotel’s common areas, which are open to the public.

The original hotel had a bank in the lobby, but the renovation replaced it with an inviting bar that resembles a posh early 20th century English watering hole with its white plaster ceiling, wood paneling, red leather banquettes and green and red velvet armchairs, a detail reminiscent of Wilde’s attire.

Paying homage to Wilde was a priority: His beloved room 118 is known as the hotel’s Royal Suite. The Cadogan’s most prestigious accommodation ($7,900 is the nightly rate), includes a large living room and roomy wood-paneled wardrobe.

The room's wooden furniture was custom-made in England and is of extremely high quality.

The guest rooms are very British, says Kabelitz. There’s wooden flooring, contemporary rugs in warm colors such as rusty reds, and elegant wood furniture, custom-made in England.

Bay windows with banquettes are another attractive touch, along with the collection of old-fashioned board games like Knots and Crosses and mini-libraries of British literature, curated in collaboration with the local independent bookseller John Sandoe Books.

“We tried to make the rooms feel like an inviting space in a family home,” says Kabelitz.

Guests can book Langtry’s room 109 (now room 106), which is accessible directly from the street.

The suite is filled with books by and about the celebrity author and has a bay window in front of the large bathtub in the bathroom with a view overlooking the corner of Pont and Sloane Streets.

The Sloane Street location has become rather famous itself. In the 1970s and ’80s, Chelsea’s Sloane Square was known as Ground Zero for a certain kind of posh, young chic Brit – most famously, Princess Diana – who were dubbed “Sloane Rangers.” “To this day, “Sloanie” is a shorthand for members of a wealthy, fashionable set.

Chef Adam Handling oversees the hotel's food offerings. His traditional British cuisine with a modern twist only uses British produce in the dishes.

The Britishness of the property is also evidenced in the cuisine coming out of Chef Adam Handling’s kitchen. His traditional British cuisine with a modern twist only uses British produce in the dishes. The a la carte menu includes a truffle custard with miso potatoes, peas and morels, butter-poached king crab and a cornish little leaf salad.

Finally, one of Cadogan’s standout amenities is the access guests have to the private gardens and tennis courts that are a part of the estates – a rare find in a big-city hotel.

A stay at the Belmond Cadogan Hotel is like taking a step back in time to the days when Lillie Langtry, Oscar Wilde and a cadre of other colorful characters imbibed at the bar, engaged in scandalous affairs and brought a vivaciousness to the property with their mere presence.

It may have a new polished look, but its history will forever live on.

And who knows what new chapter will write itself in the years to come?

Belmond Cadogan Hotel, 75 Sloane Street, Chelsea, 800-237-1236