Athenaeum – the classic name conjures up a vision of a large library where mustached gentlemen from science, politics and the arts arrange their tails on dark red leather chairs and sit down to read and learn, and engage in whispered speech in quiet corners.
In the 1860s, such an atmosphere would undoubtedly have permeated 116 Piccadilly in Mayfair in London, home to the brand new Junior Athenaeum Club.
Today the quiet corners and their Victorian ghosts remain, but once the front door is adorned, the words of welcome from the reception staff, the friendly chatter of the guests and the barking of a dog draw you into a very different world, that of a boutique, boutique hotel full of character.
A splendid house was built here in the 1840s for Congressman Henry Hope, a friend of Charles Dickens, and it later became a men’s club.
Fast forward to the 1930s, when the huge house was transformed into stylish Art Deco apartments.
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Then in 1973, after being acquired by the Rank Organization, it began its life as a hotel and the spirit and character of the place, so evident today, was born.
Through its ties to Hollywood, the Athenaeum Hotel has earned a reputation as a home away from home for best-known American actors and directors, earning it the moniker Tinseltown on the Thames.
The likes of Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Liza Minelli, Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss have spent time here.
Elizabeth Taylor took up residence for a long time during a film project in England, while Stephen Spielberg set up an editing room in his Athenaeum residence while finishing ET
The hotel’s legendary executive director, Sally Bulloch – herself a child actress – was her flagship.
The stars have returned year after year just to reconnect with her effervescent personality.
Its spirit endures, because today, the “Grande Dame de Piccadilly” is not a stilted five-star hotel, but a lively, open and relaxed place to stay.
The hotel’s family nature even extends to dogs – an impatient King Charles Spaniel was checking in with his family when we arrived.
Special mattresses and other accessories are available for dogs, and helpful dog walking maps are provided for the adjacent Green Park.
As for the humans, well, they have 135 comfortable rooms and eleven stylish suites to choose from, as well as the 14 residences for those who want an extended stay in the city.
All were renovated just a few years ago under the direction of renowned interior designer Martin Hulbert, who managed to blend the hotel’s 1930s Art Deco style with contemporary touches.
We had one of the elegant suites in Green Park, where our floor-to-ceiling windows afforded us a spectacular view of the historic park across the road.
Our classic marble bathroom contained a huge walk-in shower, while the king-size bed gave us a restful night’s sleep after a long afternoon stroll around Piccadilly and the surrounding area.
Equally soothing was our visit to the Athenaeum spa, located in the hotel’s basement, where we sampled the hot tub, steam room and sauna before enjoying one of the exclusive treatments, a superbly relaxing hot stone massage.
Those who have run the Athenaeum over the years have had the imagination to try unusual projects to make it stand out from the elite.
So in 2009, the famous French botanist Patrick Blanc was commissioned to create a vertical garden on the corner of the hotel with Down Street.
And 12 years later, we were able to contemplate 10 stories in the air at the living wall of the Athenaeum, an extraordinarily green carpet of flora and fauna.
This beautiful wall landscape was created using the hydroponic method, which involves growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in an aqueous solvent.
Endearing and informative Guest Relations Manager Kim Whitehorn took us to The View, the exclusive top-floor resident lounge with panoramic city views.
Now also a venue for business meetings and informal gatherings, it was once the hotel’s majestic penthouse suite.
Here, Kim told us, Mrs Thatcher stayed for three months while waiting to move into a new home in London.
Another famous prime minister also has a fascinating connection with this part of the city.
Opposite the Athenaeum townhouses at the Piccadilly end of Down Street, there was an underground station; it was decommissioned in 1932, probably because there were few calls from the wealthy inhabitants of these areas who took taxis, or perhaps had started owning cars.
But at the height of the Blitz, in the fall of 1940, it was transformed into secure offices for the Railway Executive Committee.
Then Winston Churchill one day visited and felt it would be a great alternative to the underground rooms of the War Cabinet in Whitehall – and relief dormitories for him and his wife Clementine.
There were several government meetings here in October 1940 and Churchill slept in “The Barn” as he called it, twice that month.
It was a treat to sit in the sun on the terrace and enjoy a delicious breakfast while watching the world go by.
It might be five stars, but the Athenaeum gives guests a welcoming, down-to-earth approach.
She draws her strength from her famous past, but keeps a close eye on developments in the present – and the future.
Plan your trip
Rooms start from £ 305 and look for specials at athenaeumhotel.com