The Phoenicia: construction, destruction, rebirth

BEIRUT: In both size and content, it is something more than the average coffee table book. Weighing in at around 5 kg, “Le Phoenicia, un hotel dans l’Histoire” pays homage to the history of the iconic Phoenicia Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in Beirut’s Downtown.

The 430-page book in both French and English, written by Tania Hadjithomas Mehanna and designed by Franck-Alexandre Mandon, constitutes a thorough and eye-catching record of the hotel’s construction, destruction and rebirth. The Phoenicia commissioned the book as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations.

Pages of glossy pictures, handwritten letters from famous guests, old telegrams and a gushing narrative offer yet another nostalgic account of Beirut’s golden age.

But the pages also document the more tragic moments in the Phoenicia’s existence – namely its occupation by gunmen during the war of the hotels in the ’80s which left it, along with the Holiday Inn and the St. Georges Hotel and Yacht Club, in skeletal ruins.

“When I walked into my old office, I saw it had been destroyed by a rocket,” Raymond Khalife, general manager of the hotel until 1974, says in the book. “I gathered the remnants of the rockets and kept them.”

While preparing the book, the hotel’s executives discussed whether to include the 25 years of war and destruction between 1975 and 2000, the year the hotel reopened, said Tamara Salha, executive assistant manager at the Phoenicia.

“We decided we could not do the book without talking about Beirut,” Salha said. “Without Beirut, there would be no Phoenicia; and without the Phoenicia, Beirut would not have had its golden age in the ’70s.”

The author takes a rosy view of the Phoenicia and Beirut’s future – in spite of the city’s ever-tumultuous security situation and recent decline in tourism.

A tone of optimism weaves together past financial blows and structural damage with a visual collage of celebrity guests, wartime destruction and stunning interior design.

Most of the book likens Beirut’s heyday in the ’60s – the Phoenicia firmly at its center – to the resurgence of visitors to the country in the 2000s.

For those interested in high society, the book delves not just into well-documented guests like Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando, but goes deeper to touch on some lesser-known stories of celebrities from the ’60s and ’70s.

Interviews with such personalities were the most gratifying part of writing the book, Hadjithomas Mehanna told The Daily Star at its launch in October.

The Phoenicia approached Hadjithomas Mehanna more than a year ago and a half ago to write the book, which took months of research, interviews and photo collecting to put together.

“When they called me, I didn’t think for a minute. I just said yes,” said Hadjithomas Mehanna, who is in the process of writing seven other books.

Many of the stories surprised even the top executives of the hotel, she said.

For example, the author discovered that the original architect Edward Stone met his future wife on a plane while traveling from the United States to Beirut to work on the Phoenicia. The two ended up spending their wedding night, in 1954, at the St. Georges.

Readers will find the real humanity of the hotel not in tales of stars and lavishness, but in rarely explored stories of those who run the hotel every day: bakers, hairdressers, maids, carpenters, coffee brewers and tailors.

The book reveals that the heart of the hotel beats in its basement, a beehive of employees who ensure tiny details continue to give the hotel its unique character and superior service.

With more than 300 kg of oranges and 200 kg of baklava a day, 3,000 bottles of wine a month and 100 weddings per year, the book says, “the hotel really is a city unto itself, where each person has their place and where real teamwork seems like a perfectly timed dance.”

As for the future of the Phoenicia, Salha said, they’re “looking forward to another 50 years – we hope.”

“Le Phoenicia, un hotel dans l’Histoire” is available at Antoine Books for $125.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2013, on page 2.




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