Hotel Phoenicia - A Brief History
Hotel Phoenicia Malta - A brief History
The hotel is located right on the edge of Vallettaâ€™s walls, and partly sits on some of the fortification system outer works. This location gave the hotel its shape and also contributed to the general organisation of the grounds, with its elongated shape that stretches from Vallettaâ€™s main gate to the sea shore. The project to build the Hotel Phoenicia was initiated in 1935 by Lady Strickland, who, in 1936, called the architect Lt.-Col. W. B. Binnie to study the conditions and design the hotel. At a time when travel between Malta and London took 60 hours, the Phoenicia was to be the only hotel on the island and was intended for a cosmopolitan clientele but was also to provide accommodation for the wives of the officers of the Mediterranean Fleet. Upon approval of the plans by the Government of Malta, works started on the building, and most of the structural work was completed by the outbreak of the war. However works had to be suspended and the finished portion requisitioned by the Services. The site was heavily bombed during an air raid on April 27, 1942, with an estimated 100 bombs dropped on the building and gardens. The area situated around the Pegasus Bar was particularly affected by the bombings and had to be reconstructed after the war. In 1944, Binnie was requested by the Governor to proceed to Malta and begin the reconstruction of the premises. Despite having to face the difficulty in obtaining materials and fittings, most of the hotel was opened in November 1947, and completed in April 1948; by then, Malta was only six and a half hours away from London, by plane. Architecturally, the plan follows the (original) site boundaries, giving the building its particular “chevron” shape. One major design consideration for Binnie was to embody the spirit of Malta in the design of the hotel. To that effect numerous references to Malta’s monumental heritage were made. Thus the building was constructed in Maltese limestone also using a mortar mix composed of crushed limestone and lime, and “all inside walls were brought to a smooth finish so that no plaster work was necessary”. Similarly, the heavy coffered ceiling in the Main Entrance Hall is reminiscent of local Maltese architecture. Other materials included terrazzo and marble, as well as teak, for the floors. Various types and colours of marbles were used throughout the hotel. Finally, ironwork was extensively used for the balcony railings, staircase railings, chandeliers, gates, etc., with different finishes such as paint, enamel, or even crystal drops for the chandeliers. On the ground floor, the hotel accommodation included an entrance hall, a central open-air palm court surrounded by a continuous corridor, a dining room, a non-resident snack-bar, a cocktail bar, a winter lounge, and a kitchen that extends the length of the building on the North side. For entertainment, a ballroom was located on the garden side, and an open-air dance floor was also included. The hotel had, at the time of opening, 108 rooms and 8 suites. Proof of its high standard of service, the hotel was entirely air-conditioned and electric paneled radiators provided heating. The hotel also had its own electricity plant. The hotel underwent some modifications in the late 60â€™s including the covering of the courtyard and later on in the 90â€™s the addition of a floor. Various schemes that were carried over but of which nothing remains today, included the construction of an open-air theatre, and the construction of a pool closer to the hotel. The site under the management of the hotel was extended in successive phases to todayâ€™s size. William Bryce Binnie (born 1885 or 1886) was a Scottish born architect. He studied at the Glasgow school of Art from 1908 to 1910 and obtained a Gold medal and traveling scholarship in the latter year, which enabled him to spend approximately a year in Italy. Upon his return he went to New York to work as a designer in the office of Warren & Wetmore, where he was responsible for the detailing of Grand Central Station and was supervising architect for the Baltimore Hotel. He returned to Britain in 1913 to work as chief draughtsman for Leonard Martin, London. After serving in the armed forces during the First World War, he was appointed in 1919 Deputy Director of Works for the Imperial War Graves Commission, supervising the erection of war cemeteries and memorials in France, Belgium and Germany. He remained based in Saint-Omer, France, until at least 1925, when he was admitted FRIBA. He was described by his proposers as “an architect of great ability” who would “do great things in the future”. Upon his return in Britain he formed “an association” in 1927 with the London architect Claude Waterlow Ferrier. Ferrier was a Scottish architect himself who had a preference for the Art Deco style. Together, Ferrier and Binnie undertook numerous commissions in London, including the Extension to the National Temperance Hospital (now part of University College Hospital), the Headquarters of the Mother’s Union, the West Stand of Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium (1932), and several hotels and townhouses in London. Ferrier died in a circulation accident in 1935. Binnie continued the practice and realised several works under his name, two of which include the East Stand of Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium (1936) and the Hotel Phoenicia in Malta (1936-1948). The Hotel Grounds The Hotel Phoenicia grounds are quite impressive, especially when considering their dimensions. Stretching half the width of the capital’s peninsula, the grounds cover over 7½ acres, most of which are landscaped gardens. BRITISH STABLES AND DITCH This area is located right below the hotel, between the counterscarp, which is the exterior slope of a fortification, and the St John counterguard. The outer work ditch was built during Valletta’s later fortification effort in the 17th century, and originally ran from Marsamxett Harbour to the Grand Harbour. Since then, the ditch has been modified to the extent that in some areas it is barely recognisable as a ditch. The buildings known as staff quarters were built by the British to function together with the parade ground located across the road in Floriana and with the military barracks that were present in the area. Nowadays, some of these barracks house Government Departments in the Beltissebh area. To date, no documents have been found that specifically refer to or mention the staff quarters. However, iconographic documentation indicates that they were once used as stables for the army. One building, which has an anchor etched on the entrance gate, was clearly used by the navy. It is probable that further research would eventually yield some drawings of these quarters. By relying on historical photographs, it is possible to determine that part of one of the buildings was demolished during the construction of an early bus terminus. As a result of this same construction, the difference in level was accentuated. Also, different photographs seem to indicate a slope rising from the level of the ditch to that of the main gate, as opposed to the existing high drop. Part of the boundary wall of the ditch is in fact part of the original counterscarp, with the original bedrock still visible in some areas. However this area was altered prior to the construction of the Phoenicia, and not all the masonry is original. Opposite, St John counterguardâ€™s walls are also built directly on a rock outcrop. A few passageways exist at the bottom of the counterguard. Although some photographs indicate the presence of previous sheds buttressed by the counterguard, it is unclear whether these openings were used as part of these sheds or whether they were used as air-raid shelters during World War II. HOTEL GARDENS The hotel gardens extend from the Floriana entrenchment to the ring road, and are bordered by the same road and by the continuation of the historical covered way. This means that the entire Phoenicia gardens sit on a large part of the fortification outer works. Moreover, the uppermost part of the gardens, which accommodates the main path, is in the covered way. This particular can be attested by several documents and by the existing remains of a place of arms and a whole spur, which is an offset from a wall. The place of arms is nowadays used as an elevated reception area above the pool bar. Although it is established that as part of the landscaping of the gardens a large amount of landfill was carried out, the spur is still clearly visible, even if largely covered. During the years, vegetation has slowly rendered the fortification features illegible in most areas of the garden. Although not proven, it is probable that the lower parts of the garden, towards the harbour, might still accommodate the remains of traverses below the landscaping. However, it seems unlikely that the landfill of this area holds any historical value, particularly given the fact that this area was modified several times over the past century. THE LAUNDRY AND DITCH This zone is the continuation of the outer works ditch at the bottom of St Johnâ€™s counterguard. It is also bordered by the counterguardâ€™s walls on one side and the counterscarp on the other. The single storey buildings existing on site appear to have been built after the war. Pre-war documents indicate the presence of previous buildings on site, which formed part of the military facilities developed by the British in the area. A site inspection did not reveal any remains of these structures which had a smaller footprint than the current buildings. The counterscarp wall is clearly visible along this zone behind the existing buildings. Of particular interest is the presence of an opening in the same wall. Currently blocked-up by masonry work, there is no indication as to its previous use or even its origin. It might have been a sally port or even the entrance to mine galleries, but it could also be just a recessed niche in the counterscarp below the covered way. Another feature in this part is the underground chamber inside the face of St Johnâ€™s counterguard. Although access was not possible at the time of the site visit, it seems to be entirely rockhewn and rectangular in plan. It is currently disused, but previously functioned as a wine cellar for the hotel. Earlier uses cannot be established but similar underground structures in other parts of the fortifications were used as water reservoirs which collected the water from the above ground atop the counterguard, and also as civilian air-raid shelters during World War II. THE POOL AND DITCH The pool area is located towards the end of the outer works ditch, below St Michaelâ€™s counterguard. In parts, this area presents a steep gradient which was used to accommodate the pool and the changing rooms underneath. The pool and associated amenities occupy a relatively small area of this zone. The other area is currently not being used and is devoid of any buildings. Here, one can appreciate a large extent of the rock outcrop sloping towards the sea. The ditch is again bordered by the counterscarp wall which runs till the road at the end of the property, and by the walls of St Michaelâ€™s stepped counterguard. The ditch is closed by a wall running between the counterscarp and the corner of the counterguard. This wall however does not appear to be historically coherent with the rest of the fortifications, even though some original stonework seem to have been reused in some parts. A sally port is visible at the end of the counterscarp, but its exit on the other side has not been established, and it is probable that the construction of Great Siege Road after World War II necessitated the blocking up of the tunnel. However, the excavation works necessary for the construction of the Hotel Excelsior may well mean that the exit of the sally port would now be â€œhanging in the airâ€?. St. Rocco Baths The baths located below Great Siege road on Marsamxett harbour have a typology similar to that of similar rock-cut seafront baths in Malta, such as the ones found at Qui Si Sana and near the Exiles beach in Sliema. This type of feature and its origins are however poorly documented. Early photos exist that witness their use by bathers in the 20th century; a drawing found at the archives date their construction in 1900. Their raison dâ€™ĂŞtre resides most likely in offering the possibility to bathe even in areas exposed to rough seas, and perhaps also as a social type of bathing, the shape of the baths allowing for meeting people while at the same time offering a kind of segregated area for either men or women. It is so far not possible to establish the date of construction of the buildings associated with St Rocco baths, or whether the buildings were erected before or after the carving of the baths themselves. The change in landscape due to the construction of the road and of the Hotel next door has rendered the baths secluded on the harbour front. However past representations seem to indicate that this area was a popular place for outings. The name St Rocco was probably given to the baths with reference to the area, itself taking its name for a chapel dedicated to the saint and which was located on top of St Michaelâ€™s counterguard. The dedication to this saint might be linked to the presence of the Lazaretto across the harbour. It is mentioned that the passengers staying in quarantine at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island would listen to mass being said from this chapel. There is however no physical link between the chapel and the baths. The only other use documented so far for these structures was that of temporary accommodation for the Royal Malta Yacht Club between 1944 and 1950 subsequently to the destruction of their premises during the war. This area now lies derelict and the buildings are in poor state of repair and have been unused for years. It is interesting that remains of probable fortification walls were found during a recent site inspection. During November 1949, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed in Malta. Guests are interested by the young royals’ time on the island and their connection with the Phoenicia. The future queen and her husband visited the hotel on several occasions and came to dance in the Grand Ballroom. Throughout the years the Phoenicia has played host to many other distinguished guests Alec Guiness and Jeffrey Hunter when they were on the Island filming “The Malta History” in October 1952. In more recent times the hotel hosted a number of film stars including Gerard Depardieu, during filming for “Count of Monte-Cristo”; Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi and Joaquin Phoenix together with the rest of the cast of “Gladiator; and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hotel Phoenicia was also recently featured in a UK TV documentary by famous writer Andrew Morton, on Princess Elizabeth. The hotel also played important roles in historical events on the island. Official functions marking the independence celebrations in September 1964 were held mainly at the Phoenicia. As an important focus of Malta's social life, it became a local landmark and household name throughout the islands. In August 1966 Charles Forte (later Lord), chairman of Trust House Forte acquired the Phoenicia Hotel. Forte immediately initiated a major programme of refurbishment at the hotel, which spanned between 1968 and 1970. One of the many embellishments was the roofing of the internal courtyard, which is today the Palm Court Lounge. The Phoenicia was the first hotel in Malta to have a swimming pool. The views across Marsamxetto Harbour and the bastion backdrop make the pool as one of the most memorable places to swim in Malta. The loyalty and dedication of the staff further contributed to the Phoenicia's renown for service and efficiency. From 1971 to date, most Ambassadors or High Commissioners from other countries stay at the Phoenicia, when presenting their credentials to the President of Malta. Various Ministers and dignitaries on official business invited by the Government of Malta have stayed at Hotel Phoenicia over the past years. In 2003, the hotel received the Prime Minister of Greece, the Hon K Simitis, in his capacity as current President of the European Union and the Dutch Prime Minister The Hon Dr JP Balkenende. In November 2005, during HM Queen Elizabethâ€™s state visit to the island, the hotel was chosen as the venue for one of the official receptions hosted by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.