the saga of the Negresco palace

Henry Négresco and Edouard Niermans, palaces magicians

By Marianne Niermans
On January 4th, 1913, the splendor of the inauguration of the Negresco made headlines. The palace "of unparalleled luxury", the brainchild of Henry Negresco, a former Romanian butler, and the talent of Dutch-born architect Edward Niermans, made its world debut in front of a select group of "winter guests" from the Café Society, the forerunner of the Jet Set. Four months after its opening, the palace posted revenues of one million francs. The hotel's future seems to be in sight. Henry Negresco is breathing... just one year.
On September 12th, 1914, the hotel was assigned to a complementary military hospital under the number 15. The war had just put an end to the party taking with it the idle and wealthy world that "enjoyed the powdering of gold and endless spaces", for which the Negresco had been built. The day a the conflict, "the palace of the present times" is only a shadow of its former self. Sold in 1920 to a Belgian group, the hotel was later cut down to half of its rooms sold as apartments.

The Proustian universe of the gotha

What a long way we've come! The son of a Romanian innkeeper, Henry Negrescu - he francized his name to Negresco - was born in Bucharest in 1868. At the age of 15, violin in hand, he decided to travel throughout Europe to train in the hotel business: Germany, Belgium, Austria, Paris, Monte-Carlo, London... From his travels and successive jobs, he acquired a solid education coupled with a perfect mastery of half a dozen languages. Polyglot, climbing the ladder one by one, he became in turn restaurant clerk, chef de rang, maître d'hôtel, to reach the supreme stage of establishment manager. With his experience, Negresco decided in 1900 to settle permanently on the Côte d'Azur, the unmissable meeting place for the Café Society, an elitist and wealthy clientele from Europe and the United States.

Maître d'hôtel, then director of the Hedler in Monaco, he navigates with ease in the Proustian universe of the Gotha. Princes, grand dukes, aristocrats, but also American billionaires - Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Singer or even Basil Zaharoff, the famous arms dealer - could not deprive themselves of his services when it came to composing a menu, choosing a wine or a liqueur. Like the great hotel owners such as Caesar Ritz or Henri Ruhl, Henry Negresco is a master in the art of making himself indispensable to his clients, discreetly attending to their every wish. "Negresco was a world-famous man in the luxury hotel business, a little like Mr. Ritz. In his conversation, he knew how to find the right and friendly words to receive great dignitaries and monarchs. Without being obsequious, he knew how to charm them. He complimented the women loaded with jewels and brilliants whose elegant dresses indicated the houses of high fashion. In appearance he was affable. Round, of average corpulence, he dressed with refinement in the greatest couturiers and tailors of Paris. His racy face would not have been noticed if his dark eyes were not full of intelligence and mischief. The first time I saw him, he was getting out of a superb limousine, a respectful driver with a cap in his hand opened the door for him. He had an imperious gait that showed the importance he gave to his person," notes in his memoirs Jean Niermans, (1897-1989), eldest son of Édouard Niermans, First Grand Prix de Rome, chief architect of the Monuments Nationaux.


In 1904, on the strength of his reputation for knowing how to win, satisfy and keep this clientele, as demanding as it was changing, the precious maître d'hôtel, described by an echotier as "an elegant, affable man of Greek beauty, with black velvet eyes as conquerorious as his moustache, who also knows how to play with his warm voice tinged with a slight accent", was called to take over the management of the restaurant at the Casino Municipal de Nice. Built in 1882 on Place Masséna, this gigantic building (now destroyed) has just been given a facelift. Orchestrated by Édouard Niermans, the architect of the time, the rehabilitation of his Private Circle is one of the social events that punctuate the life of the microcosm of wealthy winter residents in Nice for the cold season. "How fresh it is! How cheerful!" exclaims one admiringly in front of the exuberance of the Art Nouveau decor of the large game room. Édouard Niermans, "a polymorphous artist born in Holland by an error of nature" as a Gil Blas columnist humorously described him, is one of the great organizers of architectural pleasures of the time. He is celebrated in the gazettes, covered with orders, appreciated by his clients and his sponsors, whose success he ensures. An unclassifiable innovator, "servant of the spirit of the times in its playful version", this former student of the Delft Polytechnic, born May 30, 1859 in Enschede, has an impressive list of achievements to his credit: the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergères, the Olympia, the Casino de Paris, the Capucines, Marigny, the Élysée Montmartre, the Rumpelmayer tea room (now the Angelina), the Mollard brewery, the Café Riche, the Brébant, the Biarritz casinos, of Trouville, Chatel Guyon, the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, the Pyrénées Palace Hotel in Luchon, the one in Madrid, Fontainebleau, Ostend... And soon the new face of the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the studios of the Victorine in Nice. The historian Bruno Foucart writes: "With Niermans, the architecture of the 19th century is inspiring and smiling."

That same year 1904, Édouard Niermans decided to leave Paris to settle permanently with his family in Nice. In 1909, he had a sumptuous house built on the way to Carras, in the western suburbs of the city called La Californie, which would also house his agency: the Villa des Eucalyptus. "He had arrived at this situation by the strength of his wrist. In the newspapers, laudatory articles were written about his talent. My father, an artist and an unrepentant traveler had a taste for his profession. He loved perfection in everything he did. This Eucalyptus villa was for the couple the culmination of great success, a beautiful union." Jean Niermans, Memoirs.

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Henry Negresco's Côte d'Azur dream

For a long time Henry Negresco has cherished the idea of opening the most beautiful establishment of the Coast, a palace hotel, a palace as he then built himself on this Riviera that we invent by means of eclectic constructions which have nothing Mediterranean "but which however will integrate perfectly into the landscape of the seaside to the point of becoming the image of reference. The postcard par excellence" writes Gilles Roberto (DEA thesis prepared at the Faculty of Letters of Nice). The meeting of Henry Negresco with Édouard Niermans will seal this dream and mark forever the urban landscape of Nice. So much so that the gigantic neo-parisian-style ship will become over the years the emblematic architectural object of the city. "I think that all my father's activities, his successes in the great hotels, had come to the ears of this character and that he had summoned him to this very luxurious hotel that he intended to build," Jean Niermans, Memoirs.
As curious as it may seem, the choice of location for the hotel was made on a 6,500 sqm plot of land by the sea, far from the heart of the resort, close to the Masséna Palace, along the brand new Promenade des Anglais, which was then called the "end of the world". It was a bold gamble. A real challenge to the customs of Nice. Tourism was winter and tradition dictated that the palaces were to take root in the aristocratic district par excellence of Cimiez, on the heights of the city, far from the Mediterranean, at a good distance from the sea and the Baie des Anges.
In 1906, while people were screaming madly, Niermans drew up the outline of an ambitious project: an establishment offering the synthesis of what a wealthy client could expect in terms of luxury and comfort, combined with the ease of execution desired by a hotel manager. Pleasure, a serious matter, deserves intense reflection. Negresco, who knows the imperatives of a perfect service, annotates and corrects the plans of Niermans, who is driven by an absolute rigor, and who brings the same requirement to the reception rooms as to the kitchens, the keystones of the pleasures of the table. "Mr. Negresco was especially looking for the possibility of fitting out a large kitchen with a pantry to serve not only the dining room but also the bedrooms upstairs. He also wanted the service of supply and storage. Very often, he came to watch the progress of the preliminary projects that day after day took a definitive form, to approve my father's designs, to correct in detail certain technical points that are the logical continuation of such a palace. Both of them came out of the office, I could see by their often smiling faces that the project was taking shape. And the precious satisfaction of this multimillionaire specialist, fragrant and elegant, who above all demanded impeccable service. The Eucalyptus animation was then increasing. The drawing office provided new layers all day long." Jean Niermans, Memoirs.
The search for perfection and the taste for excellence are ingrained in both men. Together they travel through Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, tracking down luxury establishments, checking out the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridge's, the Automobile Club, the Waldorf, the Cecil, the Métropole. There, meter in hand, they measure the width of the corridors, bedrooms, bathrooms, note the fittings, criticize or appreciate the various amenities offered to the clientele. However, the architect notes: "I have to admit very easily that I didn't see much of interest that I didn't already know. The Savoy Hotel's new rooms were the only things that caught my attention, they are well understood and the recommendation was for the cabinets to be in the thickness of the walls. [...] In general, from the point of view of service organization, I find that all the hotels without exception, even the Ritz, leave much to be desired. In short, I have not seen any logical and useful concentration of any service, either as kitchens and outbuildings, or as cellars or administrative areas. ...] It is especially important that control from the administrative point of view should be practical or concentrated and easy, and I must confess that I have found with great personal satisfaction that my colleagues have always neglected this lively part of hotel operation, which is, however, of prime importance. The most beautiful watch on earth, without a well-understood movement, is a bad watch".

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The financing of the operation remains. In 1900, in Enghien, where he had just bought the Casino restaurant, Negresco met Pierre Alexandre Darracq, an annuitant, co-founder of an airplane engine company and the Darracq-Talbot automobile firm. The restaurateur knows how to interest the financier in his project who agrees to support it by becoming the main investor. But the business proves to be delicate. Negresco asks Niermans to take an active part in the negotiations of the ground. For his part, Darracq asked the architect not only to draw up a financial study on the operation of a luxury hotel with 450 rooms, but also to defend it with the lending banks. "His various actions go far beyond the simple role of an architect," Gilles Roberto points out. Niermans telegraphed Négresco: "I'll be in touch with you soon and I think that everything will be arranged soon. I will tell you in person how laborious and difficult this has been, especially because I was alone in the struggle, poor Nune (Negresco's lawyer) being always sick in bed. He approved of everything I did and the extraordinary thing is that I agreed with the notary. [...] Saw the salesman who also accepts my proposals. I must see him again tomorrow to make him accept six hundred and fifty francs at the signature, three hundred to four months and three hundred in three annual installments. Am very tired of all this and would be happy to finish it all and go home. Best regards."
Pierre Alexandre Darracq and Marcel Roubaud, owners of the Soufrières de Marseille, founded the Société Immobilière de la Côte d'Azur (S.I.C.A.), a non-trading real estate company that owned the land as soon as it was established, and Henry Négresco, a company with a capital of 1,111,000 francs whose purpose was to operate the hotel. However, the difficulties linked to the acquisition of the land and the financial arrangements are delaying the implementation of the project. It was not until September 1911 that the first excavations finally began, thwarted by heavy rains and repeated absences of maneuvers. The architect notes: "the work took up a greater amount of activity and this will be greatly increased from the first days of October. We currently have the workers and especially the earthmovers, without exception, busy with the grape harvest and also with the famous Saint-Michel which plays a great role here".Master builder according to the great tradition, Édouard Niermans gives coherence and unity to the building, conceiving it in its smallest details, from the stair railings to the light fixtures, from the door knobs to the glass roof of the large living room. Setting himself up as a true conductor, he directs and coordinates the various trades, masons, carpenters, roofers, chiselers, staffers, upholsterers, glassmakers, ironworkers, bronze smiths... and orders paintings and sculptures from artists of his choice to embellish the building. Thus he entrusted Paul Gervais with the realization of the monumental canvas that adorned the Royal Salon, "The embarkation for Kythera" where Mrs. Negresco appears under the features of a Venetian planter. Friend of Auguste Renoir, Jules Chéret, Félix Ziem and Theo Van Gogh, Niermans does not mix genres when it comes to the realization of decorative works.Masterfully carried out, the work progresses rapidly. The use of reinforced cement, a new fast-setting material, offers considerable time savings. A few months later, the imposing building was erected. Taking the shape of a vast lozenge of 5,245 m2, the entire building is structured on five levels around the spectacular Salon Royal, topped by an immense elliptical glass roof. This masterful space serves as a circulation and social lounge where one can see and be seen.
Until 1921, the main access was on the city side at the back of the hotel through a monumental hall decorated with Ionic columns and flanked by an imposing staircase of honor (part of the hotel sold in apartments in the 1940s). While sheltered by an elegant marquee and crowned by the famous pink dome, the current reception of the Promenade des Anglais is then secondary. "My father drew up contracts with different companies, studied all the competition to obtain the best prices, the total of which was not to exceed the estimate. If it all worked out perfectly, it was thanks to my father's talent and willingness. He was the creative brain behind a unique work, Mr. Negresco being the animator, program director, controller of all the technical details of the organization of the largest palace on the French Riviera." Jean Niermans, Memoirs.

The Negresco, undisputed temple of the resort

The construction of the palace is accelerating. Negresco is busy recruiting its staff, which it wants to be both irreproachable and outstanding, especially in the kitchen. Thus he brings together the great chefs of the moment in an exceptional brigade that will shape like nowhere else in the world, a table of refined opulence served in a brilliant ceremony by a discreet room staff of extreme obligingness. The great hotel industry of the time was a compartmentalized corporation. Solicited from all over the world, chefs sailed from palace to palace, from London to Buenos Aires, from Lausanne to Biarritz. "During the 1912-1913 season, a considerable event was to take place in the hotel world: the opening of the Hotel Negresco in Nice. This birth was to take on a very special luster, it was decided, luxury and supreme refinement, that for this first season in the kitchen, the positions of party chefs (saucier, entremétier, roaster, grill, fishmonger, vegetable garden, pastry chef ...) would be held by chefs known and confirmed. All the chefs of the time were of course intrigued to be part of this extraordinary brigade that could never be brought together again, that was certain, and the struggle was hot. My father (Jean Litschgy, a renowned chef) was given the position of chief fishmonger. He was extremely proud of it." Émile Litschgy, La vie des Palaces, Éditions TAC Motifs.

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Details of the monumental fresco in the Salon Royal entitled "L'embarquement pour Cytère" painted by Paul Gervais. In the center, dressed in Venetian, the wife of Henry Negresco.

1914. War marks the end of parties

"It was nevertheless necessary to realize that "it was war", when on August 2nd, 1914, in the pretty and fragrant city of Nice, the posters of general mobilization were seen and at the same time "the General" with its low and moving sounds was heard", second lieutenant Astruc.

September 12th, 1914. The war that had only just begun was raging on all fronts. Losses were considerable, leading to the evacuation of hundreds of wounded to Nice and the requisition of palaces. Like the Imperial, the Ruhl or the Winter Palace, the Negresco, whose opening splendor still resounds in all memories, is assigned in turn to a complementary military hospital under the number 15. Le Petit Niçois writes: "Many wounded arrived in Nice that night again. A train brought 250 of them at one o'clock in the morning; a second train 250 at 2:45 a.m. and a third train 355 at 5 a.m. Some arrived from the Vosges, others from Belgium, where they took part in the fighting at Neufchâteau, others from the banks of the Somme and the Oise... The number of wounded is already out of proportion to the resources of our military hospitals. And other convoys are announced. How are we going to deal with a situation that is already particularly difficult? It seems to us that it would be time to consider that there are other hotels in Nice than those used until now by the military authority."

The Belle Époque is no more, swept away by the most deadly conflict in contemporary history. Temple of the Nice resort, the Negresco opens a dark page of its history for which the palace is not prepared. "In the kitchens, where the operating tables have been installed, it is already overflowing. Surgeons are wading in blood. When they approach the table, the cripples, those who have the strength, start to scream. They struggle until the nurse puts the ether mask on their faces. They scream in fear, they scream in pain, it goes up the floors, the tea room, the music room, the corridors where the luxury carpets have been removed so that the carts can roll better and protect them from the disaster. The big hotels: the Majestic, the Ruhl, the Negresco, the Alhambra, the Grand Hotel, the Regina, the Imperial, the Continental, the Royal, the Hermitage had to get used to the human misery, the amputations, the spilling blood, the smells. By August 1914, the hospitals in the North and East had no more room. The last clients packed their suitcases, the furniture, the Empire chests of drawers, the Louis XV chairs, the XVIIIth century loveseats in the garden, sheltered from the rain and the wind by simple tarpaulins". Raoul Mille, Le Parfum d'Helena, Albin Michel, 2009.

Caught in the turmoil, Henry Negresco, the builder of the Côte d'Azur dream to which he gave his name, shows patriotism and devotion. Mobilized on the spot, the hotelier remains at the helm of his establishment as administrator and economist, while his daughter holds the position of librarian. The man thus intends to watch over his palace. But for the time being, the former Romanian maître d'hôtel is busy and does everything in his power to serve the victims. "Beds had been prepared for the wounded in the rooms of the requisitioned hotels, but also in the halls, these rooms were named after the heroes of the moment: thus the great hall of the Negresco was named Nicolas II, but there were also the rooms Albert I and Joffre. The officers shared a room with two or three, it depended on the arrivals of the front." Ralph Schor, Nice during the First World War 1914-1918, memory D.E.S., University of Aix-en-Provence, 1963.

The palace is deserted. Cooks, waiters, baggage handlers, receptionists were called up for service or returned in haste to their countries of origin in Italy, Switzerland or Germany. About sixty people, orderlies, nurses, stretcher-bearers, took up residence on the gigantic ship commanded by Chief Medical Officer Massier, a first-class orderly, assisted by volunteer doctors Faraut and Jays. The metamorphosis of the palace is total. The conduct of Henry Negresco is exemplary. Doesn't he offer to pay for the maintenance of one hundred beds out of his own pocket? The fact remains that, faced with the scale of the conflict, the hotel owner's dream is crumbling. No doubt he can't help but think of the world that is being turned upside down. To this hotel that he wanted the most beautiful establishment on the Coast and which he entrusted the realization to Édouard Niermans, the most courted architect of this Belle Epoque. To the announced success of his prestigious house, as evidenced by the exceptional results of the first two years of operation. To this new winter season that is coming, and that will not be. To the considerable loans, he has contracted and will soon have to face.

"Cities, like beings, have a soul that changes, forms and deforms according to circumstances. ...] I left Nice, a city of pleasure, I find it entrenched. Nice has no industry, no commerce, no university, it has its sun, its flowers, its blue sky, its festivals. Yesterday, it was a garden of beauty where a crowd of idlers was walking. Today, it is still adorned with flowers, flooded with sunshine, but it has lost its frivolity, it has adapted. Everywhere it is criss-crossed by soldiers. ...] Hotels once full of rich foreigners take in Belgian refugees. ...] Nice has lost its luxury, sometimes of bad taste, its glitz, its frivolity. ...] Later, the bloody tragedy will be over, when a cosmopolitan crowd will crowd its walks, when Carnival will shake its bells, who knows if I will not regret the serious, saddened, courageous Nice I would have seen during the war." Renée Tony d'Ulmès.


September 25, 1915, one year after its requisition as a military hospital, the Negresco is un-requisitioned. Le Petit Niçois writes: "the military authority acceded to the wishes of the season's organizers and granted that one tenth of the beds be un-requisitioned, but on the condition that the vacancies would be immediately filled by new requisitions".In Nice, four hotels, the Riviera, the Winter Palace, the Ruhl and the Negresco are thus released. However, only the Ruhl and Riviera can be operated again. It was too late - the season started in November - to bring the Negresco back into operation under normal opening conditions. Like many large establishments, the hotel suffered from the use for which it was not intended. A refurbishment of the facilities is required. The palace reopened a year later for the winter of 1916-1917. However, guests were scarce. The last two seasons of the war proved to be bitter failures. The Great War had turned the page on a world that enjoyed "gold dust and endless spaces". In the aftermath of the conflict, the difficult resumption of tourist activity pushed Henry Negresco to part with the hotel of his dreams. His clientele is no longer there. Grand dukes and Russian aristocrats sank into the turmoil of 1917. The Germans, who accounted for most of the foreign guests, fled the French Riviera in 1914. They did not return until much later. Finally, it remains that the old, exclusive and solemn hotel business that Negresco ran so well is no longer to the taste of the coming generation. Exhausted, the hotelier died ruined, undermined by cancer, in Paris on May 14, 1920, at the age of 52. Far from the lights of his palace, which still bears his name on the shores of the Mediterranean.
For some institutions, the war's division is irrevocable. "Never returned for them the joyous season of renewal, of reopening." For others, many others, the crisis of the thirties will complete them. Then begins the cutting up of the great palaces of the French Riviera with their sale by apartments and their furniture, linen, glassware, silverware by auction in situ. In Nice, the Excelsior, the Régina Palace, the Magestic, the Imperial Park, the Alhambra, the Winter Palace, the Hermitage, the Grand Hotel, the Cosmopolitan, the Ruhl... these gigantic ships, some of which housed more than six hundred rooms, would close their doors or be destroyed, disappearing forever from the Nice landscape. Built in the euphoria of a carefree era for a rich and idle society that crowded the shores of the Mediterranean in winter, these jewels of "l'hôtellerie de séjour" will sink with it.
The fortunes are weakened, architectural commissions are scarce. Forced to reduce his important lifestyle, Edouard Niermans had to give up his Eucalyptus villa in 1917. It was soon time for him to hand over to his sons, Jean and Edouard, both architects. All the more so since in 1921, the former magician of forms received the Montlaur wine estate in the Aude region of France in compensation for unpaid fees for work undertaken for the Société fermière de Martigny-les-Bains in the Vosges. Tireless, the architect set to work on his new task and became passionate about winegrowing, residing more and more frequently in his new home - now owned by his grandchildren, where memories of his work are kept - where he died, at the age of sixty-nine, on October 19, 1928.In 1920, "the house of Negresco" was sold to George Marquet, president of the Society of the Great Belgian Hotels, and owner of many palaces including the Claridge in Paris. But fashions have changed. The expected success was not there. In 1948, the palace is divided into two establishments: the Negresco whose rooms look out over the sea and the Mondial, more modest, overlooking the city on the other side. A decade later, the complex survived with great difficulty when Jeanne and Paul Augier bought it in 1957. "The establishment was on the verge of bankruptcy. The rear facades of the building had been sold as apartments. All that remained were those of the Promenade des Anglais. Without maintenance, facing the sea, it was a disaster," notes Jeanne Augier. Under the impulse of its new owners, the Negresco took its breath and found its soul. But if the exterior appearance of the palace - which, except for the first-floor lounges, has been cut down to half of its rooms - remains unchanged, life there will never again resemble the one it once had. Adapted to the demand, the 600 square meter dining room is transformed into a Versailles lounge, two dining rooms, and two conference rooms.Life begins anew. Enriched with works of art and period furniture, the palace has the look of a museum of history... Once again, we come across all the celebrities in the world who have come to dream of outmoded splendor. Rare survivor always in activity of a bygone time, the Negresco enters the legend. Classified as a Historic Monument by the Order of June 13, 2003, the Negresco Hotel is the mirror of a lifestyle and marks the crowning achievement of the dazzling career of two men "from elsewhere", Henry Negresco and Édouard Niermans. Curiously, this "palace of the present times", will remain in the collective memory, the nostalgic incarnation of this Belle Époque that he knew so little about. Jean Cocteau liked to say: "I love this house, it is from the time when facades and women used to have perms. "