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.
WHEN ARCHITECTURE GETS INSPIRED
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.
THE IMPOSING EDIFICE FINALLY COMES OUT OF THE GROUND
"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.