What a long way done! 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 proficiency of half a dozen languages. Polyglot, climbing the ladder one by one, he became 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, the 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 memoiries the eldest son of Édouard Niermans, Jean Niermans, Premier Grand Prix de Rome, and chief architect of the Monuments Nationaux (France)..
In 1904, on the strength of his reputation for knowing how to win, satisfy and keep this clientele as demanding as it is changing, the precious butler, described by a columnist as "an elegant, affable man, of Greek beauty, with velvet eyes black as conquering as his mustache, who also knows how to play with his warm voice tinged with a slight accent ”is called upon to take charge of the restaurant at the Casino Municipal in Nice. Built in 1882 at Place Masséna, this gigantic building (now destroyed) has just been given a facelift. Orchestrated by Édouard Niermans, the architect of the moment, the rehabilitation of his Private Circle is one of the social events that punctuate the life of the microcosm of wealthy winterers residing in Nice for the cold season. "How cool! How gay! " we exclaim admiringly in front of the exuberance of the Art Nouveau decor of the large game room. Celebrated in the gazettes, covered with orders, appreciated by his clients and his commanders whose success he ensures, Édouard Niermans, " polymorphic artist born in Holland by an error of nature ”as depicted with humor a chronicler of Gil Blas, appears among the great organizers of the architectural pleasures of the time. Unclassifiable innovator, "servant of the zeitgeist in its playful version" this former student of the Polytechnic of Delft, born May 30, 1859 in Enschede, has to his credit an impressive prize list: the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergères , the Olympia, the Casino de Paris, the Capucines, Marigny, the Élysée Montmartre, the Rumpelmayer tea room (now Angelina), the Mollard brasserie, the café Riche, the Brébant, the casinos of Biarritz, Trouville , Chatel Guyon, the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, the Pyrénées Palace Hôtel de Luchon, the one in Madrid, Fontainebleau, Ostende… And soon the new face of the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo and the studios of la Victorine in Nice. Historian Bruno Foucart writes: "with Niermans, 19th century architecture gets drunk and smiles."
That same year 1904, Édouard Niermans decided to leave Paris to settle permanently with his family in Nice. In 1909, he built a sumptuous house on Chemin de Carras, in the western suburbs of the city called La Californie, which would also house his agency: the Villa des Eucalyptus. “He had come by force of his wrist to this situation. In the newspapers, laudatory articles devoted his talent. My artist father, an unrepentant traveling soul, had a taste for his profession. He loved perfection in everything he did. This Eucalyptus villa was for the couple the outcome of great success and beautiful union. " Jean Niermans, Memories.
As curious as it may seem, the choice of the location of the hotel fell on a plot of 6,500 square meters by the sea, far from the heart of the resort, near the Palais Masséna, along the the brand new Promenade des Anglais, then called "end of the world". The bet is daring. A real challenge for Nice uses. Tourism is then winter and tradition wants palaces to take root in the aristocratic district par excellence of Cimiez, on the heights of the city, far from the Mediterranean, a good distance from the sea and the Baie des Anges. curious as it may seem, the choice of the location of the hotel fell on a plot of 6,500 square meters by the sea, far from the heart of the resort, near the Palais Masséna, along the brand new Promenade des Anglais, then called "end of the world". The bet is daring. A real challenge for Nice uses. Tourism is then winter and tradition has it that palaces are rooted in the aristocratic district par excellence of Cimiez, on the heights of the city, far from the Mediterranean, a good distance from the sea and the Baie des Anges.
In 1906, while we were crying out for madness, Niermans drew up the outline of an ambitious project: an establishment offering the synthesis of what a wealthy client could expect in luxury and comfort, combined with the ease of execution. desired by a hotel manager. Pleasure, serious business, deserves intense reflection. To do this, the architect and his client work in perfect harmony: Négresco, who knows the imperatives of a perfect service, annotates and corrects Niermans' plans if necessary, who animated with absolute rigor, brings the same requirements to reception rooms and kitchens, keystones of the pleasures of the table. "Mr. Négresco was especially looking for the possibility of fitting out a large kitchen with a pantry to serve not only the dining room but the upstairs bedrooms. He also wanted the supply and storage service. Very often, he came to watch the progress of the drafts which day after day took on a final form, to approve my father's designs, to correct in detail certain technical points which are the logical consequences of such a palace. Both were leaving the office, I could see by their often smiling faces that the project was taking shape. And the precious contentment of this multimillionaire specialist, perfumed and elegant, who above all demanded impeccable service. The animation of the Eucalyptus then increased. The design office provided new layers all day long. ” Jean Niermans, Memories.
The pursuit of perfection and the taste for excellence inhabit the two men. Together they roam Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, track down luxury establishments, examine the Ritz, the Savoy, the Claridge's, the Automobile Club, the Waldorf, the Cecil, the Metropolis. There, meter in hand, they measure the width of the corridors, bedrooms and bathrooms, note the fittings, criticize or appreciate the various amenities offered to customers. The architect notes, however, “I have to admit very easily that I didn't see much of interest that I didn't already know. Only the new rooms at the Savoy Hotel caught my attention, they are well understood and we recommended wardrobes in the thickness of the walls. […] In general, from the point of view of the organization of the service, I find that all the hotels without exception, even the Ritz, leave a lot 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 parts. […] It is above all important that the control from an administrative point of view be practical or concentrated and easy, and I confess that I have noted with great personal satisfaction that my colleagues had always neglected this lively part of the operation of a hotel, which is however of prime importance. The most beautiful watch on Earth, without a well understood movement, is a bad watch. "
"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.