Venetia van Kuffeler visits Admiralty Arch, an iconic building that will soon open in 2023 as a luxury hotel, with members club and residences
A momentous backdrop for processions like Trooping of the Colour and state visits, Admiralty Arch holds a special place in the hearts of the British. The gateway to Buckingham Palace was completed in 1912 after being commissioned by King Edward VII as a tribute to his mother Queen Victoria. Full of grandeur and importance as the main processional route leading up to the Palace, some of the world’s most notable figures – grand duke’s and duchesses, political leaders, emperors, kings, queens and dictators – have all passed through Admiralty Arch.
Until now, it has remained an enigma, mainly due to the nature of what went on inside. Over the years, Admiralty Arch has been home to the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lords; it has served as a centre for clandestine wartime intelligence efforts; as a Royal Navy outpost and latterly as the centre for the Cabinet Office. Residents included Winston Churchill who was the first Lord of the Admiralty between 1939 and 1940. Novelist Ian Fleming, who worked as a naval intelligence officer during World War II, often visited the arch.
However, in 2011 the British government put Admiralty Arch up for sale, and the winning bidder out of 28 was announced in 2015 as Raphael Serrano, CEO of Prime Investors Capital (PIC). Planning permission was obtained, and three elements to the project were revealed: a hotel, members club and residences. Waldorf Astoria has been appointed as hotel operator.
Of course, restoration of the arch is no simple job. Admiralty Arch was originally designed by Sir Aston Webb, the leading Edwardian architect in Britain at the time, responsible for the Buckingham Palace facade and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Serrano’s vision has been to bring the building back to life in a way that people like Aston Webb would have approved, and so they have returned to Webb’s original drawings wherever possible, working with key stakeholders like HM Government, The Crown Estate, The Royal Parks, Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and English Heritage.
To date, contractors have been hard at work on the excavation and construction of a shell and core basement box under The Mall, which will include amongst other things: a swimming pool, spa and ballroom, and over 300 piles have been placed underneath Trafalgar Square and The Mall. No expense or effort is being spared to preserve Admiralty Arch’s character. The hotel’s suites will be named after the different Admirals with connections to the building – Mountbatten and Churchill, for example – and will showcase the very best of British design wherever possible. These suites command impressive views over the heart of London: Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column; St James’ Park; the London Eye and Westminster. And whoever is in residence during the Trooping of the Colour can expect the most impressive panorama possible for the celebrations. Fit out and completion will start next year, with a view to opening the hotel and members club in June 2023. David Mlinaric is the lead interior designer whose past projects include the Royal Opera House and Victoria & Albert Museum.
Rafael Serrano is keenly aware of the responsibilities that rest on his shoulders. “The building has served key stakeholders in this country for over 100 years. In the restoration of Admiralty Arch, we are fulfilling the promise given to the British government to go back to that original concept, restore the building, respect the architecture and English heritage, and invite hundreds of British artisans to bring life to the project.” His intention is not only to invite new guests to the hotel – international or otherwise – but also to connect with local residents, businesspeople, and key institutions in the arts as collaborators called ‘Friends of Admiralty Arch.’
The health pandemic has meant 2020 has been an unusual year. Serrano notes that “hundreds of people are risking their lives to come here and make this project happen. This is a building that is part of history, and throughout history, hotels have changed the dynamics of capital cities. I believe this is not a hotel, but an iconic landmark, that just happens to be a hotel. Admiralty Arch is symbolic of London culture. It’s not only the gateway to the Palace, but also the whole of London and what London represents to the world.”