Opened in 1895, the grand Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul then symbolised the city’s ambivalent relationship with both East and West. Now, after an exemplary renovation, this truely remarkable building epitomises Istanbul’s renaissance.
Gavin Stamp, Thursday, 3rd March 2011
The first Orient Express train to run all the way overland to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, left Paris in 1888. It arrived at the railway terminus at Sirkeci, designed in an Oriental Moorish style by the German architect August Jachmund, which was situated between Topkapı Sarayı and the New Mosque, the Yeni Cami, in the heart of ancient Stamboul. This, however, was not very convenient for the alighting passengers as they then had to be taken over the Galata Bridge to Pera, the Westernised district where the foreign embassies and the only tolerable hotels were. None of the latter could then provide the standard of luxury to which Orient Express passengers were accustomed, so the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits et des Grands Express Européens acquired an interest in a project for a new hotel to be built west of the Grand Rue de Pera (today the Istiklal Caddesi), close to the British Embassy and overlooking the Golden Horn.
Work on the Pera Palace Hotel began in 1892 and it finally opened three years later. The six-storey building was one of the very few in the city to be lit by electricity and could boast the first electric lift in the Ottoman Empire. It was designed by Alexandre Vallaury (1850–1921), a Levantine architect born in Istanbul who had been trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Vallaury is an intriguing and versatile figure, responsible for many of the Western-style banks and other buildings that rose in Istanbul towards the end of the 19th century; he was responsible for the city’s wonderful Archaeological Museum and taught at the Empire’s first school of architecture. The grand hotel he designed in Pera would sit well in a Paris boulevard; its stone exterior is in a free Classical manner. But the glory of the building is the double-height central saloon, lit from above by six glazed domes and lined in pink, grey and cream marble, for this is designed in an Oriental style with pointed-arched windows filled with timber screens and stained glass (Fig. 4). The Pera Palace, indeed, symbolised Istanbul’s ambivalent relation-ship with both East and West, resulting from the city’s strategic position on the Bosphorus at the very end of Europe and the beginning of Asia.
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