Fifty-seven Whitehall in London’s Westminster has had a long and storied history: Once the palace of the Tudors and the Stuarts, its time as a royal residence came to an abrupt end in 1698 when a servant set the building alight by hanging linens too close to the fire. By the end of the Victorian era, the British government was in desperate need of a new war office—the existing headquarters, located in Winchester House on St James’s Square, sat upon a cesspit so noxious that employees frequently caught “Winchester House sore throat.” A heroically imposing structure was then built on the Whitehall grounds to serve the British Armed Forces at the turn of the century. When WW I broke out, those quarters served as the base to defend the free world; during WW II, the Battle of the Bulge was planned amid its many rooms. At the same time, a young naval intelligence assistant, one Ian Fleming, was running around its halls. (The building would later serve as the set for five James Bond films, including Skyfall and Licence to Kill.)
This September, 57 Whitehall enters a new era as Raffles London at The OWO (short for “Old War Office”). The hotel’s opening follows a six-year renovation, overseen by the late French architect Thierry Despont, resulting in 120 guest rooms across seven floors, 2.5 miles of corridors, and a 65-foot subterranean pool alongside a Guerlain Spa. (Despont was known for his restorations—he oversaw the revival of New York’s Statue of Liberty and the Woolworth Building. “Working with this extraordinary historical building, with such a deep connection to legendary personalities and stately rooms, our job was to preserve and enhance its rich DNA,” he said of the project.) Here oak doors have brass push plates adorned with the royal cipher of Edward VII, and the 13 decorative fireplaces were salvaged from other London landmarks. The wide hallways—designed to accommodate couriers ferrying confidential MI5 and MI6 correspondence—have too been preserved. And the hotel has also kept its discreet entrance off of Whitehall Court, marked by EVIIR (Edward VII) insignia—perfect for spies, or perhaps, today, a privacy-seeking celebrity.
The OWO will include nine new restaurants, including three from the Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco. (His Mirazur in the South of France is considered one of the best in the world). Langosteria, the famed Milan seafood restaurant, will open its first London outpost within its hallowed halls, and Lapérouse—the buzzy French café that transforms into an evening hotspot—will open its first location there outside of Paris.
An elaborate afternoon tea will be served in the old library as another nod to the many chapters of the building’s long and varied life. (“Just to have a cup of tea and discover the grandeur—it’s a moving experience,” the hotel’s managing director, Philippe Leboeuf, tells Vogue.) Meanwhile, a rooftop bar has panoramic views of Buckingham Palace.
Upon entry, guests will be met by the imposing marble staircase that has been polished to its original sheen. “The marble stairs are only for Field Marshals and charwomen,” T. E. Lawrence, an employee here in the early 20th century, once scoffed. Now, in a nod to less-inhibited 21st-century impulses, “butlers” will be on hand to oblige those wanting to document their ascent. The spies can take the back stairs.