Athénée Palace Hilton Bucharest is located in the heart of the city, on Str. Episcopiei at the corner of Calea Victoriei on the former site of the Gherasi Inn, the hotel faces onto the small park in front of the Romanian Athenaeum on Revolution Square (originally Athenaeum Square, then Republic Square). It did not originally face onto a square: at the time the hotel was built, the space that is now a small park was occupied by the Splendid Hotel, destroyed by bombing on August 24, 1944, and there were a considerable number of other buildings on what is now the square.
The building of the Athénée Palace began in 1912 and was completed in 1914; when World War I began, it had 149 rooms, 10 suites, and a restaurant. Designed by the French architect Théophile Bradeau, the hotel had a French fin de siècle look, an international staff, and, soon enough, a reputation. Modernized 1935–1937 by Duiliu Marcu, was the first building in Bucharest to use reinforced concrete construction. Describing the hotel as it looked in 1938, the London's Daily Express and later the Daily Herald referred to its "heavily ornate furnishings, marble and gold pillars, great glittering chandeliers, and the deep settees placed well back in the recesses of the lounge as if inviting conspiracy".
Damaged by bombing during World War II, it was remodeled after being taken over by the Communist government in 1948, and again damaged in the Romanian Revolution of 1989 (some of whose worst violence occurred in the square immediately in front of the hotel).
It was and remodeled (and expanded) yet again by Hilton International in 1995–1997. Expanded to 272 rooms (including five presidential suites), the Athénée Palace Hilton resembles the old hotel fairly closely, despite a healthy dose of modernization. The famous English Bar, dimly lit and full of plush red couches, is more likely to contain young American businessmen with the beginnings of wealthy waistlines than it is to hold femmes fatales eliciting state secrets.
The plaza served as the center of Romanian political theater throughout the 20th century. The square is the fulcrum and the focus of Bucharest, bisected by the city's main boulevard. King Carol II shaped the square in the thirties to provide a site for a protective field of fire around his palace, to defend against a revolution. The Athénée Palace Hotel may have been Europe's most notorious den of spies in the years leading up to World War II, and only slightly less so during the Cold War. A English journalist called it the "most notorious caravanserai in all Europe, the meeting place of the Continental spies, political conspirators, adventurers, concession hunters, and financial manipulators". In 1948 the hotel was nationalized by the new Communist government, who famously bugged every room, tapped every phone (and every pay phone within half a mile), and staffed the entire hotel with informers.
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