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The Gioconda Royal Suite bedroom at the new St. Regis Florence

Renaissance, Reborn!

by Rima Suqi | California Interiors magazine | April 12, 2012

Even today you’d be hard-pressed to find a starchitect-branded glass structure in Florence, one of the few cities in the world with a skyline still relatively untouched by modernization (although rumor has it that Sir Norman Foster has been tapped to design a new train station there). And yet, as the seat of the Renaissance, the capital of Tuscany debuted its own version of architectural worship in the 14th and 15th centuries. Many structures built during that time—including, arguably, its most storied, the domed Santa Maria del Fiore, engineered by architectural pioneer Filippo Brunelleschi—still line the charming streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Lesser known is the quietly imposing palace Brunelleschi built on the banks of the Arno in 1432. Originally home to the noble Guintini family, the structure was then occupied by the Medici clan—Renaissance patrons and popes—en route to becoming the Grand Hotel Royale de la Paix in 1866. As Florence’s inaugural luxury hotel, and the first to boast spaces like a ballroom and winter garden, the Grand drew the world’s elite. Last fall, the historically significant hotel was reborn as the St. Regis Florence. And while the past decade has seen other distinguished regional hotels undergo both small- and large-scale renovations (those that could be diplomatically described as disappointing), the St. Regis Florence stands as a successful rechristening—a historic property refurbished to reflect its roots while appealing to a modern clientele.

At the helm of the ambitious revamp is Michael Stelea, president and principal designer of L.A.-based HDC Interior Architecture + Design. Stelea was a logical choice, given his connections to both the brand and Italy—his firm had worked on the Hotel Imperial Vienna, a hospitality gem for Starwood Resorts and Hotels Worldwide, St. Regis’ parent company, as well as St. Regis Rome. Still, acknowledges the Romania-born architect, “[It] was not an easy assignment,” more like “restoring an apartment with 100 rooms, with no two the same.”

Drawing inspiration for the St. Regis Florence from its New York sibling, celebrated for its exclusivity and service, Stelea got to work. The decision to emulate was clear, but execution proved more complicated, with the Florence structure much older than its NYC muse. Still, notes the architect, it did bring good bones, large (but not too large) public spaces and an undefined reception area. “When you check into a St. Regis, there is no registration desk,” Stelea elaborates. “You sit in a library or living room, and you meet your butler while sipping prosecco. That fit this building very well.”

Also fitting is the cache of priceless swag—incredibly valuable antique furniture, aesthetic adornments and art, much of which is incorporated into décor in the hotel’s main lobby, 81 re-envisioned guest rooms and 19 suites. Also noteworthy for their originality are the elevator foyers, which are, Stelea maintains, singular to the St. Regis Florence. Both purchased and custom-made materials were sourced from local craftsmen, artisans and artists. “Florence is the capital of craftsmanship in Italy,” the architect explains. “You can find anything you want within a 40- or 50-kilometer radius—woodworkers, metalworkers, leatherworkers and the 
best antiques.”

To walk through the hotel is to be a lucky guest in a very grand home. The lobby incorporates a cozy library where you can hunker down on a chesterfield sofa, sipping espresso and perusing a tome plucked from Assouline-titled shelves. There’s also a sitting area for private check-in and butler meet-and-greets, and the Heritage Room, a trove of books, photographs and other history-rich memorabilia like guest registries overflowing with the names of late 19th-century glitterati.

A trio of guest room styles—Florentine, Renaissance and Medici—feature antique furniture as well as equally aged Italian engravings with etched gold-leaf frames, crystal chandeliers, dramatic hand-carved wood canopied beds, hand-painted and meticulously restored Florentine frescoes and, with a nod to modernism, marbled bathrooms and well-designed closets. Narrow hallways twist and turn, with the odd staircase leading to a hidden wing. One points the way to the one-of-a-kind Bottega Veneta suite, where a neutral palette blankets everything from furniture to ornamentation designed by the company’s creative director, Tomas Maier.

Dramatic touches extend to the hotel’s bespoke dining venue, Etichetta Pinchiorri. Strategically positioned in a room that once served as a winter garden, and directly under a magnificent, 19th-century art-glass ceiling anchored by one of the largest Murano glass chandeliers ever made—this restaurant serves innovative regional Mediterranean cuisine and boasts one of the best wine lists in town. 

Miraculously, the entire restoration of the supremely elegant St. Regis Florence took just 10 months—the result, undoubtedly, of serious commitment. “We always felt a responsibility to do this hotel right,” Stelea says. “[There was] no excuse to do it otherwise.”