Jason Goodwin takes a look at landmarks with a story to tell.
Soho House is a hotel and club, with branches in this country and in Hollywood, New York, Barcelona and other cities, catering to ‘highly mobile creative professionals’, as it says.
The one in Istanbul is partly housed in the old American consulate, the Palazzo Corpi, the neo-Baroque mansion that you see at the top of this page. It was built in the 1870s for a Genoese businessman who had everything shipped in from home, down to the marble and the fresco painters: it boasts a colonnade, a loggia and a splendid staircase on which le tout Constantinople probably hoped to make an entrance.
Next door is the famous Pera Palace, built in the 1890s to give passengers on the Orient Express somewhere suitable to stay when they got to the end of the line. These hotels are a bit like those old country houses where Elizabeth I is reputed to have slept in the bed – Agatha Christie allegedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express here.
It reminds me of the old Peace in Shanghai where Noël Coward wrote Private Lives, the hotel owned by his friend Victor Sassoon (who once declared that only one race was greater than the Jews – the Derby) and of the room I once inspected in the Pamplona hotel where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway popped up in Istanbul too, writing for the Toronto Star and staying up the street from the Pera Palace at the Grand Hotel de Londres, which is now in a state of tempting dishabille, with carpets worn to the string and a parrot squawking in the bar. The gold leaf has long ago been replaced by paint. There is mismatched brown furniture, potted plants and a sinister collection of motorbikes and mannequins at the back.
The Pera Palace devotes a room – Room 101 – to a museum. It’s clearly a habit of hoteliers. In the southern Turkish city of Urfa, formerly Edessa, a crusader kingdom from where the Turin Shroud was brought to Italy, I’ve seen a much humbler hotel room that retained its old room number and old door and latticework air-vents after the modernisation of the hotel, so that the effect of walking down the corridor was like a stroll back to 1960, when the Muslim divine Said Nursi died in the room.
It is preserved not so much as a museum, as a shrine. We took off our shoes at the door and found the room hung with old photographs and books of commentary, with no bed and, oddly, in spite of the old door and the air-vent, a shiny new blockwood floor to match the rest of the hotel.
Room 101 at the Pera Palace is devoted to its most famous guest, Mustafa Kemal, also known as Atatürk, or the father of his nation, the stern military commander who dragged the Turkish rump of the Ottoman Empire kicking and screaming into the modern western world.
He created a secular state, imposed European dress, ditched Arabic script for the Latin and banned all marks of religion from public life. Turkey is now a reasonably rich and well-educated country. Mr Erdogan has lately reaped the benefits, but it’s the man in Room 101 who made it possible.
Probably the über-chic Soho House will one day have a room set aside as a museum devoted to some – as yet undiscovered – highly mobile creative professional, but, in the meantime, it has made a worthy shrine of its own. For in its funky lobby, ranked like talismans on the wenge-wood shelving units, I found a complete unbroken run of Country Life magazines, dating back to the mid-1980s. I quite felt like kicking off my shoes.
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