Czechoslovakia’s first design hotel returns to its jet-setting glory days
The architecture of the 1960s tends to divide people worldwide. The era is even more criticized in Central and Eastern Europe, as the buildings are often seen as relics of the communist era.
But as with any art movement, you could get a gem when people put some thought into their projects.
The current management of Parkhotel Praha, which is owned by real estate developer Daramis Group, has decided to embrace the building’s roots and restore it to its 1967 glory days. They are using the tag line “Park yourself in the 60’s” to promote the hotel.
The hotel was the height of modernity when it was new, a glass and concrete box on legs, with a marble patio sporting a semi-abstract sculpture.
Renovations on the lobby, café and bar areas have just been completed, and two earlier phases focused on a corridor, shop and wellness center, as well as on meeting rooms, the breakfast buffet and toilets. The expenditure on reconstruction since July 2013 has been 100 million Kč and is continuing to grow as more is done, such as replacing the marble in the outside terrace. The initial budget was 40 million Kč, but more needed to be done than was anticipated.
Some parts of the hotel are close replicas of the original design, while others are inspired by the 1960s, as some modernization is required. Aside from cosmetic changes, pressing technical problems like a leaking roof were also addressed. The hotel’s 237 rooms are not being renovated in the current plan but were modernized in 2004–5 to meet current travel expectations.
Manager Monika Hilm told the Prague Post that the building was completed during the optimistic era of socialism with a human face and was one of the last major architectural projects completed before the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. “It is a period that Czechs can be proud of,” she said, referring to 1967.
It was also one of the first design hotels in Europe, and the first in Czechoslovakia, following on the heels of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark. That hotel also still operates and is now the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel.
Daramis Group is not known as a hotel operator, and they were initially more interested in the land than in the building, which had fallen into neglect and a bit of disrepair. The interior had undergone a massively misguided remodeling in 1993–94, lowering the ceilings and adding kitschy chandeliers and furniture to try make it look classier.
The result had the opposite effect, and the 1980s-style look was out of date already when it was put in. Overall, the ambiance was that of a generic motel where people stayed because they had little choice. The hotel’s records don’t even have the name of the designer responsible.
The hotel by the 2000s catered to busloads of what Hilm characterized as “cheap and cheerful” tourists, and group rates for rooms were relatively low. The hotel’s large parking area makes it ideal for bus tours, compared with hotels on narrow streets downtown.
“It felt as if the soul had been sucked out of the building,” Hilm said.
When Hilm first visited the hotel on behalf of Daramis Group to check the place out, she tried to order a sandwich. The waiter warned her not to, Hilm said. It would take at least 45 minutes to get one from the kitchen, and it wouldn’t be any good, the waiter told her.
Clearly the days when the hotel hosted VIPs like Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn, who visited in 1968, were in its past. Sports stars in particular also stayed there in the hotel’s heyday, because a major arena is nearby, as well as international business travelers.
Hilm, who is Swedish but has lived in Prague since 2008, took over management of the hotel in 2013 when Daramis Group officially purchased it.
She found a few black-and-white photos from the early days, and although they looked much more promising than the décor that she found there, she decided to look for more information. This led her to the original architects and designers or their relatives, who still had some original sketches. The original architects were Zdeněk Edel and Jiří Lavička, and the interior design was by Alena Šrámková. Lavička’s widow had many original drawings. Edel’s archives had been badly damaged by a flood, but Edel himself was a big help in explaining his original vision. “Parkhotel was my baby; it was the first building I was proud of. Parkhotel is intended to be a quality hotel that would be a gem of Prague,” Edel said back when renewed interest was first shown, according to a press release.
The renovation plan, based on the original designs, was by Israeli architect and designer Gad Halperin.
The main idea for the lobby was a keel ceiling, supported by pillars, to suggest the idea of a boat in dry dock. The keel had been partially blocked from view, and the pillars surrounded by oversized circular couches. Much of the clutter has been removed, and furniture much closer to the 1960s pieces has been put in its place. When possible, the design elements are locally sourced. Furniture makers now represented in the hotel include TON, Ray and Charles Eames, Gaetano Pesce, Moroso, and Arper.
A key concept in the 1960s was “less is more” according to Hilm. The space is much more attractive when it is opened up.
The original dark wood check-in desk was a piece of 1960s elegance, and there were two glass phone booths next to it. These have been restored as well, although one is being set up for Internet access.
Hilm pointed out that the oversized 1990s check-in area had a major drawback. It took a staff member more than 30 seconds to get from behind the desk to in front of it. When a customer has a problem, 30 seconds is an incredibly long time, Hilm added.
The amount of natural light in the lobby has also been restored, making the lobby bright again.
Thick walls had been added where they weren’t needed, especially in the conference room area. A plastic wall needlessly divided café and restaurant. These have been removed.
Some lighting fixtures for the lobby had to be custom made to match the original, and getting them approved has taken some time, but they should be installed soon.
In other areas the lighting is different, as new types of lights have become available since 1967, such as halogen and LED. Changes to the air conditioning lowered the ceiling in some areas, and new lighting options had to be explored.
Hilm said that it was not the idea to make a “mausoleum type” replica but a space that in some cases was just inspired by the 1960s, as the expectations of guests has changed.
The original hotel design didn’t have a wellness center, but the hotel now has a Finnish sauna, for example. Of course there is WiFi, as well as more electrical sockets for computer use and phone chargers in the café.
In some cases the restoration achieved things that had been originally planned but never done. The bar has 1960s-style chairs that the original designer couldn’t afford at the time but wanted. A painting by Czech-born artist Robert Piesen also wasn’t in the budget for the bar but is being added now. The bar itself is not an exact replica but has been enlarged a bit to make it more functional.
Some changes from the original are for hygiene. Carpets in the dining area have been replaced with a parquet floor, which is easier to clean on a regular basis. The hotel is also now nonsmoking. A painting from the restaurant is currently being cleaned of decades of cigarette smoke damage and will be reinstalled.
Hilm says that eventually one or two hotel rooms might be restored to their 1960s look as showpieces, but not all of them, as people look for modern amenities while traveling, like a coffee machine and hair dryer, modern shower and flat-screen TV.
The staff, however, will be wearing retro uniforms designed by Česlav Jaroš, and specially made green and purple shoes by Czech retro sneaker brand Botas. The shoes will also be available in the gift shop.
Also in keeping with the ’60s theme, Kofola, the Czechoslovak answer to Coca-Cola, will be on tap at the bar. “The idea is to make people feel they are in the Czech Republic, not in an international hotel,” Hilm said. “Travelers are looking for something original and unique,” she added.
The hotel is on a hill, so the main entrance is elevated from one of the streets. Below the entry level there is a lower-level restaurant, now called Park7 Restaurant, which serves wholegrain pizzas, pasta and Czech food and is meant to be affordable for the residential neighborhood, and has outdoor seating. Hilm has plans to upgrade this a bit in the future, while keeping it affordable but says she has to take one step at a time.
Parkhotel Praha opened in June 1967 and was operated by state-owned tourism company Čedok. The hotel’s name comes from its proximity to Stromovka, Prague’s largest park. The idea for the hotel first came in 1959–64, and construction took three years.
The hotel’s location is near the Trade Fair Palace, Veletržní palác, which is now an art museum but at the time would have attracted out-of-town visitors to trade events. The hotel was one of the few places in Prague to have a telex machine, which is probably best described as an early form of e-mail on paper. The Japanese company Mitsubishi made its office in a suite in the hotel. From 1990 to 2013, the hotel changed hands three times.
Czechoslovak films where one can see the hotel featured include the 1997 film Což takhle dát si špenát, 1980’s Co je doma, to se počítá, pánové, the 1988 classic Bony a klid and the TV series Arabela. Actor Robert Vaughn recounts staying in the hotel during the 1968 Soviet invasion in his memoir A Fortunate Life. He was there with some of the cast and crew of the war film The Bridge at Remagen, which was shot just south of Prague.
Hilm says she has been trying to make film location scouts and production companies aware of the hotel’s retro interior so it can again be used a backdrop to films, advertisements and fashion photography.