St James Hotel, Paris: Wit and colour

One of a kind ... the staircases inside St James.
One of a kind ... the staircases inside St James. 

Read our writer's views on this property below

Flamboyance meets grandeur in this eccentrically decorated Parisian chateau, writes John Coleman.

We've come down to breakfast at Paris's St James Hotel where Pilou, the hotel's rotund, black cat, seated on a red-brocaded chair at an adjoining table, gazes fixedly at us. He walks over for a closer inspection, declines a pat and stalks off.

Pilou and many other things make this a very different hotel - such as the panther prints on the dining room's carpet, walls adorned with copies of 19th-century masters and, contrastingly, doors opening to an adjoining room reflecting English club decor, with deep leather armchairs and couches, lavishly stocked bar and handsome old books from floor to ceiling.

There is a lounge with Napoleon III-style furniture, more panthers, 14 metres of chandelier "chaos" and a grand staircase in black and white opening on to 350 square metres of gardens with fantastic arbours in the shape of hot-air balloons, the fabric in blue with pink roses, replicating those that took off here more than a century ago.

Breathtaking ... St James Hotel.
Breathtaking ... St James Hotel. 

The St James is Paris's only chateau-hotel; off avenues Foch and Victor Hugo, it is a quiet enclave minutes from the Champs Elysees' chaotic traffic, on the site of Paris's first airfield, where those hot-air balloons were launched.

A statue at the imposing gatehouse recalls the chateau was built in 1892 by his widow as a memorial to French president and historian Adolphe Thiers.

It became a British-owned, exclusive club in the mid-1980s; now with French family owners, it has undergone a stunning makeover by eccentric-chic designer Bambi Sloan. The French-American graphic artist and former ballerina has complemented the panther prints with bold colours, French provincial and Parisian furniture, some bought at flea markets, and wry humour. Remarkably, it all blends and the venerable mansion maintains its classic look.

Sloan has three rooms at the hotel and is adding finishing touches to the St James's transformation during our stay.

We learn those sweeps of black on the balustrades and arches of the red-carpeted grand staircase were inspired by the Cecil Beaton fashions in My Fair Lady - the women at the Ascot races wore white dresses with waists accentuated by black belts. The lounge's columns are sheathed in old bookbinding-like wallpaper.

There's also a spiral staircase where Sloan has sketched a medley of hot-air balloons for the wallpaper, no doubt drawing on the faded print of the original in the small elevator. The two floors above are illuminated by lines of wood-frame balloons, bulbs like tongues of fire, the suite doors lacquered in bright red.

Design of every room and suite - there are 48, mostly suites averaging 50 square metres - is exotically different. Our suite has Sloan's inspired, deep-brown carpet replicating parquetry flooring; the wallpaper is in soft sage green, the carved bedhead Italian-style.

The bathroom is huge, with an old-fashioned clawed tub fit for two, a vanity converted from a credenza with rust-coloured marble top,

his/her burnished brass sinks and luxury toiletries. Like the rest of the hotel, the suite is lavishly fitted with mirrors and chandeliers. Brocade-fabric on window shutters contrasts with striped curtains and the lounge is spacious with brocaded chairs and antique-style desks and chests.

Elsewhere, Sloan has daringly combined colours, such as black and turquoise. There's an all-white room opening onto the garden and a two-level, rust coloured "masculine" suite. Suites have names such as The Grey One and The Last Queen of Scotland, combining tartans and panther prints.

The John Steed suite, recalling the British Avengers TV series, is in all-male decor with striped flannel wallpaper, complete with bowler hats and furled umbrella.

Sloan works on two new suites during our stay, one, general manager Yves Monnin tells me, the "Romantic" suite on three levels, with kitchenette and underground spa; the other for families, also on three levels, with kitchenette and cinema/games room.

You can still join the St James Club - women welcome - for €1600 ($1985) a year; it has almost 1000 members, who use the facilities for breakfast, lunch and meetings. The hotel has its own spa and well-equipped underground gym.

We learn why the hotel cat, four-year-old Pilou, adopted by the hotel after his beloved lady owner went into a nursing home, snubbed us.

He's famous - after being photographed gazing in silent dialogue with a famous French writer the morning after the writer celebrated a major award. The photo appeared in Paris Match.

The writer was the guest of St James Hotel.

 

Trip notes

Where St James Hotel; 43 Avenue Bugeaud 75116, Paris; +33 1 4405 8181, saint-james-paris.com.

How much Rooms from €370 ($459), suites from €650 .

Top marks Warm, friendly service and the garden arbours replicating 19th-century hot-air balloons, complete with baskets, ropes, sandbags and cane furniture.

Black marks While charmingly old-fashioned, the lift is a tight squeeze for more than a few.

Don't miss Joining the locals for Sunday brunch in the garden amid the balloon arbours or, more exotically, sample executive chef Cyrille Robert's restaurant creations such as white sturgeon caviar (€150), smoked Scottish salmon half cooked, lentils with hazelnuts and lettuce froth (€33) pan-fried fillet of beef, mushrooms and white truffle cream (€38).