Friday 12 June 2015

The Hotel Cluysenaar

The Hotel Cluysenaar, on Rue Royale, which later became the Astoria Hotel, is more than likely the original model for the Hotel Crécy in Villette. This is how Charlotte describes it (Vashti chapter): “It was an hotel in the foreign sense: a collection of dwelling-houses, not an inn - a vast, lofty pile, with a huge arch to its street-door, leading through a vaulted covered way, into a square all built round”.

Hotel Cluysenaar, ca. 1840
The hotel was built in 1838 by the architect J.P.Cluysenaar (1811-1880) born in Kampen in the Netherlands. Other well known works in Brussels by Cluysenaar include the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the Conservatoire Royal (the new one built in the 1870s) and the kiosk in the Parc Royal, the latter also being mentioned by Charlotte in Villette (chap.38). Cluysenaar not only built the hotel but also owned it; financial troubles, however, forced him to put it up for sale in 1843.

In its early days, the Hotel Cluysenaar was a much-publicised residence, attracting a wealthy and mainly foreign clientele. As Charlotte suggests, it was indeed more a set of well-furnished apartments than a hotel. A precise description of the hotel as Charlotte would have known it is found in the l'Observateur belge (15 September 1843). Here we learn that the ground floor consisted of five shops, three apartments, a courtyard and five stables. Six imposing staircases led to an entresol containing five large apartments, and to the three main upper floors, each holding ten apartments.

Other contemporary newspaper advertisements inform us that the apartments were fully equipped with kitchen, hot and cold water and toilets. They were bright and spacious apartments, each containing between three and twenty rooms, and could be rented, furnished or unfurnished, by the month, quarter or year. In Villette, Charlotte describes how Lucy goes up a “wide, handsome public staircase” to the second floor of the Hotel Crécy where she is admitted to “a suite of very handsome apartments” (Vashti chapter).

The Wheelwright family, friends of the Brontë sisters, took up residence at the hotel when they moved over from England to Brussels. Dr. Thomas Wheelwright, his wife and five young daughters, arrived in the city in July 1842, leaving in August 1843. One of the Wheelwright daughters, Laetitia, was to become Charlotte’s lifelong friend.

Hotel Mengelle, 1885, advertisement from
Harper's Handbook for Travellers in Europe
J.J. Green in his 1916 article wrote that “at their residence in a flat at the big Hotel Cluysenaar, the Wheelwright children delighted in the big staircases, running up one and down the other” (p. 224). Mr. Green had some problems with the spelling of the hotel's name. Occasionally it gets ‘Clusyenaar’ and at one point it reads ‘Olusyenaar’. A ‘kluizenaar’, in modern Dutch spelling, means a hermit, a recluse. As a surname, in older variants, it is not uncommon in the Low Countries.

Hotel Mengelle, late 19th century
In 1864 the Hotel Cluysenaar was renovated and renamed Hotel Mengelle, in honour of its new owner. The façade and the interiors were expensively redone to maintain its status as perhaps the finest hotel in Brussels. The doomed French General, Georges Boulanger was one of the new hotel’s most famous guests, taking refuge here in 1889, after his unsuccessful coup attempt in Paris.

Its era as the Hotel Mengelle ended in 1908. On 20 May, l'Indépendance belge wrote that “despite recent transformations” the hotel had decided to embark again on a large-scale renovation. It is certain that King Leopold II had some say in this. He wanted Brussels to have a new, luxurious hotel to receive important foreign guests, who would be arriving in large numbers for the 1910 World Exhibition in Brussels.

When the new renovations were completed, the hotel was renamed Hotel Astoria, under the ownership of Mengelle's son-in-law. Three neighbouring houses were knocked down to give more capacity to the new hotel, which opened its doors on 2 July 1910.

Famous visitors to stay at the Astoria over the years include James Joyce, Winston Churchill and Salvador Dali. A glamorous Astoria brochure (from around 2000)  states that Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman held  preparatory talks there which led to the founding in  April 1951 of the  European Coal and Steel Community ( the first version of today’s EU).

Now, a century later, the hotel is again being renovated. Works are expected to continue until at least 2016.There is always the risk that these works never finish and the famous hotel remains closed forever.

Hotel Astoria, 2007
As for the hotel the Brontës knew in 1842 and 1843, some brief research done several years ago suggests that nothing by way of decor from that epoch remains. Considering the number of transformations and renovations which have taken place over the years, this comes as no surprise.

Charlotte Brontë was not the first author to use the Hotel Cluysenaar as a background setting for fiction. This honour surely goes to French author Edouard Suau de Varennes (1809-1872)  who in 1844 published the first volume of  his Les Mystères de Bruxelles, inspired by Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris. The hotel on Rue Royale features prominently in the Frenchman’s work, where it serves as a meeting place for a club of rather shady and debauched individuals.

Might Charlotte Brontë and Suau de Varennes have crossed paths sometime in the lobby of the Hotel Cluysenaar? The possibility cannot be ruled out: it would make a good starting point for a  novel too!                  
Brian Bracken & Eric Ruijssenaars

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