ISTANBUL (Reuters Life!) - The Pera Palace, once Istanbul's grandest hotel which hosted Alfred Hitchcock and Winston Churchill before it slumped into disrepair decades ago, re-opened this week after a lavish, 2-1/2 year renovation.
The rebirth of the 118-year-old landmark echoes the new economic life of Turkey's biggest city. Incomes have tripled since 2000, and almost 8 million tourists visited last year.
The unveiling of the restored Pera in what was a rundown neighborhood 20 years ago may help a government campaign to keep the 8,000-year-old city on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
UNESCO has threatened to relegate Istanbul -- the seat of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires -- to an endangered list for failing to defend vulnerable historical sites.
The five-star Pera, itself a protected site under Turkish law, boasts a mix of Oriental and Occidental styles in its design by Levantine architect Alexander Vallaury, General Manager Pinar Kartal Timer told reporters last week.
"The architecture captured a beautiful synthesis of East and West," she said. "The hotel was worn down after a long time between renovations, but has now recovered its former glory."
When it first opened in 1892, the Pera was the Ottoman Empire's first luxury hotel, boasting the only cast iron and wood elevator. It was the first building other than the sultan's palaces with hot running water and electric lights.
A playground for aristocrats, writers and film stars, the Pera was the last stop on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie may have written "Murder on the Orient Express" in Room 411.
Ernest Hemingway drank in the Orient Bar. King George V stayed at the Pera, and Greta Garbo was a regular visitor. Another was Zsa Zsa Gabor, rumored to have had an affair with Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. His favorite chambers -- Room 101, decorated in sunrise pink -- are a museum.
In the second half of the 20th century, the surrounding Beyoglu district became impoverished as its Greek, Armenian and Jewish residents fled Turkey amid ethnic tensions.
Still, the state-owned Pera retained its old-world charm even as neglect and underinvestment made it ramshackle.
Now a 23 million euro ($29 million) restoration by Istanbul-based Besiktas Tourism Investment, which owns a 45-year license to manage the hotel, has restored its original grandeur.
Stonemasons removed layers of paint and pollution from the exterior. Inside, a roof that covered the six-domed Kubbeli Salon was converted into glass to let in more light.
Murano chandeliers decorate the grand halls, and hand-woven Oushak carpets are spread across guestroom floors.
Some 300 pieces of original furniture occupy the 115 rooms, whose prices start at 230 euros ($308.6) and run to 4,000 euros per night.
Workers discovered a secret room containing 5,000 pieces of Christofle silverware, some of which may date back to the inaugural ball of 1895, Timer said.
"The Pera Palace still retains many mysteries and it witnessed many experiences," she said.
Located atop a hill overlooking the Golden Horn waterway, the hotel survived the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the birth of the republic and two world wars.
Turkey was ostensibly neutral during World War Two, but was the conflict's "spy capital," according to "Istanbul Intrigues," a book by historian Barry Rubin.
While Axis operatives favored the Park Hotel at the other end of Beyoglu, their Allied counterparts stayed at the Pera. The spy-infested hotel saw its share of action: In 1941 a Nazi bomb destroyed the grand entrance.
"The Pera Palace Hotel never fully recovered from the damage to its lobby or its reputation," Rubin wrote.
Until now, that is. The colonnaded foyer is resplendent again with refurbished Carrera marble and gold-leaf decoration.
Editing by Paul Casciato