Photo: Joshua Mellin

Surreal Madrid | The Story of the Hotel Defaced by Dalí​

Madrid’s Westin Palace Hotel was the artist’s favourite haunt, and also inspired Hemingway

by Laura Studarus
Jan 21 2019, 11:30am

Photo: Joshua Mellin

If These Walls Could Talk… takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. This week, we're peeking inside the iconic Westin Palace Hotel in Madrid, which has played a glamorous and gory role in Spain's 20th century history.

The Westin Palace Hotel: The Legend

It’s difficult to imagine bathrooms as a marquee amenity. But when The Palace Hotel opened on September 21, 1912, the fact every single of the hotel’s 800 rooms had both a telephone and a toilet—making them the first hotel in Spain, and only the second in the world to do so—was big news. This fact overshadowed the hotel’s other ‘first’, which perhaps holds more weight in the annals of architectural history; the use of reinforced concrete. However, the mere presence of so many porcelain thrones meant that reinforcements had to be called in.

Someone said it was the birth of the plumbing profession,” says Paloma Garcia Gaxa, Westin Palace’s Communications and Public Relations Manager. “This is the first time they fixed the pipes in Spain, and they had to come from England because they didn’t know how to do it here. It was a pioneering moment.”

For over a century, the Palace has hosted Madrid's high society. Photo: Courtesy of The Westin Palace Hotel

The hotel signified a new era in Madrid, and not just because it was among the first to offer an on-site nursery for employee children. Developed on a suggestion by King Alfonso XIII, who would go on to share a toast with his wife, Queen Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, at the opening, The Palace was a modern hotel fit for royalty - its grand sweep of outer steps leading to an interior decked with crystal chandeliers, including one named the “Palm tree” for its branch-like shape. Tapestries from the 16th and 17th century lined the walls, and are still in place around the atrium.

The Palace Hotel quickly became a focal point of life in Madrid, and a popular spot for celebrity sightings, as an increasing number of luminaries made it their choice stop while in the city—a list that has grown to include Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marie Curie, Maria Callas, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Josephine Baker, Buster Keaton, Richard Strauss, Federico García Lorca, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Jackson, Albert Einstein, Harry Kissinger, Salvador Dalí, and Ernest Hemingway.

The Palace has always stood out in the sprawling Spanish capital. Photo: Courtesy of The Westin Palace Hotel

The American writer was particular a fan of The Palace, and its basement jazz club Rector's Club, and accompanying brewery, Le Brasserie. In his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, the characters visit the hotel, slurping down his signature dry martini with an olive, served ice cold. (“It's funny what a wonderful gentility you get in the bar of a big hotel”, one remarks.)

But while Hemingway saw the hotel as inspiration, Dalí saw it as both a stomping ground and muse. Always opting to stay in the suites overlooking the ornate Fuente de Neptuno, he would often make elaborate demands of the staff. Once, he requested that the mascot of a soap company in residence, a large statue of a panther, was brought to his room. The staff complied. Another time, The Palace became his literal canvas.

Salvador Dalí would turn the walls and surfaces of the Palace into a canvas. Photo: Joshua Mellin

“He used the hotel as his office,” says Gaxa. “Once he started to doodle in one of the rooms. He painted a mural in the middle of the wall. But the maid came up and erased and cleaned everything.”

When I ask her about the subject of his doodles, she shakes her head. Another artwork lost to the name of hotel cleanliness.

Not even memo notes escaped Dalí's doodling. Photo: Courtesy of The Westin Palace Hotel

The Westin Palace Hotel: The Location

Part of The Palace’s - officially the Westin Palace Hotel as of 2001 - appeal is its retention of old-school glamour. It isn’t just the door men, suited and booted, who greet visitors at the entrance. Even after renovations that cut their lodgings down to 470 rooms, the establishment was careful to assure that their updated furnishings and accruements echoed the cut and colour of the originals. Much of the building is protected from excessive changes. In 1999, the hotel was designated a “Bien de Interés Cultural,” meaning the façade, and the Wes Anderson-like neon sign out front, cannot be removed or altered.

We’re having coffee under the rotunda, within eyeshot of the 1912 Museo Bar, which acts as a de facto museum; hotel ephemera, including a sketch from Dalí, time cards, and letters lining its walls. However, it’s the blue and yellow dome, etched with berry-laden ivy above us that Gaxa draws my attention to. It’s only then that I realise it’s the main source of light. Between 1936 and 1939, Spain was torn apart by a brutal, bloody civil war. This airy room, where the next morning I zealously dug into a large buffet breakfast, played a crucial role in caring for soldiers.

The spectacularly ornate interior of the hotel. Photo: Joshua Mellin

“The hotel was working as a hospital,” says Gaxa. “The surgeries were done here because of the lighting. They were not sure that they were going to be able to continue the surgery because the bombs cut the electricity. So, with the dome and the light coming from outside, they were able to assure they were able to continue without any problem.”

That wasn’t the only time The Palace Hotel played a key role in political events. Its location in the city, is called the “Art Triangle,” because of its proximity to major museums, El Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza. However, the building is also within eyesight of the Parliament.

The Palace, bathed in yellow light, with the neon glow of its trademark sign buzzing above. Photo: Joshua Mellin

On February 23, 1981, the Spanish government experienced a coup d'état when during an election of a new prime minister, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero and the Tejerazo took the parliament hostage. Because it was a high-capacity building, already known as the centre of Madrid social life, for a tense eighteen hours the capital of Spain was moved to the Palace Hotel. Immediately, over 200 journalists booked rooms, eager to be part of history in the making.

“They served more than 1,000 coffees that night,” says Gaxa. “They prepared here, sandwiches and beers to take to the parliament for all the people who were inside, arrested by the people trying to assume the power of the country.”

One of the Palace's 16th century tapestries hanging away from the lobby. Photo: Joshua Mellin

The Westin Palace Hotel: The Lowdown

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 106 years later, The Westin Palace Madrid has maintained its position as a centre of life in the city. Every year since opening they’ve hosted high-end Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties (€245 and €635 respectively) both complete with dancefloors, celebrity chefs, and a reputation as the event to attend. They also host a slate of charity events and weddings throughout the year. (“Spanish society loves these classical places to celebrate weddings,” says Gaxa, knowingly.)

It’s a huge, lavish array of history and luxury for the exhausted traveller. But then again, why would you want it any other way? Naturally, Gaxa sums up her hotel’s raison d'être best. “People used to say, ‘Why stay in a hotel, when you can stay in a palace?’”

Prices vary depending on the seasons, but rooms average £190 a night. Advance booking is suggested for suites.

Laura Studarus is a freelance journalist, based in Los Angeles. Keep up with her on Twitter.

if these walls could talk