By Rory Winston
"Come meet me in the sky", sings Lily Allen in her recent hit single Air Balloon – an escapist anthem that asks us to enter an alternate universe in which ‘monkeys run off from zoos’ and ‘ceilings turn into floors’. Reveling in a host of exotic images, the song entreats us to partake in an elevated experience by simply stepping through a door. What door? Where? Getting directions for a place that exists solely in someone’s imagination can be quite a challenge. Shangri-La, Nirvana, Eden... No one ever drops you at the door. As with most flights of fancy, departures invariably get canceled and satisfaction rarely arrives. Still, if there is anyone who knows how to take the stuff of dreams and give it an address, it would have to be the inimitable interior designer Bambi Sloan. Listening to Lily warble the words ‘remind me where I am’, I can imagine Bambi airily responding: “why you’re in the Saint James, darling… Surely you know it – the Parisian flagship of Relais and Châteaux.”
Ensconced within the posh residential area of Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement, Saint James is a neoclassical mansion that straddles the verdant grounds of what had once been an airfield for Montgolfier balloons. It is a timeless estate devoid of the markings of this century, a space where historical events run concurrently, where myth and memory mingle. Behind her high white walls, the past continues to unfold:
The Montgolfier brothers watch their recent invention as it mounts the sky. A bedazzled Marie Antoinette cranes her neck to witness the balloon’s graceful ascent. There is an enormous image of her husband’s head emblazoned on its sides. She leers at the buoyant visage, warily. “Levitating leviathan” mutters Louis XVI as he gapes at the immortal feat. Blinded by the sun, the royal couple has no time to notice the deadly storm that is brewing in their own midst. The air balloon continues to hover.
Seen from above, events below are as fickle as the weather. The monarchy is gone; then, like trade winds: an emperor, a republic, a war. The currents shift and rivers of blood overflow. Few dare to look up anymore. But the balloon’s spirit remains fixed. Napoleon III rebuilds Paris. His staunch critic, Louis Adolphe Thiers, advocates more democratic ideals while eliminating opponents as ruthlessly as any monarch. He is Prime Minister, then President, then – like those before him - he too is gone. Building commences again. This time, it is Thiers’s widow, erecting a foundation in her husband’s memory. Her neoclassical building occupies what is now a walled-off world that had once hosted Montgolfier’s aerodrome. It is a worthy monolith, housing penniless students. Soon, it holds up to 450 scientists and researchers, some of whom look up as if scanning for balloons from time to time. A myriad of noisier machines fly past us. They rend the air, and shake the ground. Two world wars gut the sky of its romance. It is not the time to dangle dreams from such heights.
By 1986, the Thiers foundation has become an elite gentleman’s club. By 2008, the Bertrands - who own the property - know it’s time for a change. The Montgolfier balloon has come of age; it must come down. But imaginary balloons are odd creatures – though weightless, they horde centuries of images – the idiosyncratic dreams and aspirations of all those who clung to the clouds. And so, under the cover of night, the balloon lands in the remote fertile region of Bambi Sloan’s imagination. The flood is about to begin.
Entering the vestibule is like being thrust onto a lavish set from an opera by Mayerbeer. But a step into the plush salon and the scene change is so evident that one half-expects a lascivious Marquise à la Les Liaisons Dangereuses to pounce from the wings. Crimson velvet chairs, heavy drapes, moody lighting… Saint James is not a place for facile harmonies but one of evocative counterpoints and dramatic tension; it is the home of an eccentric billionaire, one who has given you free reign over his manor.
Napoleon III is alive and well and living in the stairwell. The ornamental chandeliers and rich drapes suggest as much. But as black and white tiling gives way to columns covered in patina book binding paper, one notes another presence. The red carpet staircase leads us to it: wall paper with themes from the 18th century - the prevalent fixation being chimps riding colorful hot air balloons into oblivion (all this before NASA’s renowned Astrochimps). So this is, after all, the knighted realm of the elusive balloon. The winding circular stairs and odd patterns of the banisters show definite lightheadedness.
Metro tiles on walls, embellished vintage furniture, chairs that stand en pointe in a ballet of cashmere, velvet and gold – each suite and room has its very own story with its own cast of characters. The monikers are enough to hint at the variations: Empress Elizabeth of Austria, La Grice (Last Queen of Scotland), The Little Madelaine (M. Castaing, notable art and antique collector). Unlike other reputable boutique hotels that boast renowned collections (the Negresco or Ritz Carlton, Singapore), the art here is Sloan’s live-in installation – a juxtaposition of artifact, recherché design, and storytelling. Take the forged series of 19th century masters interpreted in the the crepuscular lighting of Jean Cocteau, or the opulent motifs with a decidedly decadent afterglow. From exterior blinds that close at the touch of a switch to expansive bathtubs and Juliet balconies, each room optimizes comfort with the finest of amenities while also making us part of a historical drama.
A boudoir-styled spa with exclusive Guerlain treatments, two spacious steam rooms, a state-of-the-art fitness room with chandelier and Versailles parquet, a massage parlor – Nothing feels familiar yet, paradoxically, all of it feels like home. The darkly-toned restaurant - with its copious number of large oil paintings - is a perfect setting for the finely honed culinary talent of Michelin starred Chef Virginie Basselot. Whether one opts for the creamy but earthy duck foie gras, the succulent scallops swimming in their aromatic broth, or the fine roast duckling, the textures will remind one of Bambi’s own – good taste with a flourish. And whether or not cocktails are your thing, any excuse to get into the moody library-bar is a good one. With over 12,000 books – many from the original Thiers collection – the library-bar sports one the finest stacks of any hotel. The antique look and the capricious panther carpet prove that gravitas with whimsy make good bedfellows.
Saint James is a grand proscenium where vibrantly divergent aesthetics from several epochs are in constant dialogue. With 5000 square meters, 48 guest rooms, lounges, restaurant, library, spa, and garden, it is an opulent lifestyle theater – a realized study of passionate excess.
In close proximity to the renowned Champs-Élysées, it is the city’s only château-hôtel with a garden setting and just the kind of cloistered realm where you’d expect dignitaries, heads of states, Hollywood mega-stars, and iconic guests like, well, Lily Allen to be staying.
As an ultimate manifestation of panache-meets-homage, little, however, compares to the summer terrace where Saint James has found a pun (sic) way to visually rhyme history with irreverence. Think ‘Bubbly’ and then imagine some very fine bottles of Tattinger nested in arbors –each of which elicits the shape, stitching, patterns and colors of the original Montgolfier balloons.
In 1782, when Joseph Montgolfier was asked to describe his invention, he proclaimed: “A cloud in a paper bag”. Montgolfier and his balloon may have disappeared; but the airy content of his dream has remained. The Saint James is a home for centuries of thought-bubbles. It is a living fortress where the clouds have been woven into stone.