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Legendary Beirut hotel aims for comeback

June 26, 2011 8:47 P.M. (Updated: June 26, 2011 8:47 P.M.)
By: Jocelyne Zablit
BEIRUT (AFP) -- Once a symbol of Beirut's golden age, the St Georges hotel today is but a hollow shell at the centre of an epic real estate battle pitting its owner against powerful developers.

"Before the (1975-1990 civil) war, Lebanon was the world's capital and the St Georges was the capital of Beirut," recalls Serge Nader, whose family ran the beach adjacent to the hotel until 1997.

"We were the centre of the world."

Built in the late 1920s, the hotel was synonymous with Lebanon's glitz and glamour before the civil war broke out, hosting the likes of Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as well as royalty and other celebrities such as the Shah of Iran, Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum and the notorious double agent Kim Philby.

The who's who of Lebanon would also gather at the bar, the fabulous outdoor terrace that overlooked the blue waters of the Mediterranean, or the poolside.

It was there that political deals were struck, that journalists gathered to recover juicy tidbits to fill their columns or where spies like Philby, a British intelligence agent turned Russian spy, hung out.

"The hotel was majestic and its location along the sea was magical," said Georges Corm, a Lebanese economist and historian with fond memories of the St Georges. "It was the rendezvous of Beirut's creme de la creme.

"The view over the bay area was spectacular and it was pure bliss at the time to sit on the terrace of the hotel or the beach."

But today, the four-storey pink stone building that was gutted by fire during the war that ended in 1990 still sits empty on the Beirut waterfront, dwarfed by modern high-rises and fancy shopping centres that have sprouted up in recent years.

And while the hotel once enjoyed an unobstructed view of the sea from nearly all angles, it now is surrounded by a marina on one side, an eight-foot (two metre) seawall on another and a new development project built on a landfill into the Mediterranean.

A massive billboard hanging on the side of the hotel reads "Stop Solidere", in reference to the bitter legal battle between the owner Fady Al-Khoury and the company he claims has prevented him from moving forward to restore the St Georges to its old glory.

"They (Solidere) have prevented the hotel from being rebuilt for 15 years," Khoury told AFP, sitting by the hotel pool which is still open for business. "They want us not to exist."

Solidere spokesman Nabil Rached said the company, founded in 1994 by then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a billionaire businessman, did not wish to comment on the issue.

Hariri died in 2005 in a massive bombing that also gutted the facade of the St Georges, which at the time had partially been reconstructed. A bronze memorial statue of Hariri now stands to the left of the hotel, gazing at the huge "Stop Solidere" sign.

Depending on who you talk to in Lebanon, Solidere is described as a company that should be credited with rebuilding war-ravaged Beirut or wiping out its heritage and driving its original residents and merchants out.

The battle between Khoury and Solidere erupted after he challenged the company's bid to build a new marina, which he says infringed on the landmark hotel's historical and legal access to the water.

The legal fight, Khoury says, has stalled his plans to reopen the hotel which he believes will lose its historic and commercial value if access to the water is restricted.

"What they did is apocalyptic," said Khoury, referring to Solidere. "When you stand in the marina they built you can't see the sun anymore, you are surrounded by enormous buildings and once they finish putting up all the other towers the sun won't reach the St Georges until very late in the day."

But as the legal battle drags on, some question whether anyone really has the hotel's interest at heart.

"Whether it be Solidere or the current owner of the hotel, neither give a damn about the St Georges, its history or the history of Beirut," said Jacques Tabet, whose father Antoine designed the St Georges along with French architects.

"This is not about the hotel, it's about money."

Khoury however insists he will never give up the legal fight to preserve the Saint Georges and restore its lustre.

"The right of the St Georges will prevail and I will not make a compromise," he said. "And once I'm gone the St Georges cannot be sold by my inheritors.

"The worst that could happen to it is that it be donated to a church or a mosque -- anything but Solidere."

He said that since Hariri's assassination, literally at the hotel's doorstep, he has worked to refurbish the St Georges which he hopes to reopen within 18 months to two years.

"People may think I am a Don Quixote, but I am not," Khoury said. "I can't give up on this iconic hotel, witness to the civil war which destroyed it."

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