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My secret life: hotel room before the renovation
My secret hotel: Le Berger
A hotel where couples once rented rooms by the hour has been restored. But what will people make of it?
Here in Brussels, it often feels more like 1952 than 2012. Every new cafe that opens seems to be a nostalgia fest. Much of the retro style is concocted by Frédérik Nikolay, but the latest of Belgian grandmother style was financed by the people behind The White Hotel on Avenue Louise.
The hotel Le Berger was built in 1933 as a "rendez-vous hotel" where couples could rent one of the 50 rooms by the hour. "This was a place that kept many marriages together because it allowed people to sleep with a different lover," said Fredy Martens, who ran the hotel from 1965 until a few years ago.
When it opened, Le Berger was ideally located in the most exclusive neighbourhood of Brussels. Several large government departments had offices nearby, ensuring a steady stream of customers. There was a waiting room on each floor where couples sometimes had to sit until a room became free.
Until two years ago, the hotel was still being used for its original purpose. It was a shabby-looking building in a half-timbered Alsatian style, down a dingy street near the Chaussée d'Ixelles. A sign on the door said, in French, "No admittance to women of loose morals or minors."
When the hotel finally closed in 2009, the building was scheduled for demolition. Not many people though it was worth saving. But one person saw the potential. "They had already started demolishing the hotel when I visited," said Isabelle Léonard. "I looked around and fell in love with it. I thought it was a hidden gem.
Six months later, she had persuaded the investment group that created The White Hotel to renovate the hotel. The project brought together two more women - the Belgian architect Olivia Gustot and the Swiss interior designer Martina Nievergelt.
The renovation was a difficult assignment since the rooms were cramped and the electrics were antiquated. After the renovation, it remains a warren of winding corridors, narrow stairs and cramped rooms.
The interior design was inspired by the original décor. It appealed to Nievergelt because it reminded her of old movie houses. "What touched me most was the history of the building, the stories within the walls," she said.
She started by stripping away 10 layers of wallpaper, each layer from a different era. The wallpaper was then replaced and the rooms furnished in the old style. The original opaque windows have been kept, and the lamps are Art Deco. In keeping with the period charm, the flat screen TVs are hidden in a box covered with wallpaper.
Each room has a woman's name, so you may end up in the Lola or the Chloé. Some may be a little surprised that the somewhat louche eroticism of the old hotel has not entirely disappeared. "I wanted to preserve the eroticism in some rooms," said Nievergelt.
5 secrets of Le Berger
1 it was never a brothel
The correct name for this sort of hotel is a "rendezvous hotel". Here a couple could rent a room for three hours with a free bottle of Champagne for €79.
2 the hotel has two lifts
The hotel had two lifts, one going up and the other coming down, to ensure that couples did not bump into someone they knew.
3 in 1933, when it opened, this was a chic part of town
Not any more.
4 the beds were narrow because no one spent the night
The beds were just one metre 30cm wide and there were no bathrooms.
5 Audrey Hepburn was born around the corner
Audrey Hepburn was born around the corner in Rue Keyenveld in 1929
Hollywood here I come: Room 408 Marie-France Plissart
My secret 5 best rooms
If you want to be decadent
In this room, the Antoinette, you can draw the curtains across the room and snuggle into bed between a pair of Art Deco lamps held aloft by athletic nude women.
If you want to be Greta Garbo
Here, surrounded by columns covered with glitzy mirror mosaics, you might begin to feel like a star in a Hollywood epic.
If you want a surrela touch
When you open the door of the Jeanne, you walk straight into a hallway with a bathtub.
If you are not inhibited
This dark room is generously supplied with Art Deco mirrors.
If you are quite short
This room, Lola, is tiny, as is its neighbour, Camille. You may hear more than you want from next door.