London — The only problem with staying at the Waldorf, one of London's finest monuments of Edwardian architecture, is that one is hardly ever there. But that's the whole point. In concert with the Edwardian sensibility that spawned it, the Waldorf is the ideal base for those dedicated to the serious pursuit of pleasure.
Yet whisked out its doors that open onto the aldwych -- that elegant crescent arcing between the strand and Kingsway -- the visitor is confronted with one final problem. Just what should he choose to see? After all, he ism standing at the cultural crossroad of London life; the nexus of theater and opera and broadcasting, law and literary activity that thrives within an astonishingly dense terrain.
Most likely, he will opt for theater. It may even have been his cardinal reason for staying at the Waldorf, for the hotel is the theatergoer's dream. Situated at the heart of London's theater district, the Waldorf is bordered by two of the most famous streets in theater history, Catherine Street and Drury Lane. In this postage stamp of a block, English theater has its modern origins. Catherine Street's Drury Lane Theatre, to cite but one example, was the stage for Nell Gwynn's debut in 1665, David Garrick's in 1742, and Edmund Kean's in 1814. Actors from ellen Terry to Sir John Gielgud have since played its stage, continuing the dramatic traditions of their predecessors. The Aldwych, London home of the Royal shakespeare Company, also provides a classical and contemporary repertoire unsurpassed in London Theater. Anchored at the end of Drury Lane, just next to the Waldorf, the Aldwych is any theatergoer's first stop before tackling the West End theaters which are all within a five-minute walk.
The Waldorf rests at the heart of a large theater -- the wide pageant of Virginia Woolf's London. It's so easy to understand why this concentrated richness of city life prompted her lyrical digressions on Holborn walks. To strike out in any direction from the Aldwych is to stumble upon the inner workings of London itself, its character and its core.
A minute's walk from the Waldorf sets one in the heart of Covent Garden, scene of Shaw's "Pygmalion" and, more recently, of an inspired renovation of its premises. Now an elegant outdoor arcade with a string of shops and restaurants, Covent Garden is a perfect place to linger before heading for an evening's performance at the Royal Opera House next door. From there it's only a short walk, crossing busy Kingsway, to Lincoln's Inn -- that ancient bastion of British law with its curlicue of courts and legal chambers. And from there, depending on one's mood, a five-minute walk will take you to the solemnity of Bloomsbury and the British Museum, or, in the opposite direction, to Fleet Street, the hive of English journalism.
No matter where one ends up, it's impossible to ignore who has walked these streets before you. It's only a stone's throw away that the 11-year-old Dickens soled shoes; that Dr. Johnson lumbered toward Grub Street; that Garrick paced hurriedly to the stage door; that Jane Austen gathered material for "Sense and Sensibility"; that Shaw reviewed theater; and that Caruso boomed arias into the night air.
The Waldorf, at the center of this cultural circumference, has absorbed this history and in the process created its own. Conveived as part of the Aldwych, an ambitious planning scheme to impose urban splendor on former slum land, the Waldorf was one in a series of hotels and shops created during the reign of King Edward VII. Built by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, architect of Queen Victoria's Crathie Church, the Waldorf was opened on Jan. 29, 1908. Then, as now, the steel-framed, stone-fronted hotel was synonymous with the material opulence and expansive optimism that hallmarked Edwardian England.
What is so remarkable about the hotel is that despite standdard modernization of the rooms, the hotel has been scrupulously preserved in character and detail. Presently owned by Trusthouse Forte, the Waldorf was the first hotel that Sir Charles Forte bought in 1957 as part of his first-class hotel chain. Since then every attempt has been made to continue the fine Edwardian touches that distinguish the hotel. As Peter Westbrook, its current manager, noted recently, "So much of our future lies in preserving our past. There are very few hotels that employ architectural and period consultants like we do. We want to get it right."
And indeed they do. Walking into the hotel's wood-paneled foyer, you would think you h ad stepped back 70 years in time. Oriental rugs carpet marble floors; crystal chandeliers suspend and sparkle; gilded mirrors catch the high color of freshly cut flowers poised beneath them. Everything is suffused with the spirit of an ordered elegance.
The Palm Court, a vast terraced room just off the foyer, is the Waldorf's centerpiece. With its canopied glass ceiling, its slender Ionic colonnades and its high French doors, it is a room worthy of prolonged observation. (A favorite pastime of Shaw, I'm told.) Nothing has changed in 70 years. Not the green velvet seats, not the low wooden tables, not the rich Oriental rugs. And just to intensify that deja vum feeling, the Waldorf will soon catering tea dances in the Palm Court.
That is if you can get in past the BBC who are always filming there or the Royal Shakespeare Company busy borrowing props for their next play. There always is the dining room. But that's full of journalists from the BBC's nearby Bush House discussing the latest political defection. And the Templar's Grill downstairs is no place for a quiet think. Not with all those barristers quibbling about civil law. It's the same old story: The Waldorf is just as busy as it always was, gracefully accommodating the lawyers, the literati, the actors , the journalists, and, lest we forget them, the couple from Spokane still undecided as to which play to see.