London — The comment came on a London-bound train some years ago: "Which hotel do you stay at when you are in London?" a rider was asked. "Oh, I don't stay at a hotel, I stay at Brown's," came the reply.
The management of Brown's Hotel is quick to tell you of this. It indicates something very special about the place, about its warmth, its comfort, its charm. In short, its elegant country-home appeal. A little digging into the background provides historical facts that add further to the hotel's uniqueness among London hostelries.
Two future US presidents were guests at Brown's. Theodore Roosevelt stayed here the night before he married Edith Kermit Carow at nearby St. George's, Dec. 2, 1886; almost two decades later Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stayed here during their honeymoon; Alexander Graham Bell, a Scot by birth, American and Canadian by adoption, made the first-ever telephone call in Great Britain -- from Brown's to Ravenscourt Park, four miles away. Today a facsimile of the first Roosevelt's marriage certificate hangs in the hotel.
There are many other significant ties with the past. Queens Wilhelmina and Juliana of the Netherlands both stayed here at one time or another, and the Dutch government in exile met at Brown's to declare war on Japan during World War II. Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians was resident there during World War I, and King George of Greece made the hotel his home during his exile from 1924 to 1935. The Count de Paris, pretender to the French throne, regularly held court in his suite during his stay at Brown's, from 1886 to 1894.
Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was a refugee from Mussolini's expansionism, as was the lesser-known King Zog of Albania. Both ended up at Brown's during that period. Cecil John Rhodes, empire builder and as powerful as any potentate during his day, enjoyed periods of "quiet privacy" at Brown's. So did Rudyard Kipling, the poet, essayist, and novelist, who was a frequent visitor.
Then there was the June 1890 meeting at Brown's of the International Niagara Commission, with representatives from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland. It was this meeting that came out "in favor of the adoption of electrical methods as the chief means of distributing Niagara power," according to the commemorating plaque in the hotel. "The inauguration of the alternating-current system was followed by its adoption throughout the world."
Contemporary personages of note still frequent Brown's, apparently. They might arrive in a Rolls-Royce or in one of London's ubiquitous taxis. "But naturally we would never reveal their names," the management points out. Living guests are accorded "the same privacy you would accord a guest in your own home."
Perhaps it is the several American connections that make Brown's so popular with visitors from the US. "Our guests," says Jeremy Castle, the assistant manager, "consist largely of English country gentlemen and American couples." In fact, a number of American accents in the hotel's dining room when I was there belonged to US businessmen as well. All agreed that the atmosphere at Brown's "was something special." An Australian executive described it as "vastly superior" to the somewhat more expensive "mausoleum" he had stayed at on a previous visit.
The origins of Brown's go back to 1662, when property development first began in what was to become the fashionable Mayfair district. Before that this rural area contained only a few farm buildings and the predecessor of St. George's, the church where the Roosevelts were married.
The hotel itself opened for business in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria's accession, when several fashionable houses between Dover and Albemarle Streets were combined. Much of that original private-house feeling remains today. Probably because the original owner, James Brown, had been a gentleman's valet, and his wife, Sarah Willis, a maid to Lady Byron, widow of the poet, personal service to guests was of the highest standard right from the start.
The architecture is largely Victorian, but the atmosphere is more Edwardian. Modern plumbing, or "fixed baths," as a publication of the day put it, replaced the old portable galvanized tub in 1885. They were described at the time as a "Brown's novelty." Electric lighting preceded the plumbing by a year. Since then every modern convenience has been included, without, fortunately, spoiling the architecture or changing the ambiance of a former, more gracious period.
Part of the suite, always used by the author of "The Jungle Book," "Captains Courageous," and "The Just-So Stories" when he was in London, is now appropriately termed the Kipling Room. It is one of several special function rooms. Others commemorating the hotel's historic associations include the Roosevelt Room, the Graham Bell Room, the Niagara Room, the Hellenic Suite, and the Byron Room.
In most hotels you walk up to a reception desk on arrival. At Brown's you are seated at a leather-topped desk in a drawing-room atmosphere. The African violet in your room is a mass of flowers -- 47 on mine -- or else it is not included in the room's decor. In the dining room the broccoli spears and new potatoes are warmed at your table. It's all a continuation of the standards laid down by the original Mr. Brown.