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Cliveden -- from Astor home to hotel

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 1985



Cliveden, the famous Astor estate in Buckinghamshire, England, will once again welcome guests to savor its unique architecture, grounds, and history -- this time as a first-class hotel. Considered one of England's great country houses, Cliveden is picturesquely situated on the River Thames. The estate was first commissioned in 1666 when the second Duke of Buckingham employed William Winde to create a great house beside the Thames.

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After two houses were destroyed by fire, the Duke of Sutherland hired Sir Charles Barry (also architect of the Houses of Parliament) to design the present mansion, which was built in 1850 in the grand rococo style.

Queen Victoria, who came regularly from Windsor Castle to visit resident dukes and duchesses, lamented the sale of ``dear beautiful Cliveden'' when in 1893 it was sold to William Waldorf Astor, heir to an American fortune. In 1906 Mr. Astor gave Cliveden as a wedding present to his son Waldorf when he married Nancy Langhorne of Virginia. For years the house was a center of political and literary society. Regular guests included Winston Churchill, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Lord Curzon, Rudyard Kipli ng, and George Bernard Shaw.

Three generations of Astors lived at Cliveden until 1966, when the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest took over. The Astors had given the property to the trust in 1942, along with a generous endowment and the stated desire that it should be used in the future ``to bring about a better understanding between the English-speaking peoples.''

After the family left, the house was leased for 15 years to Stanford University of Palo Alto, Calif., as its English campus. ``Students, faculty, and domestic staff lived together in the house and we had lectures in what had been the Astors' billiard room,'' says Rodney Shewan, who taught there for 10 years.

The trust then decided, after considering many other types of tenants, that a hotel would be as close to the original use of the house as was possible, and pretty close, also, to the wishes of the Astor family. While the trust still owns the property, it has granted a 45-year lease to Blakeney Hotels Ltd., which is spending $2 million to modernize, restore, and decorate the interior. ``Cliveden was built for entertaining, for having lots of guests and wonderful parties,'' said Lord Crathorne, a director

of the hotel firm, in New York recently.

Since it is the first time the National Trust has ever leased a great house for hotel use, all conversion work is being done in consultation with its experts, and the hotel's operation will be closely supervised as well. In addition, William Astor's great-grandson William, the fourth Viscount Astor, has joined Blakeney Hotels' board of directors and agreed to play an active part in the creation and running of Cliveden.

The style being re-created at Cliveden is Edwardian, recalling the early days of Nancy and Waldorf Astor's residency. The architect for the conversion job is William Bertram, who was also responsible for the restoration of the famous Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath. Principal decorator will be Rupert Lord of London. He is searching out antique furnishings that reflect the period and is decorating each of the 27 guest rooms or suites in a completely different manner.

The hotel is due to open early in 1986. The standard of service, it is claimed, will be the same as that portrayed in the public television series ``Upstairs, Downstairs.'' There will be a ratio of two staff for each room. A housekeeper will oversee a bevy of parlormaids, chambermaids, and private maids, dressed in crisp Edwardian uniforms, who will look after guests on a personal basis.

Butlers and valets will wear both day and evening livery. Shoes and motorcars belonging to guests will be kept polished. Elegant dining will be found in the same French-paneled room where so much social banter and political discussion took place during the Astor years.

Room rates will range from 150 to 250 per night (about $220 to $365), including breakfast, and the large and sumptuous Lady Astor suite will be 350 per night.

The National Trust will continue to maintain Cliveden's exterior and keep the 400 acres of gardens open to the public. The popular gardens, visited by more than 90,000 people each year, are open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. or sunset, from March to December, for an entrance fee of two English pounds (about $3). After the hotel opens early in 1986, for an additional 60 pence visitors can also see the ground-floor rooms of Cliveden from 3 to 6 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays, April 3 through Oct. 31.

Novelist Henry James, who knew Cliveden well and visited it often, wrote this about English country houses: ``Of all the great things the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details is the well appointed, well administered, well filled country house.''