The instructions were to arrive at “the Spies Entrance” in Whitehall at 6 o’clock sharp. This intriguing missive was not an assignation with M or Moneypenny but an invite to take a “first look” at Raffles London at the OWO (the Old War Office) – the Singapore hotel brand’s inaugural UK outpost, owned in part by the Hinduja Group.
Completed in 1906, the building was the centre of operations through two world wars and home to the British secret service. Lawrence of Arabia had a desk here and James Bond creator Ian Fleming was a regular visitor. It’s no coincidence that several Bond films had scenes shot at the OWO including Skyfall where Daniel Craig’s 007 stands on top of the building looking moodily over the rooftops.
As it turns out the Spies Entrance, formerly frequented by agents, is discreetly positioned at the back of the building and is now the access for the Raffles’ luxury apartments. The main hotel entry is on Whitehall itself, the road running between the Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square that also gives its name to the wider area.
While the Edwardian Baroque façade of this vast building is currently hidden behind hoardings, once inside the sheer scale of the place is immediately noticeable. And although the transformation into a 120 roomed luxury hotel is still in progress, what’s already apparent is the restored original features such as oak panelled walls, grand fireplaces and cornicing on the soaringly high ceilings.
From the entrance hall leads an impressive marble staircase on which successive statesman have stepped. Overhead is a balcony where Winston Churchill would address the staff, Raffles London managing director Philippe Leboeuf (who has moved from the Mandarin Oriental Group) tells us. And on the upper floors the mosaic laid corridors – some two miles of them – were once abuzz with running messenger boys.
The former secretary of state’s office that at varying times belonged to Lord Kitchener, David Lloyd George, Churchill and John Profumo is being turned into a sprawling suite. The space directly overlooks Horse Guards, the historic military headquarters and home to the Household Cavalry Museum.
We’re also shown inside one of the turrets facing Whitehall complete with huge, curved glass windows which is a spectacular space for a guest room. In the middle portion of the hotel overlooking a large courtyard another suite, The Poppy, will occupy three storeys.
On completion the hotel will have a total of eleven restaurants and bars to be rolled out gradually. Three of them – a brasserie, a fine dining room and a chef’s table – will be overseen by chef Mauro Colagreco who has a three Michelin starred restaurant in France.
A new addition is four subterranean floors underneath the existing building that will house a spa and health club including a swimming pool, gym, yoga studio, sauna and steam, partnering with Guerlain and Pillar.
Raffles at The OWO is due to open between this December and March 2023. The hotel will also be open several days a year for tours, making the building and its fascinating history accessible to the public (as well as guests) for the first time.