Rocco Forte heading to Prague

The Prague Post

Top-end hotel chain’s extensive Malá Strana spread to open in April

“I have no doubt this will be one of the finest hotels in one of the prettiest cities in the world.”

A bold statement from a bold developer. Thomas Smit is president of Waldeck Capital, the developer charged with creating the Rocco Forte, a new five-star premium luxury hotel, out of a portion of the St. Thomas Monastery in Malá Strana. But getting to there, from where they started back in 1993, hasn’t been the smoothest of paths. City officials, preservation authorities and the Augustine Order all had a variety of requirements, as well as financial obligations to be met. But, with a hopeful opening in April, Smit can now start to see the fruits of his labors.

“The most difficult part was the negotiations with the Augustine Order,” he says. “That took almost two years. The second biggest challenge was the purchase of the ministry buildings.”

The hotel actually comprises six individual buildings. In addition to securing the monastery buildings and buildings from the government, Smit also purchased a hotel and restaurant that was onsite. Timing of all these contracts was crucial.

“There was no point in doing one without the other,” he says. “If we could get the hotel but not the ministry buildings, the project wouldn’t work. We had to make sure all the tenants would move; we had to have assurance that we could get the building permits as well as the financing.”

There had been negotiations in the past with other developers who wanted to build on the site. None of those proposed projects moved very far until Smit came to the table.

“Other developers tried to leave out the existing hotel and work only with the existing ministry buildings,” he says. “I approached the owners of the hotel and bought the building.”

Plus, he says, previous plans concentrated on design and forgot about function. Smit’s team focused on function, plus respect for the monastery, the Wallenstein Gardens, which run alongside the back of the property, and the individuality of each building. Monks from the Augustine Order still live on the site, but have relocated to the buildings farthest from the area being developed. Smit believes this attention to detail, as well as the 27 concept studies they did before taking it to the Prague 1 planning authorities, are what made it a successful venture.

“Guests will see one hotel but will appreciate the charm of six individual buildings,” he says.

Once developers were finally able to get their hands physically on the property, they were met with some unexpected surprises.

“We had to clean up the communist rubble of these sad, neglected, depressed buildings,” Smit says. “Then we could see what we had.”

Smit started with archaeological studies, which took almost two years. At the same time they were studying the national archives to see what they were dealing with in terms of the buildings’ ages and histories.

“I coordinated a significant portion of preparatory documents, such as building research, a list of all the important elements for restoration and research,” explains Jan Vojta, who works for one of the hotel developers and acted as a historian and preservation adviser for the project. “My task was to look for solutions to the project that would be acceptable to the heritage preservation organizations — the National Heritage Institute and the heritage preservation department of City Hall.”

Jan Knižínek, director of Prague’s culture, monument care and tourism department, was in charge of overseeing the work and making sure it conformed to the guidelines set down by the National Heritage Institute, which is, as he points out, not always an easy task.

“From the historical, panoramic and monument care points of view, the reconstruction and conversion to a hotel was very problematic,” he says. “Because of the important value of the historical complex, it was not possible to accept certain inappropriate intervention to historical parts of construction such as proposed major structural changes of all the floors.”

Adds Smit: “Occasionally we had to redesign around the historical parts. … The preservation office has different guidelines for buildings from different periods. So in one building maybe we could drill a hole in the wall, but in another we couldn’t. That’s difficult when you are trying to put a hot water line through two buildings.”

Some preservation issues they couldn’t work around, so they either went underground, up to the roof, and, in some buildings, nothing could be done so there’s “nonfunctioning space.” Luckily, because it is such a big project, if work was held up in one building because of an archaeological find or preservation issue, construction could continue elsewhere on the site.

But then came the next big challenge.

“Once we understood what was here structurally, we had to cement a happy working relationship with all the parties — city officials, Czech architects and the London design team,” Smit says.

His task was to integrate them into a multinational team that could move forward together. Smit says it wasn’t always easy explaining the passion of the Czech architects to the London interior designers and getting them to be sensitive to the history and cultural aspects of the buildings. In turn, he had to clarify to the architects that it is one thing to design something as an historical expression, but quite another matter to get an international guest to understand it.

Smit has had a close working relationship with Rocco Forte and his team from the beginning.

“Sir Rocco Forte is an absolute perfectionist,” he says. “Perfection has no compromise, and, in this project, there is no compromise.”

Compromise maybe not, but there is still a lot of coordination of different disciplines.

“The components of heating, cooling, ventilation, sanitation, guest safety and comfort, access, storage, food prep, banqueting, alarm systems, communication systems, all must work in harmony,” he says. “And then you synchronize your requirements of perfection with the requirements of the preservationists and the building authorities in a manageable time period and budget.”

Smit believes they are now at a point when all the obstacles and hurdles are behind them.

“The historical, archaeological, mechanical, structural — all the toughest parts — are over,” he says. “Still ongoing is the insulation, heating and plumbing. The interior walls are finished, next comes the ventilation and then we’ll start on the bathrooms.”

Vojta is also a bit relieved to be where they are at.

“I can’t even name you all the problems we went though,” he says. “There were negotiations everyday in which we were trying to find a solution acceptable to all the participants — developer, heritage institute, supply firms.”

Knižínek looks at the nearly completed project from a different point of view.

“Due to the importance of the locality and at the same time the exceptionally dismal state of the buildings in the whole complex caused by several reconstructions in recent years, not always respecting the character of historical area, we are of the opinion that the project is beneficial to the property and will help to preserve its historical values,” he says.

Vojta agrees the project was beneficial from a preservation angle. He looks at the challenge of bringing together a group of individual buildings none of which was designed to be a hotel, and combining the historical qualities with the buildings’ new function.

“A certain advantage for the developer was the fact that the buildings were in really bad shape,” he says. “The only possibility of saving them was to invest a lot of money into them. Neither the Augustine Order nor the Culture Ministry has enough money to cover the costs of such renovations. A project of this scope was the only way to save the buildings. So, from my perspective, this project was beneficial.”

Smit says a project of this magnitude is all sequential work, time management, process management and coordination.

“Anybody can do a deal like this,” he says. “But for me and our team, it is a determination to open the door for the first paying guest and for them to say ‘this was a fantastic experience.’ That is my reward. And to take the experience to the next project.”

Smit calls the people who have worked on this project “unsung heroes.”

“Not many people are fortunate enough to say they have worked on one of the most beautiful hotels in the world.”