Homes Once a destination for the rich and famous, the 80-year-old Le Provençal hotel in Antibes has sat abandoned for 35 years.
In June 1926, the first stone of Le Provençal - a hotel built to be the most luxurious on the Côte D'Azur - was laid. The American Frank Jay Gould invested his fortune in building the hotel and saw it redoubled as the rich and the famous flocked to its doors. Ella Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy all spent time at Le Provençal during the 1930s and 1940s; Edith Piaf certainly didn't regret her time at the hotel; and Tom Jones made his international debut in the nightclub. F Scott Fitzgerald based his book Tender Is the Night on his experiences at the hotel.
Fast-forward 80 years, however, and it's a different story. The famous guests have long gone, the hotel has closed down, and the building - towering over Juan les Pins in Antibes, between Cannes and Nice - has been empty for 35 years. Hundreds of pigeons are its only residents; squatters' graffiti adorns the walls. Look carefully inside and you can still see hints of its lavish past: the marble steps are still there, only with piles of rubble upon them.
"When I first saw it, I thought it was like a building crying. No one cared," says Cyril Dennis, who has bought the site and is developing it into luxurious flats due for completion in 2010. Dennis made his money by building a large amount of such properties in the Docklands, East London's business district, and is currently ranked No. 458 in The Sunday Times rich list. It took several years of protracted negotiations before Dennis bought Le Provençal, and the first thing he did was paint over the graffiti covering the outside of the building - "to give it some of its respect back". The hotel suffered, he says, because of the Second World War - first Gould was investigated by the Gestapo, then the hotel was bombed by the US Air Force. It took five million francs and countless German prisoners of war to reconstruct the building. The main reason it closed, however, in the 1970s, was a rather more mundane disagreement over money: when staff had the temerity to ask for a pay increase, the new owner (Gould died in 1956) locked the door and declared Le Provençal closed. The owner never returned yet refused to sell until recently.
Dennis, like Gould before him, is now determined to resuscitate this corner of glitzy Antibes - and to make some money in the process, of course. The flats currently on sale are far from cheap: the 56 apartments start at Dh11.5 million for a one-bedroom and go up to Dh230 million. To put this into context within the local market, a villa in Antibes recently sold for more than Dh1 billion. Dennis is adding a private beach to accompany the 4,180 square metre development, tennis courts, a 24-hour concierge, spa, golf simulator and use of a boat and access to a flat in Courchevel. The views from the roof of Le Provençal and the terraces are panoramic - with the sparkling Mediterranean in front and the rooftops of Juan les Pins to the side of the hotel. The show flats are gadget-heavy, with music, TVs, DVDs, light and air conditioning controlled by the touch of a button. There are also touch-sensitive computer screens in the shower should you need to check your e-mail while lathering up. Residents' irises will be scanned to enter the development.
It's all highly extravagant, modern and flash: interactive wallpaper (featuring projected images on screens that move as you touch them) is an option, as well as large fish tanks above the enormous sunken jacuzzi baths and dressing rooms the size of the average Abu Dhabi one-bedroom apartment. There are two choices of kitchen: one designed by Porsche and Poggenpohl, and the other by Armani and Dada. Six flats have their own pools; there will also be a large communal pool. There are no design references to Provence in the show flats, which some buyers might feel is a shame - they have more of a high-end hotel-imitation look - and if you didn't know where the hotel was, you certainly wouldn't guess by the furnishings.
"When you come here, you buy a piece of history," Dennis says. "There will never be another building in the south of France like it. When you buy a Picasso you know it's never going to come along again. It isn't a case of apartments that are up for sale - these are apartments that people want to buy." Buyers are expected to come from Russia, the Middle East, the UK and other parts of Europe. The market in Antibes is going up by as much as 20 per cent a year, according to Jean-Claude Caputo of Riviera Estates, which is jointly selling the development along with the Savills agency. "There are more and more wealthy people in the world, and they all want to go to the same places, which is driving prices up," Caputo says.
The three most desirable addresses in the Côte D'Azur, he says, are Cap D'Antibes, Cap Ferrat and the St Tropez peninsula. If you're buying a detached villa in any of these places, being a mere millionaire means you probably don't have enough money. Not for nothing is the desirable part of Antibes called Billionaires Bay. One notable billionaire, Roman Abramovich, bought his villa, Château de la Croe, here in 2004, for Dh87 million. The 12-bedroom property was once home to Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson, who held lavish receptions there. It sits next door to the Villa Eilenroc, built in 1867 by Charles Garnier, the designer of the Paris Opera, and previously owned by Aristotle Onassis and Greta Garbo. The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, meanwhile, has a villa in Antibes up for sale for a paltry Dh26 million.
Cap Ferrat is where Paul Allen, the lesser-known co-founder of Microsoft, has a villa, which he recently lent to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during the Cannes Film Festival. The couple were also in town to do a spot of house-hunting, and according to newspapers, bought a 1,000-acre estate in the village of Brignol, close to Aix en Provence. The modest property comes with 35 bedrooms, a vineyard, lake, forest, moat, swimming pool and billiards room, as well as an indoor pool, his-and-hers gyms, a sauna and jacuzzi, banquet hall and an olive grove with 13 types of olive and 20 fountains. They are reported to have paid up to Dh200 million for the property.
Though it is certainly true that for the price of the more expensive flats you could buy a detached villa, suddenly Le Provençal doesn't seem quite so expensive. "The type of people who will buy in Le Provençal will likely own several homes already," says Riviera Estates' Caputo. "They don't want the hassle of having to worry about the security of the house or how they are going to get the staff and service they need. They could afford a detached villa, but they want the facilities of a five-star hotel that we will offer. It will, in my view, be the most luxurious property development ever built on the Riviera."