Vienna’s New Offbeat Hotel: Luxury, History, and Monkey Lamps at the Leo Grand
By Mark Orwoll
The bedside monkey lamps at Vienna’s new Hotel Leo Grand will either amuse you or unnerve you enough to make you sleep in the bathtub. That is, assuming you can even find your guest quarters in the first place. Room 1, for instance, is on the top floor of the six-story property. The Leopold Suite was given the number 8 because it looks like the infinity symbol. Room 25 is on the second floor, which sounds conventional enough, except that in Europe the second floor is called the first floor, whose room numbers usually begin with the numeral 1. The most common question received by bellhops is, “Can you tell me where my room is?”
But that’s all part of the deliberately kooky attitude at what may be Vienna’s most centrally located boutique luxury hotel. Walk out the Leo Grand’s lobby doors onto Bauernmarkt and you’re presented with the dramatic façade of the city’s famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral and its lively pedestrian square, one block away. Within walking distance are the Vienna Opera House, a dozen museums, several palaces, historic churches, the Sigmund Freud House, and the Giant Ferris Wheel made famous in the film The Third Man.
The Leo Grand’s Quirky History
The privately owned, 76-room Leo Grand opened in April, but its roots go back three centuries. The structure was built in 1702 as a private residence for Jewish financier Samuel Oppenheimer and his family at a time when Jews weren’t allowed to live in the central part of the capital, at the order of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold.
Leopold was a complicated man in many ways. He was a “second brother,” and hadn’t planned on inheriting the throne until it was unexpectedly thrust on him. He was at heart an artist—an actor, a composer, a fop, a lover of theater. But the tenor of the times required that he expel the Jews. Oppenheimer, however, was not simply a Jew; he was the emperor’s chief financier. He funded weddings for two of Leopold’s daughters. More importantly, he underwrote the emperor’s wars against the invading Turks, who threatened Vienna. For that, he was allowed to live in his new mansion on Bauernmarkt on a don’t-ask, don’t-tell basis.
The elaborate home was typical of upper-crust residences in 18th-century Vienna: A central courtyard allowed most of the rooms to be entered from within the protected walls of the enclosure while providing natural light (and relative quiet) through the inner-facing windows. Today, those entryways and windows are for decorative purposes; all the guest rooms are entered through interior corridors.
From a Near-Ruin to a Showpiece
The building had deteriorated tremendously since its construction 320 years ago. Its decline was particularly precipitous in the past century, while it was an ill-maintained government-run apartment house.
“It was in a really, really devastating state,” says Isabella Wexberg, the Leo Grand’s general manager, who was familiar with the building at the time. “I wouldn’t have stepped out onto the balconies because it would have been my last step.”
Entrepreneur Martin Lenikus bought the decrepit mansion for a hotel when the city decided no longer to fund such municipal apartment blocks. During the reconstruction, which began in 2016, the foundations of former buildings going back to the 12th century were revealed. Digging deeper into the foundation, Roman artifacts were found. None of these discoveries sped up the rebuilding process, as the Viennese historic-preservation office issued halt-work orders while it evaluated each archeological revelation.
Because of historic concerns, many parts of the building, both inside and out, couldn’t be altered. Some interior walls had to remain in place, even when they interfered with the layout of the new hotel rooms. Ironically, the owner received permission to remove the original 18th-century wooden beams from the fifth-floor ceilings, but in a brilliant move, he said no thanks. All the rooms on that floor feature atmospheric exposed beams.
“The whole floor is dominated by those beams,” says Wexberg, smiling and staring at the ceiling in one of the rooms. “We love them.”
The Difficulties in Naming a Hotel
The owner and his team initially considered naming the hotel after Oppenheimer, the original owner, but then someone at the meeting said, in a reference to physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, “No! People will think you mean the father of the atomic bomb!” So rather than having people go nuclear because of a misunderstanding, the name was handed off to Emperor Leo.
The hotel owner’s wife, interior designer Gabriele Lenikus, took inspiration from Emperor Leopold’s peculiarities as well as the history of Vienna in her plans for the hotel’s decoration. Wallpaper in some of the guest rooms and hallways has images of Emperor Leopold and Samuel Oppenheimer, interspersed among giraffes, lions, tigers, and other animals that were initially displayed at the world-famous Vienna Zoo. Carpets hold kaleidoscopic images of Louis XIV, Leopold’s cousin and rival for the conquest of Europe. The aforementioned monkey lamps (also based on the zoo theme) get the most attention from guests, who invariably ask, “Where can I buy one?”
“The design and architecture are part of our DNA,” says Wexberg, who began her hospitality career at Vienna’s fabled Hotel Sacher. “If they give me a choice between practical and beautiful, I always go for the beautiful. Leopold was sort of an artistic character, so we thought he’d somehow fit into that. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously. We want to have some fun.”
Rates at the Hotel Leo Grand (1 Bauernmarkt, Vienna; +43 1 90606; firstname.lastname@example.org) begin at U.S. $311 for a double room and from $623 for the five suites, several of which have views of St. Stephen’s towers. All rooms feature king-size beds, 50-inch smart TVs, settees and upholstered chairs, coffee and tea makers, and free WiFi. The hotel’s courtyard restaurant-bar, Dots at the Leo Grand, serves French-Asian fusion and has quickly become a popular nightlife destination for visitors and locals.
Mark Orwoll, the former International Editor of Travel + Leisure, writes about international adventure, food, and luxury lifestyle.