The history of Société des Bains de Mer and that of Monaco are intricately linked. Founded in 1863 by Royal Decree of Prince Charles III, this extraordinary company participated in the birth of Monte Carlo and its first glory days. Since its creation, Société des Bains de Mer has always played a key role in Monaco, adapting to modernity and predicting new trends.
In 1863, the Plateau des Spélugues on which the Casino was built was nothing more than arid land used to cultivate typical Mediterranean plant species: olive, citrus and orange trees.
It was Prince Charles III, successor to Prince Florestan I, who initiated the creation of a new town in Monaco. The press at the time noted the Prince's aim for the town: ‘The new Société des Bains de Mer Casino will soon rise up on a monumental scale. Around the Casino, beautiful hotels will be built that will have nothing to fear from comparisons with those in Paris, London and New York’. Five years after the first stone was laid, the Casino opened in spring 1863. It went on to be a huge success.
François Blanc was the man for the job. He came from Homburg, a German spa town whose prosperity he had assured. He owned Société des Bains de Mer and Cercle des Etrangers à Monaco for 50 years. In line with the Prince’s wishes, he continued to reinforce the principles of the creation of Monte Carlo: an exceptional place due to its luxury, comfort and location.
In addition to the Casino, Hôtel de Paris and Café de Paris, superb gardens and villas soon transformed the Plateau des Spélugues into a real town that needed a name. Prince Charles III decreed on 1st June 1866 that the facilities of the Société des Bains de Mer would henceforth be called ‘Monte Carlo’.
François Blanc and his wife Marie built the most famous hotel in Monaco: the Hôtel de Paris.
The most talented designers in France and worldwide were carefully selected to ensure the best result.
To satisfy an ever-growing customer base, François Blanc decided to build the first extension of the hotel, just two years after it opened. From January 1866, the first customers of the new dining room were dazzled by the building designed by the architect Godinot de la Bretonnerie, and discovered gas lighting produced by the new factory in Monaco.
Construction in Monte Carlo was stepped up: the predecessor to the Café de Paris opened to the public in 1868, completing the ‘magic triangle’ of the Place du Casino. Although modest in size, the establishment called Café Divan was one of the most popular places for discussion, entertainment and relaxation. Even then, the building was home to a café, a restaurant, a jeweller’s and a tobacconist's.
The newly christened Monte Carlo was a huge success. In 1869, more than 170,000 tourists visited.
The clientele was elite: the fact that the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, Alexandre Dumas, Jacques Offenbach, Baron Haussmann and Prince Napoleon all stayed there is testament to Monaco's excellent reputation. Winter was celebrated as the favourite season by tourists attracted to the mild climate.
Monaco's local newspaper noted that ‘Monaco ranks among the top winter resorts’. Monte Carlo was in vogue and a meeting place for high society.
When François Blanc died in 1877, his wife Marie took over the management of Société des Bains de Mer. She continued her husband's work and decided to build new wine cellars at the Hôtel de Paris, dedicated to fine wine.
The old buildings of the Casino were torn down in 1878 to make way, in less than 6 months, for the construction of a new complex. Gambling was temporarily moved to the Hôtel de Paris. After building the Paris Opera House, Charles Garnier was to take the lead on the construction of the Casino’s theatre and large gaming room.
He gave the building its current appearance by crowning it with a dome and two pinnacles.
Sarah Bernhardt was the first to star at the Opera House when she performed there for opening night on 25 January 1879.
In the same year, the architect Dutrou built the Casino's remarkable atrium, with twenty-eight stucco-topped stone columns supporting a gallery lit up by splendid bronze candelabra.
Marie Blanc produced high-quality shows and hosted the most famous performers. When she died in 1881, the Hôtel de Paris and Casino were world renowned as the liveliest and most attractive luxury resort venues.
The Casino was so successful that it had to continually be made bigger. In 1881, Charles Garnier built the current Salle des Amériques. In 1890, Jules Touzet designed two additional rooms.
In 1882, the Café Divan gave way to the Café de Paris. The original modest building was replaced in spring 1897 by a magnificent Moorish-style building.
In the same year, crowds gathered on the Place to see one of the most famous visitors to the Café de Paris: Edouard Michelin, who lost control of his car during the Marseille-Fréjus-Monte-Carlo race and ended up crashing into one of the café’s pillars. Luckily, nobody was hurt in the accident.
At the end of the 19th century, Monte Carlo, an undisputed leader in entertainment, presented technical innovations that amazed the public. The basements of the Casino were even used for science, specifically by one of its great men, Gramme. The inventor's assignment was to perfect his famous rotating machine to produce electricity and make Monte Carlo the first town with electric lighting. A fire forced the Casino's management to put a stop to the inventor's research, but it was thanks to the work he carried out in Monaco that he finally perfected his famous generator.
In September 1897, Société des Bains de Mer organised film and photography competitions. Conferences held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts presented the physical properties of X-rays. But Monte Carlo's real passion for technical advances gradually focused on one subject: cars. The motorboat competitions held at the end of the 19th century had helped to improve combustion engine technology, so it was only natural that cars found a home in Monte Carlo.
In 1900, the modest Hôtel Hermitage was transformed into a luxury resort residence. Its belle époque dining room was designed by Rome Prize winner and 1889 World Fair gold medallist Gabriel Ferrier. It has magnificent frescoes reminiscent of the paintings of Fragonard and Boucher. The structure of the glass roof of the conservatory was designed by Gustave Eiffel, father of the tower in Paris that bears his name.
In the same period, the Hôtel de Paris was extended with a new wing, the famous ‘Rotonde’. Originally topped by a dome engraved with the arms of the city of Paris, the height of the Rotonde was increased twice. The increase in hotel capacity was due to the growth of the Casino’s customer base. The Salle Blanche, a conversation lounge designed by Schmit, was opened to the public in 1904. The most surprising decorative element is still the famous painting by Gervais of the ‘Florentine Graces’. Visitors were surprised at the resemblance of these three figures to the highly sought-after Cléo de Mérode, Liane de Pougy and La Belle Otéro.
Monte Carlo became more urban to satisfy its customer base. Monaco’s roads were the first to be paved for luxury cars, which were already taking part in Concours d’Elegance competitions at the beginning of the century.
In 1911, the tradition of the Monte Carlo Rallies was born, the first of which was won by the pilot Rougier.
The year 1911 saw the arrival of Diaghilev at the Monte Carlo Opera House. After the success in Paris of the Ballets Russes from 1907-1910, he expressed his intention to direct his own ballet company and Monte Carlo gave him that opportunity. Guided by his instincts, he surrounded himself with a troupe of 80 performers, including the famous Nijinsky, Lifar and Fokine. Some of his ballets were worldwide successes: Le Spectre de la Rose, Narcisse and Les Papillons. The sets for these ballets were designed by Picasso, Matisse and Braque. Diaghilev got Jean Cocteau to design the poster for the first performance by Ballets Russes in 1911.
The Café de Paris was a meeting place for performers. Diaghilev’s troupe had dinner there every night after their shows. The year 1911 was also a memorable year for Monaco with the opening on Mont Agel of the Monte Carlo Golf Club, to the delight of the large British community present at the time. From the top (900 metres), the view of the sea and Monaco was breathtaking.
At the beginning of the century, novelty came from the air with the pilot Rougier, who flew his aeroplane off the coast of the Bay of Hercules and over the Tête de Chien, the impressive rock promontory overlooking Monaco.
The year 1912 saw the first aerial photograph of Monaco taken by Renaux and the first seaplane in the world presented in the port of Monaco by Fabre. Speed is celebrated in Monaco. Le Figaro chose to sing the praises of the train, which made a wonderful dream come true: ‘going to sleep in a land of mist and grey skies, then waking up the next day in sunlit lands where you can breathe fresh air. This poetic dream can easily come true if you take the new lightning-fast train to Monte Carlo run by the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée company’.
In the period between the two world wars, Monte Carlo established itself as a seaside resort and wanted to celebrate summer. New construction projects were carried out in Monaco to meet the demands of customers eager to soak up the summer sun. A coastal road was mapped out to the east, bordered by palm trees and small shops called ‘souks’. The bathhouse opened in July 1928.
In 1929, the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel, whose style was reminiscent of luxury hotels in Florida, became a new and prestigious place to summer in Monaco.
Elsa Maxwell, the famous American journalist, pushed for the creation of a golden sandy beach. More reasonably, a magnificent swimming pool was finally built just above sea level.
The Beach Hotel secured Monaco's reputation as a summer resort through the quality of its services and the appeal of its memorable costume parties. Monaco offered summer holidaymakers a new seafront, and Larvotto beach welcomed its first bathers.
In 1928, tennis was given pride of place with the opening of the Monte Carlo Country Club. The club was opened in front of an audience of royalty: Gustaf V of Sweden, the Duke of Connaught, Prince Nicholas of Greece and Grand Duchess Elena and Grand Duke Andrei of Russia. This sport was given a high priority in Monaco because, since being exported from England in 1880, it became more and more popular every year.
The 30s was a profitable time for the construction of entertainment venues. In 1931, the colonial-style Sporting d’Eté was built on the seafront. It hosted the best shows of the season and offered spectators magical fireworks displays. The place du Casino gained a new show venue in 1932: the Sporting d’Hiver. The building, constructed on the site of the glass Palais des Beaux-Arts, rose spectacularly over the Boulingrins gardens and became a must for nights out in Monaco. The customers who frequented its gaming rooms were elite.
Run like an English club, the Sporting was only open to members. It was also home to a restaurant and nightclub whose customers applauded the ‘Girls of Monte Carlo’. Art deco was also celebrated at the Café de Paris, which was completely refurbished. The minarets and domes built at the beginning of the century were removed. Faience was replaced by frieze in line with the new art deco trend. The magic of Monte Carlo made celebrities forget the tragedies of this troubled period: the financial crisis of the 30s and the threat of war. The Hôtel de Paris was a real haven of tranquillity for its guests. Many of them were British: Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Robert Vansittart and the Duke of Westminster all graced its corridors. Aga Khan, the Maharani of Kashmir, Prince Peter and Princess Violet of Montenegro, the Countess of La Rochefoucauld and René Blum were also among the hotel's famous guests. On 17 July 1943, in a moment of peace during the war, Radio Monte Carlo made its first broadcast from the Sporting d’Hiver. This event led to the birth of a superstar: Maurice Chevalier.
The Allied victory in 1945 allowed Monte Carlo to get its customers back. Sir Winston Churchill came back, honouring the promise he had been unable to keep because of his early return to England as a result of the tragic events. English customers gradually returned. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Duke of Edinburgh and Lady Bateman, who lived at the Hôtel de Paris for the whole of winter, attended prestigious gala evenings in the 50s.
Edouard Herriot, Prince Peter of Yugoslavia and Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain came to Monaco for a few days of relaxation and Charlie Chaplin returned after his stay in 1931 to present City Lights. The Hôtel de Paris also hosted the wedding of Errol Flynn in the Empire room in 1952.
It was attended by the big names in cinema: Rita Hayworth, Michèle Morgan and Gary Grant, to name a few.
The year 1952 saw the arrival in Monaco of the Greek shipowner, Onassis, who set up his oil company's offices in Marie Blanc’s old villa.
In the 50s, HRH Prince Rainier III considered holding international conferences; this was the beginning of business tourism. The hotel industry had to grow and adapt: 4 floors were added to the Rotonde at the Hôtel de Paris by the architects Bruyère and Chiappori.
The most famous event in Monaco in the second half of the 20th century was without a doubt the wedding of HRH Prince Rainier III and Miss Grace Patricia Kelly on 18 April 1956. Monte Carlo celebrated. The world’s media broadcast images of a royal family basking in the happiness of one of the most famous couples of the century.
At the beginning of the 60s, the Café de Paris, ever-attentive to its customers’ needs, underwent a number of large-scale renovations. Henry Rigal installed facilities for the most popular game, bowling, and opened a nightclub, the Scotch Club, with Scottish decorations.
In July 1960, the Maona restaurant opened at the Sporting d’Eté.
On 16 January 1961, the 1st International Television Festival took place in Monte Carlo, hosted by Marcel Pagnol.
In 1962, the billiards table was removed from the Café de Paris, but the arrival of slot machines revolutionised the world of gaming.
Monte Carlo celebrated its centenary in 1966. A grand ball was organised for the occasion in the Salle Garnier and on the Casino’s terraces in the presence of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Monaco.
On 13 March 1968, the ‘Grand Bal Paré 1900’ was held to celebrate the reopening of the Salon de l’Europe at the Monte Carlo Casino. On 15 March of the following year, the Grand Bal des Têtes was held to mark the opening of the Salle des Amériques.
Some key events of the last few decades.