On the shores of small island just off the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, a (mostly) vacant modern hotel lives outs its days surrounded by the quiet anonymity provided by beautiful Lopud, Croatia. Buried in the Mediterranean garden of an island, the remains of this giant white concrete ship have peered from behind the island’s lush vegetative growth for the last eighty years.
The ‘ship’ is the Grand Hotel, a modernist masterpiece designed by one of Yugoslavia’s greatest architects. It was built in the 1930s and kick-started the fishing island’s tourism industry. The Grand Hotel survived World War II and nationalization, but in the years since the Croatian War and re-privatization the hotel has failed to find its footing. After a 2001 bankruptcy it has passed through several companies’ hands, each trying to do what the one before could not.
Today the Grand Hotel still appears as an unfinished remodel, but it has a new owner, a new hope, and a new set of residents.
cover photo courtesy David Flett
Grand Hotel Lopud Beginnings
Lopud is a small island just a mile away from Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. The second largest and most economically developed of the Elaphiti Islands, Lopud measures a mere 1.8 square miles (4.63 sq. km) in size.
The island enjoys 250 days of sunshine per year and sees average temperatures in the 80s F (30s C). It also features a unique, 16th century botanical garden that is home to 500 plant species, brought to the island over the course of hundreds of years by visiting seamen from all over the world.
More important to developers, the small island was also a most bucolic setting, free of cars, development, and industry. In 1931 sea-captain Antun Sesan noted the potential of the island of Lopud as a destination for tourism and weekend getaways.
Sesan was the brother-in-law of brothers Niko and Antun Glavović, who were owners of the Guesthouse Glavović in Lopud and familiar with the hotel business. Together the three conceived the idea to build the Grand Hotel in Lopud. The ownership arrangement: two-thirds of the hotel was owned by the Glavović family, and one-third of the Grand Hotel was owned by Antun Sesan.
Sesan visited Dubrovnik’s Department for Arts and Monuments in search of an architect for his hotel. It was there he met municipal conservator Kosta Strajnić, a modern architecture devotee and friend of Nikola Dobrović. Strajnić was part of a movement that wished to see Dubrovnik go more modern and less traditional in design; he sent Sesan to see Dobrović, who was ultimately hired by Sesan to design the new Lopud hotel.
Nikola Dobrović, Arhitekt
Nikola Dobrović (1897-1967) is widely considered to be one of Yugoslavia’s most important modern architects. He is recognized as a pioneer among modern architects and is credited with shaping the region’s post-war identity.
He designed dozens of modern structures along the Dalmatian coast, although his most famous work was the Federal Ministry Defense building in Belgrade – notoriously bombed in a 1999 NATO raid and today the city’s most famous ruin.
Dobrović traveled to Dubrovnik regularly after 1929, and permanently settled in the city in 1933. Until his death in 1967, Dobrović regularly spent his summers on Lopud and even planned to build a summer home on the island.
As an architect Dobrović stands out because his works were commissioned largely by the middle class. As a result his designs were typically efficient with space and of more modest proportions, evidenced by the lack of adornments and low square footage in his most well-known floor plans.
Functionalism was the immutable element of Dobrović design; in the architect’s own words, “spatial art stands high above all other art forms. Any architect or architecture enthusiast can easily believe this.” In execution Nikola preferred the appearance and function of smooth white plaster applied to reinforced concrete, a recurring theme in Dobrović architecture.
A perfect example is the island of Lopud, a veritable Dobrović playground. In 1932 Nikola created the Monument to Viktor Dyk and in 1939 he penned the beautiful Villa Vesna, an apparent homage to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye with an appearance sixty years ahead of its time. Dobrović was a fan of ancient mythology, reflected in the names for his designs: Villa Adonis was named for the Greek playboy, Villa Rusalka for a water nymph, and Vesna symbolized the spring.
But of all his contributions to Lopud, the most compelling Dobrović product was the four-story Grand Hotel, a Brutalist piece de resistance in which he spent more than two years of his life designing and building.
Grand Hotel Construction
Building on Lopud was challenging because the island lacked all but the most basic of services. In 1933 a quarry was established and a small concrete factory was built. Tracks installed along the quay allowed carts to transport crushed rock to the building site.
The erection of the Grand Hotel became a thing of fascination for the locals, put together with materials and methods never before seen on the island. It wasn’t just Lopud, either: the Grand Hotel was the first structure on the Yugoslav coast built with a reinforced concrete skeleton.
Construction began in 1934, once all necessary permits were secured and filed. Its grand opening was in 1936, incidentally before the hotel was fully completed. The builders were proud of the hotel’s sustainable development and their creation of dozens of jobs, securing the economic future for many on the island for decades.
A printed brochure from the period advertised the hotel’s features:
“80 rooms equipped by modern standards, each room has a balcony, hot and cold running water, electric lights, wireless, and good ventilation, electricity, automatic phones, electric cooking, coffee on the terrace, dining room (partially closed, partially open). Meals are served, and in the garden are electric fans, a pond, a darkroom for photography, two spacious roof terraces, daily concerts, bathrooms, and showers on each floor. Between the hotel and the beach is a park 60 yards long, with an area of 2,000 square yards, planted with cypress and olive trees, oleanders, orange and lemon trees, many varieties of palm trees and cactus, rosemary, eucalyptus, mimosas, etc. … “
Vintage photos of Grand Hotel, Lopud (click to enlarge)
Dobrović’s Grand Hotel Design
When Nikola Dobrović first visited Lopud he fell in love with the island. His concept for the Grand Hotel was revolutionary, but it was also intended to complement the island’s landscape.
How he made a modern hotel not appear completely out-of-place in a fishing village is rather inventive: As a bellwether of the island’s expected burgeoning sea-based tourism industry, Nikola designed the Grand Hotel similar in profile to a cruise ship.
The first perspective drawings by Nikola Dobrović of the Grand Hotel were published in 1932. One set of renderings appeared in the book “Contemporary Architecture by Southern Slavs” while another set appeared in an issue of the Yugoslav magazine Arhitektura.
Following the nautical theme, everything was white. Windows appear continuous, and the hotel has several floors with balconies that run the entire length of the hotel, mimicking stacked decks of a large cruise ship. The entrance to the hotel has a cylindrical ‘command bridge’ that welcomed guests with the words ‘Grand Hotel’ and ‘Entrance’ carved in relief. At the top of the hotel the words “GRAND HOTEL” are cut out of the concrete along the parapet.
Design & Plans for the Grand Hotel, Lopud
courtesy Glavović family archives
Ocean liner cues didn’t end with the exterior; everything but the glass was narrow or small. Rooms were undersized (75 square feet / 6.9 sq. m) and resembled cruise ship cabins. Double rooms were fitted in pairs with beds placed lengthwise. Rooms had basic cupboards and wash basins, but bathrooms and toilets were centralized in a ‘sanitary cores’ located at the end of the hall. The narrow hallways were free of adornments, and the hotel lacked an elevator.
One can find Le Corbusier’s principles of new architecture around every corner, everything present in form was a structural necessity. A rare hedonistic touch was the tennis court on the hotel’s roof terrace.
By today’s standards much of the hotel appears a bit austere, but for the era it was a breakthrough, boasting some firsts along with many advancements and luxuries not common for the time.
Nikola’s final touch was the unique inclusion of his signature on the front of the hotel, one-foot (30 cm) tall and carved out of the concrete above the first floor:
Rooms were minimalist but all had balconies, electricity, and hot water. The hotel had its own heating and ventilation system, automatic telephone system, and because the hotel was on a small island that lacked infrastructure, the Grand Hotel had its own power station; excess electricity was directed to the rest of the island, providing many in Lopud with power for the first time. With sustainability in mind it was built with an advanced rainfall and gray-water irrigation system which directed captured rainfall and runoff toward the surrounding gardens and park.
Dobrović designed a second wing for additional capacity however this wing was not constructed until the 1970s, after his death. This second wing did not feature the narrow rooms or wave railings of the original wing, but it did have more space and included such upgrades as private bathrooms and toilets for each room.
The completed hotel was economic with space, managing to compress 96 rooms (24 per floor), office space, laundry, communal areas, and a restaurant into a just-over 75,000 square-foot (7,000 sq. m) building.
courtesy Glavović family archives and Architecture Dept., Museum of Science & Technology, Belgrade
Grand Hotel Lopud
When the Grand Hotel opened it was a four-star hotel. For more than seventy years was the largest hotel on the island, hosting some 35% of the island’s capacity.
Across its formative years the hotel was a place of elite tourism, an expensive place to spend the night with rooms costing more than double other boarding options on the island.
In its first year of operation the hotel was visited by 3,765 tourists. The glitzy Grand Hotel offered an opportunity to the fishing village on Lopud, the likes of which it had never seen before. Many residents had their first job at the hotel, working in housekeeping or carrying tourist luggage. Some worked their way up to manager. But everyone has a story about the Grand Hotel.
In 1941 the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, or NDH) came to power as a ‘puppet regime’ to the powers in Germany and Italy. The Glavović family was accused as being collaborators while the Grand Hotel was used as a temporary concentration camp by the Ustaše to hold persecuted Serbs, Jews, Muslims, and other anti-fascist dissidents arrested around the Dubrovnik area. According to one source, “about 600 to 700 captives were confined” in the hotel.
During World War II Josip Broz Tito rose to power while leading the Yugoslav nations against the occupation by the Germans. After the establishment of socialist Yugoslavia, Tito introduced a nationalization program in which many private properties were confiscated from the private sector and ‘nationalized’ into the care of the government. At the conclusion of World War II the Grand Hotel was nationalized into this program and operated by a state-run hotel facilities company.
In 1973 the Grand Hotel was thoroughly restored and expanded – although the expansion was built with little deference to Dobrović’s original plans. To better suit the requirements of travelers of the era, hallways and rooms were enlarged and railings straightened. Rooms in the new wing were given their own private toilets, and the Grand Hotel’s rooftop tennis courts were sacrificed for HVAC ventilation shafts.
By the 1980s the accommodations at the Grand Hotel were again in bad shape. The smaller rooms and lack of in-room bathrooms or toilets left the hotel with the less-demanding clientele, which led toward a hastened degradation.
The Croatia War & Re-Privatization
In 1990 a property restitution law was passed in Croatia, which began the slow process of re-privatization of many hotels and houses. The Grand Hotel escaped from returning to its original owners after it was ‘preempted’ by the Municipality of Dubrovnik.
Under Croatian laws of preemption, municipalities have the first right of refusal to purchase any property involving historically significant or otherwise protected buildings before the private sale may be closed.
When the Grand Hotel was re-privatized, Dubrovnik exercised its right of preemption, usurping the hotel from Glavović descendants. The city then sold the Grand Hotel to a private owner who promised to restore and re-open the Grand Hotel. But at the time, the country was on the brink of war.
When the Croatian War of Independence began in 1991, it crippled the region and its tourism industry. The Grand Hotel was shut down and temporarily seized by combatants. It emerged from the Croatian War in the mid-1990s as part of the portfolio of Hotels Lopud, d.d., a subsidiary of Dubrovačka Bank.
In 2001 Hotels Lopud d.d., owner and operator of the Grand Hotel on Lopud, was in bankruptcy court because the company owed “municipal and water back charges totaling 137 thousand kuna.” Locals wondered why the company sought bankruptcy protection over such a small amount, and suspicions began to rise that the hotel was being artificially depressed to allow for a cheaper sale to a third party.
Von Habsburg and Roth
Francesca von Habsburg, an art collector and the former wife of Austrian royalty, had an affinity for the cultural heritage of the region and established herself in nearby Dubrovnik. There she helped protect and restore valuable works from the Dubrovnik Painting School and liturgical objects from Dubrovnik Franciscans and Dominicans.
Her work preserving art and history convinced the Dalmatian Franciscan Province of Dubrovnik Franciscans to gift a 99-year lease of Lopud’s Birth of Mary monastery to von Habsburg in 1997. The centuries-old monastery was crumbling and the Franciscans didn’t have the money for repairs – although later von Habsburg would come under fire for failing to spend money to restore the monastery.
Von Habsburg was interested in purchasing properties Lopud, and appointed Austrian businessman Erwin Roth to assist with the deals. Roth was a transplant who moved to the area in the mid-1990s and had established a company in Split, which he used to buy and sell real estate. His buying eventually spilled over to Lopud, where he spent 6.5 million kuna acquiring Villa Slavica, the Kantun café, and the restaurant Šunj (named after the island’s famed beach), at bankruptcy auctions.
It was 2002 when news outlets first caught wind of the baroness’ intention to purchase the hotel. Outlets were suspicious of her ability to fund the purchase, claiming the baroness “practically remained without inheritance and money.” Meanwhile, an evaluation in 2002 estimated the cost to rehabilitate and rebuild the Grand Hotel could potentially reach five million euros.
In December 2003 the Grand Hotel Lopud was set to be sold at public auction. Nikša Scheers, whose mother was a Glavović, argued the bankruptcy auction was a scam. Scheers alleged that because von Habsburg was friends with Dubrovnik mayor Vido Bogdanovic, the mayor agreed to allow the hotel to declare bankruptcy over a relatively paltry 137,000 kuna debt so that von Habsburg may acquire the hotel at a discount.
Scheers argued if the once-nationalized hotel was in bankruptcy, it could potentially be acquired for less money. In this case, the hotel (which was estimated to be worth 72 million kuna) was undervalued, set to go to auction for just 12 million kuna.
Another article called the auction an “unnecessary bankruptcy” and pointedly criticized businessman Erwin Roth because the Lopud properties he purchased two years prior (Sunj Restaurant, Villa Slavica, and the tavern café Kantun) had failed to produce the promised business and employment for the quiet island. These feelings were echoed in yet another article which also noted the three Roth properties that failed to see redevelopment after purchase.
“[Francesca von Habsburg] just wants to have the island’s real estate and be the owner of the island.”
– Nikša Scheers, Glavović heir
After the late December 2003 auction, it was announced that Erwin Roth purchased the Grand Hotel on behalf of the baroness for 15.8 million kuna. Glavović heirs tried to delay the sale under claims the state, county, and city were not offered their preemptive right of first-refusal to purchase. Courts agreed, and gave the municipalities sixty days to contest the purchase, after which time Roth’s company could attain ownership upon payment of their bid price.
To this, Roth said “it is interesting that in 2002 we offered the Glavović family 2.3 million Deutsch Marks [for the Grand Hotel], and we were refused because they wanted 7 million.” He went on to say that he intended to develop the Grand Hotel into a boutique hotel, and it would have a planned opening of Christmas 2007.
From Dubrovnik to Atlantska Plovidba
At the urging of hotel heirs and other locals, the municipal government swooped in at the eleventh hour. In February of 2004 the city council exercised its preemptive right and matched the required minimum bid for the Grand Hotel.
The Grand Hotel, which is a part of Croatia’s cultural heritage list, has a modicum of protection being identified as an “immovable cultural property.” This designation also requires developers and owners to respect the rules established by the Dubrovnik Department of Conservation before any changes can be made.
Big news came in September of 2004 with the announcement the city had sold the Grand Hotel to shipping conglomerate Atlantske Plovidbe d.d. for 21.5 million kuna. Atlantske plovidbe d.d. (AP) was founded in 1955 and is registered for an impressive array of business activities: Sea and coastal dry bulk transport, river transport, passenger and tour operator services, ships and immovable rentals, scientific research and development, market analysis and public research, business and management consulting, secretarial and translator services, hotels and motels, restaurants, camps, canteens, wholesale and store brokerage, retail household apparatus repair, vessel import-export, vessel servicing and repairs, financial and book-keeping consultancy, tax advising.
In their December 2006 bulletin Atlantska plovidba told investors the company had secured the Grand Hotel property, and in May of 2006 began cleaning out the hotel. Old crumbling concrete furniture was removed, as was some old equipment and fixtures. The company said the next step was to draw up plans for the hotel redesign and obtain the necessary permits for final reconstruction, and eventually reach an agreement with Hilton to franchise the Grand Hotel.
The stated goal of Atlantska plovidba was to apply “appropriate modern standards while maintaining the basic features of the hotel’s original organization and interior design.” The hotel was to be a four-star hotel with 75 rooms and would maintain its original design, gardens, and landscaped grounds with concrete benches and tables. The company mentioned a possible expansion to the rear of the hotel because conservation covenants meant the hotel could not be built taller. AP reached out to design firm HOK to perform a conservation study and draft their vision for the Grand Hotel, and announced a planned re-opening for the tourist season in 2008.
In their June 2007 bulletin Atlantska repeated the announcement of their purchase of the Grand Hotel Lopud and painted an expectation of what the future holds. “Since the subject is completely devastated, a complete renovation is necessary. In doing so we will strictly make sure that the subject is under special protection.” The group mentioned rehabilitation plans that involved re-branding the Grand Hotel as a Hilton after its renovation, but in order to rehabilitate the hotel AP needed to remove damaged equipment and furniture, knock down walls, and fence off the property. Atlantska also obtained necessary permits for the final restoration of the Grand Hotel.
The June 2008 bulletin painted a more grim picture, resultant of the economic climate. For the Grand Hotel, site cleanup began. Nearly twenty years’ worth of overgrown foliage was eradicated from the hotel grounds. Debris and waste was collected and removed, the front and rear gardens were tended, and its grove manicured.
In the company’s November 2008 bulletin AP announced the second wing of the hotel had been demolished. The rear wing, which was built in the early 1970s and not entirely true to Dobrović’s original design, had been modified to fit the needs of the time. Because the hotel was a protected monument, such demolition would first require the approval of the Conservation Department of Dubrovnik.
Atlantska plovidba told investors in their July 2009 bulletin the international financial crisis had trickled down to the shipping market, and as a result limited funding was set aside for the company’s department of special projects – whose assets included the Grand Hotel. At the time, all expenditures on investment properties had been halted and limited to obtaining permits. Regardless, AP made progress at the Grand Hotel by demolishing the second wing and part of the auxiliary facilities on the grounds.
Sailing from Atlantska Plovidba to Anker Grupa
Atlantska plovidba eventually addressed the absence of Grand Hotel updates in their July 2011 bulletin, saying it has not given up on renovating the hotel, but the post-recession years have forced the company to re-focus its efforts on its core business.
“Atlantska plovidba was and will always remain a maritime company, and we cannot jeopardize our core business with other projects.”
– Atlantska plovidba bulletin, July 2011
Since the spring of 2011 the company was seeking a strategic investment partner. Partnering with AP in early discussions was the Anker Group, a subsidiary of the Italian Marazzi Group and owner of Lopud’s largest hotel today, Hotel Lafodia (Hotela Lafodije). The Anker Group was a preferred partner due to their experience running a four-star hotel on the island.
This partnership was echoed in a November 2011 article, which repeated the message that with greater financial backing there was a greater likelihood of progress. Yet despite the optimism, there were no Grand Hotel updates in AP’s December 2011 or July 2012 bulletins.
In July of 2012 news leaked that Atlantska plovidba decided to sell the Grant Hotel. Because the property has protection status under Article 37 of the Law on Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage, the municipalities affected (Croatian government, County of Debrovnik-Neretva, and the city of Dubrovnik) had preemptive right-of-first-refusal before any private sale could be finalized.
On July 26th, 2012, Atlantska plovidba released an official statement on the decision to sell the hotel, which specifically cited Article 37 of the cultural property protection law. In August of 2012 AP offered the hotel to Dubrovnik-Neretva County for €2.5 million, but the county declined.
With Article 37 satisfied and no government takers for the historic property, Atlantska plovidba was free to pursue a private sale. The company finalized the sale of the Grand Hotel on October 11th, 2012; the buyer was the long-rumored Anker Grupa, owners of the successful and year-old €40 million Hotel Lafodia. Shortly thereafter Anker revealed as much in a press release, along with the possibility of acquiring land around the Grand Hotel to expand its grounds and offer its guests more privacy.
Interior photos of the Grand Hotel, Lopud
photos courtesy Wolfgang Thaler
Once the property was acquired by Anker Group, hotel updates were not regularly published (because Anker is a private company it is not required to produce shareholder reports).
A June 2014 news article offered that reconstruction had not yet started and that “the most realistic deadline is 2016.”
[ Want to live on Lopud? Hotel Lafodia is hiring. “Seasonal dream job at the Hotel Lafodia!” Employment includes accommodation, uniforms, and two meals a day! ]
Grand Hotel Today
The remains of the partial remodel are still visible today. Interior walls have been knocked down and in many rooms the damaged concrete furniture has been removed. The fence erected by Atlantska plovidba still stands around the property, now more a visual deterrent to tourists than security feature.
Construction debris lines the grounds – to the visitor it’s unclear if a restoration is underway or the squatting residents have been stockpiling construction materials.
According to local residents, squatters have come and gone but have generally lived in the hotel since the Croatian War. Everyone was evacuated from the Grand Hotel when it began a restoration in 2006, but when the renovation stopped the uninvited residents moved back in. During the construction of nearby Hotel Lafodia, the Grand Hotel was home to imported construction workers.
In the mornings the Grand Hotel can come alive as its residents get ready for work, but during the day the place is as quiet as a tomb. If it weren’t for the rows of clothes drying along the balconies, one would suspect the hotel was empty. But it is a fitting tribute to the Dobrović ethos of sustainability that his buildings outlive him and continue to be useful to the people; he wouldn’t have it any other way.
No, the Grand Hotel is not empty. On the island of Lopud Nikola Dobrović has written his own mythology. And here, he is immortal.