The story of The Sarova Stanley begins with the stories of three families – the Bents, the Tates and the Blocks – who were its early owners. The stories of these families, as was so often the case in the early days of Nairobi, begins with the railroad.
Construction of the railway, which began in what was then Kenya’s capital, Mombasa, started in 1896. The going was tough, and though an advance camp was set up in “Nyrobe” in 1897, the tracks would not reach the locale until 1899.
Just one year later, ‘Pop’ Binks, one of Nairobi’s earliest residents, who remained in the city until his death at 91 years old, arrived as bright-eyed, adventure seeking 20-year-old. Upon arrivial at Nairobi’s Railway Station after a two-day journey from Mombasa, his first impression was not particularly a good one, as he asked, “How far is the town?”
By 1902, the town had developed a bit and now had several shops one of which, owned by Tommy Wood, was the only two-storey building in town. The top floor was a ‘hotel’, the first in Nairobi – though in reality, it operated more like a boarding house for the railway employees - run by one Mayence Bent.
Arriving in Nairobi with the railway, the reasons for Mayence and her husband, W.S. Bent, to move their lives to Kenya are lost to history. Their role in the blossoming town, however is not. With a farm just one station away by train, the Bents were a prominent source of fresh produce and dairy products in town, and in addition to managing the first hotel, Mayence worked as a milliner and dress maker in Wood’s store. As hotel business grew, the operation was moved to a bungalow adjacent to their shop.
Meanwhile, in 1903, it was announced by the British Government that Kenya would have land set aside for Jewish settlers. The idea didn’t exactly come to fruition, but before it was abandoned several families did take advantage of the programme, including Abraham Block. An immigrant from South Africa, Block quickly set about making a life for himself by farming and dealing in cattle, though, as times were tough when he first arrived, he always attributed his success to the generosity of Lord Delamere.
The first major setback Mayence faced in her long career as a hotel proprietor, was essentially the hardest setback any proprietor could face. In 1904, Nairobi was rocked by The Great Fire of Victoria Street which destroyed most of the buildings in the area, including Mayence’s hotel. Not to be shut down by something so trivial, she simply moved her guests to the upper unfinished floor of a stone building on Station Street, now Government Road, covering the holes in the not yet completed roof with traps.
This move, however, would prove beneficial in the end, as Mayence eventually set up new premises along Government Road, the first true Stanley Hotel. Again boasting the only two-storey hotel in town, the veranda on the second floor offered quite a view, as there were few two-storey buildings in the town. In fact, on a clear day, early Nairobians and guests could see the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance.
The new hotel thrived and garnered a widespread reputation. While there were four hotels then in Nairobi, The Stanley, The Norfolk, The commercial and The Empress, Mayence’s main competition came from The Norfolk. The clientele of the two hotels, however, was quite different, with The Norfolk jokingly being called The House of Lords due to the prevalence of British nobility in its patronage, while The Stanley on the other hand attracted more businessmen and, due to its proximity to the rail station, newcomers to town.
THE EXCHANGE BAR
The Exchange Bar in Sarova Stanley has a presence to it that most rooms cannot boast. The rich red palate, which is the first thing to hit you, almost seems to have a texture on its own, one made up of cool, smooth leather, polished by years of use, and glossy, shining mahogany – two materials you will find in abundance at the bar, a testament to the precisely considered and matched furnishings that have been used to fill it. Rounding out to the look and making you feel as though you’ve stepped back through the years are the palm ceiling fans, although they are now operated by electricity.
To fully appreciate this bar, which is more than just a local watering hole, you have to understand how important it and the building in which it stands - not to mention the families that built and operated it –were to the development of Nairobi and, resultantly , to the nation as a whole.
Walking through the corridors of Sarova Stanley, you can’t go 10 meters without coming across some stunning black and white shot, either capturing the several iterations of the hotel itself on some historical occasion or one of the many famous and influential guest that have frequented this locale. A snapshot of Princess Elizabeth just before she became Britain’s sovereign hangs in one room near one of the hotels guests on the day of European victory in World War II, which in turn is not far from a photo of Ernest Hemingway and his wife cuddling a lion cub- all people and events that, while contributing to the hotels lore, have had a profound effect on Kenyan and global history.
Such is the nature of Stanley, Kenya’s first hotel. But while an impressive title, ‘first hotel’ does not fully capture its part in the development of the city it lies within. Simply put, The Stanley has been and will always be an institution in Nairobi, as important to the country’s culture as it is to its hospitality.
THE NEW STANLEY BECOMES SAROVA STANLEY
Sarova Stanley as the hotel is now called, is one of the three hotels in the entire continent to be listed in the Summit Hotels in the World, a prestigious honour based both on the highest of standards and on the venue’s culture.
Sarova Hotels, Resorts and Game Lodges took over management of the hotel in 1998 and has since then maintained the same values that earned the hotel its reputation from the early days when Mayence was first getting started.
The sense of the hotels historical values is intangible, a heritage that the management holds dear. With gorgeous décor that emphasizes the stage that have brought The Stanley to this point in its existence, walking through the hotel – stepping into the same room where Princess Elizabeth once was honoured with a banquet, or sitting where Ernest Hemingway once dank- is truly like walking through the ages of Kenya’s history.