The Sometimes Unbelievable, Always Remarkable Story of Hotel Borg

The Sometimes Unbelievable, Always Remarkable Story of Hotel Borg

Travel doesn’t have to entail hitting the road, hopping on a plane or lacing up your hiking boots to trek into remote destinations. There’s something to be said for the staycation, or travelling in time by getting to know the places you might see every day a little better. With that in mind, Elías Þórsson takes us on a journey through the human history of places right here in Reykjavík. It’s a real trip.

Visitors to Reykjavík won’t find a more perfectly situated accommodation than Hotel Borg, located as it is on the same central square flanked by parliament and the national cathedral.
“Borgin,” as locals call it, opened in 1930 and has since amassed a curious history intrinsically linked to the birth of Iceland as an independent country, the development of Reykjavík as a modern city and the emergence of the country’s gay rights movement.

A passion project for the world’s first MMA fighter

Photo by Art Bicnick

Early in the 20th century, Reykjavík was barely more than a village, with a population of 30,000 and few buildings that could be classed as more than hovels. The great fire of 1915 decimated much of the city centre, including Hotel Reykjavík, the only grandiose lodging in town. Fifteen years later, Jóhannes Jósefsson, a wrestler and one of Iceland’s more remarkable figures, would embark on a mission to fill Iceland’s dearth of luxury accommodations and add to Reykjavík’s otherwise lacklustre architectural appeal.

“It is a fascinating story,” says Pétur H Ármansson, head of the architecture department at the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland. “Here is this wealthy, internationally-known sports star who, having recently returned to Iceland, decided to build a luxury hotel.”

Born into poverty in 1883, Jóhannes Borg, as he would come to be known, rose to prominence in 1907 upon becoming Iceland’s national glíma champion. After competing in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1908 London Olympics, Jóhannes travelled the world demonstrating glíma and challenging practitioners of other martial arts. In that sense you might call him the world’s first MMA fighter. His mission was “to show that Icelanders were more valorous and daring than any other nation.”

He bested an undefeated jiu jitsu champion in Japan, while in Saint Petersburg it took him just two minutes to force a gun wielding cossack into submission, and, according to a more improbable story, he once took on a black bear in a wrestling match. For years, Jóhannes travelled the U.S. with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Greatest Show on Earth, demonstrating glíma and even asserting to The Evening Tribune in 1924 that women could use its techniques to “disarm machine gun wielding bandits.”

On the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1963, Jóhannes recalled for RÚV one particular showcase match against a knife fighter in Portugal:

“In 1912 in Lisbon, Portugal, I faced that country’s best knife fighter… He stabbed my hand and twisted the knife until my bones cracked. I was gonna kill the scoundrel and grabbed him by the neck. This prompted the angry crowd to rush the stage and I was forced to crawl through their legs out of the venue and to a doctor.”

Importantly for this tale of Hotel Borg, these often violent and sometimes bizarre exploits proved extremely lucrative for Jóhannes.

The wealth of a nation

“Jóhannes returned to Iceland a very wealthy man; akin to when professional footballers return to Iceland today,” says Pétur. “But what is beautiful about this story is that Jóhannes didn’t construct the hotel for financial gain; I believe he lost money on the venture. He was a man who cared deeply for his little country and wanted to do something that would benefit it, and he believed that a hotel of this calibre was vital for the development and growth of Reykjavík.”

Pétur explains that the construction of Hotel Borg is symbolic of a time when the identity of Iceland as an independent nation was taking shape. The Danish king had granted the country home rule in 1918 and Iceland was anxious to regain the independence it lost eight centuries earlier.

“Having a building like this in Reykjavík was invaluable, because it helped demonstrate that Iceland was a cultured nation like any other,” says Pétur.

In fact, shortly after the hotel opened its doors in 1930 it hosted foreign dignitaries and distinguished guests marking the 1,000 year anniversary of Alþingi. It was the first time the Icelandic government had held an event of that stature.

Iceland’s architect

Jóhannes hired Iceland’s most prominent architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, who would later design many of the country’s cardinal landmarks, including Hallgrímskirkja, the University of Iceland’s main building and the national theatre.

“As with all of Guðjón’s buildings, Hotel Borg set a new standard,” says Pétur. “The most lavish parties, the best dances and first class rooms. It was the centre of entertainment and cultural life in Reykjavík.”

A tight one-year deadline was set for the project at a cost of 1 million Icelandic króna (300 million in today’s value). No expenses were spared, including sending Guðjón abroad to study the latest in hotel design. Built in a neoclassical style, Borg remains one of Reykjavík’s more stunning landmarks.

“The interior demonstrates the more fashionable trends of the time. The chandeliers were Bauhausian and Guðjón travelled to Denmark to buy designer furniture,” Pétur explains. “A master decorator was brought in from Hamburg and he painted the ornaments in the lobby that have art deco elements. Today, you would call his style airbrush, but that was revolutionary at the time.”

Stepping into Hotel Borg today is to be transported back to a more lavish time, before Nordic functionalism and minimalism took over. “In European cities, you’ll find many comparable or even more beautiful buildings, but for Iceland this was remarkable,” says Pétur.

The foreign visitors

Photo by Art Bicnick

From day one, Hotel Borg was the place to be in Reykjavík, playing host to most of the famous visitors to Iceland. Ella Fitzgerald and William Faulkner stayed during their respective visits, and Marlene Dietrich performed in Borg’s Gilded Hall. British poet W. H. Auden wrote about the hotel in his rather listless 1937 travel book “Letters From Iceland,” explaining that it was the only place in town to get a drink, before remarking “if you can afford it,” thus demonstrating that despite how much has changed, very little actually has.

Hotel Borg was, for many years, the only gig in town, and, in the spirit of its cosmopolitan flair, only international musicians were hired to play during its formative years — much to the chagrin of the local talent. It wasn’t until 1944, when the Icelandic government needed a ballroom to host its independence reception, that Jóhannes conceded to allowing local talent to perform. In fact, for the duration of the musician strike of that era and up to the government’s intervention, Jóhannes had opted for a gramophone player to entertain his guests, unwittingly making Borg Iceland’s debut DJ venue.

But it was for a different kind of first for which the hotel bar would earn its notoriety.

An oasis in an oppressive desert

Photo by Art Bicnick

“The boys at Borgin don’t offend anyone, although they kiss and flirt, walk around with pink drinks and frozen smiles.” So goes the opening line of Bubbi Morthens’ song “Strákarnir á Borginni,” which tells the story of how Hotel Borg became the first de facto gay bar in Iceland.

The story of Icelandic women cavorting with American GIs during WWII is well documented, but less so is the story of Icelandic men who were equally attracted to these dashing troops. It was at the bar at Hotel Borg, in the darkness of the only dance venue in town, that men and women alike would intermingle with uniformed men from across the pond. In the decades that followed, the hotel would be a haven for gay men who were otherwise forced to live in hiding in a discriminatory society.

“In the 60s and 70s it was an oasis in the desert for gay men,” says Hörður Torfason, the founder of LGBTQ rights organisation Samtökin ‘78. “Everyone knew about the noon bar at Borgin; it was the best spot to fish.”

Hörður was 18 when he started working as a waiter at Hotel Borg and he remembers fondly the scene that formed around the gay community that frequented the spot. According to Hörður, the regulars largely comprised an older generation who had spent their weekends throughout WWII hooking up with U.S. troops.

“Society at the time was oppressive, but the doormen and waiters didn’t care that you were gay. Those years at Borgin were funny and enjoyable,” Hörður recalls. “Everybody knew, but everybody pretended they didn’t.”

“The culture there was charming and tempting and everybody who was anybody in town went,” recalls Hörður. “Borgin was the centre of gravity for culture in the capital and wherever there is fun and entertainment you’ll find gay men.”

Out of the mud huts

Jóhannes retired in 1960 and by the 80s Borg’s golden years were behind it. The hotel’s once elegant interior was deteriorating and its financial situation was dire. Parliament had plans to purchase the hotel in 1989 for office space, until an unlikely saviour came along.

“Davíð Oddson, then mayor of Reykjavík, had the municipal government buy the building in 1990 to stop parliament from turning it into offices,” explains Tómas Tómasson, perhaps better known as Tommi á Búllunni or, for international readers, Tommi of Tommi’s Burger Joint. “I then purchased the business from the city in 1992 and, over the next 10 years, invested in returning it to its former glory. At the time it looked more like a hostel than a luxury hotel.”

Since then, Hotel Borg has been through several rounds of renovations, but it is once again in a state befitting a landmark with such an illustrious history. Hotels are ubiquitous in modern Reykjavík, but only one symbolises the spirit of a nation regaining its independence, stepping out of the mud huts to become a city.

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