The mistery of the stairways leading nowhere ...
In several occasions I have noticed, in two different places of the city center of Milan, a spot that has always struck my attention and attracted me for its mysterious entrance.
While roaming around the streets of Milan, on my way to the office, while taking a walk with my parents on a Sunday afternoon or while shopping with my best friend … since I was a little girl this mysterious spot has always appeared abandoned to me and I did never understand why nobody took care of it, as the beauty of this place was something that someone had to valorize rather than abandoning to its fate, with the risk of letting it falling into decay.
The spot I am talking about are two stairs leading to a subterranean place which entrance is closed. One of these is a luxurious marble staircase with Liberty Style wrought iron banisters that has always made me wonder: where these staircase lead to? And most of all: what kind of place is hidden in the basement of my city? Too bad that by following their path those steps did not lead anywhere, because the entrance was blocked by a metal gate.
I have always been fascinated by these mysterious stairs but I have never investigate much indeed, probably because my agenda did not allow me to do that: the school and the team sports when I was a teenager, then the University and then my first job after the graduation… As the years passed by, it ended up with my totally indifference towards those stairs. You know, when you have something constantly under your eyes you become used to it and the risk is to not enough appreciate what you have and, after a while, you start to take it for granted. It’s like a tree on a street, to make an example: it has always been there and always will be. A tourist will find it wonderful. But for someone who has always been crossing that street for 20 long years, this tree is nothing special and it will soon fade away from the sight. Isn’t it?!
I totally forgot these mysterious stairs until the day I read on the local newspaper that this place has been recently rediscovered and reopened to the public with a great success. Thanks to FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), an Italian organisation which aim is to gather financial resources to restore and bring back to life cultural and historical landmarks, I had the chance to finally go downstairs and visit the amazing Albergo Diurno of Porta Venezia in Milan (Diurnal Hotel of Milan).
The first Diurnal Hotels were built in Italy at the beginning of 1900s thanks to the Italian entrepreneur Cleopatro Cobianchi who took inspiration from the diurnal hotels he found in London. The one I have visited is the Albergo Diurno Metropolitano in Milan, which was opened to public in 1926.
What was a Diurnal Hotel? First of all, the word Hotel is not completely appropriate for these kind of structures. If we look at the list of services they provided, the Diurnal Hotels can be compared to the business lounge we can find in our airports today. They were true underground facilities dedicated to personal care, public toilets that offered both to residents and travellers a variety of services related to personal hygiene: manicure, pedicure, hair salon, barber shops, showers and luxurious bathrooms, and a Spa service.
During this time, until the 1950s, not every apartment had toilets inside. Most of the people used to live in banisters houses in a courtyard and the only one toilet was normally shared by neighbourhood. Spending the Sunday at the diurnal hotel was a way to relax and take care of the body, like going to the Spa today!
As soon as I passed the entrance I had this feeling of a throwback to the Belle Epoque era. I found myself in a hall where the time stands still. It was an handsome lounge with mirrors hanged on marble columns and jack arches. Along the mosaic floor I crossed the hall, and soon its unique Art Nouveau decorative elements stroke me.
The general design was a mix of Art Nouveau and Liberty style, typical of the time. The furnishing, the coatings, the small objects that were still there all were intact despite the state of abandon of almost 90 years.
The entire area is 1,200 square meters and it is divided in 3 separate parts: first part is the Spa. The bathrooms, bathtubs and showers and spaces for manicure, pedicure and a hair salon in a separate part. And then the commercial space is dedicated to laundry services, a shoeshine, a barber shop, a newsagent’s, a bicycle garage, a left luggage office, phone boxes, train tickets resellers, cosmetic shops, writing rooms, post office, exchange office, travel agency, bank, typing services, clothing boutiques.
Besides the Albergo Diurno of Porta Venezia, we can find another subterranean structure like that in Milan. The Albergo Diurno Cobianchi of Milan is placed near Piazza Duomo, not far from Milan Cathedral (this is the very centre of the city).
It was opened in 1924 and it provided the same services of the Albergo Diurno Metropolitano and its metal gates as well as the elegant stairways were also recently reopened to public thanks to FAI, which made a great effort to restore it to its former glory.
After the WWII and the European economic growth during the 1950s, these public toilets became less popular. At the beginning of 1960s, most of the the new buildings had a toilet inside every apartment and people had no more need to address themselves to the Albergo Diurno for having a shower. The public toilets were permanently closed around 1970s whilst the commercial part resisted until around 1986, when all the shops closed. Just a barber kept doing its activity until 2003, and when also this last commercial activity came to an end the Municipality of Milan decided to close the entire structure to public. It remained unused and abandoned for about 90 years, in a state of deterioration.
We are very lucky to have inherited this treasures, remained hidden from our eyes until today, and thanks to FAI which takes care of its interiors renovation and maintenance, we can finally appreciate these subterranean structures.
In London and in New York (inside the Central Station) similar places have been converted into luxury restaurants. In Milan, in addition to returning the building to its original vocation to trade, these ancient modern charm spaces will be used for a cultural purpose.