Ingibjörg Ólafsdóttir was manager of the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel from 2012 until it closed in 2020. She now works for the University of Iceland, where her responsibilities include helping to prepare for the move of the School of Education and other units to Saga. It is safe to say that few people know the building and its history as well as Ingibjörg. "I was following the sale of the building," smiles Ingibjörg, who says she is excited to continue to be involved in managing the building and preserving its history and culture. "The Saga Hotel wasn't just a hotel. It was a cultural institution that had been home to all kinds of activities. It was the first big hotel to open in Iceland. Loftleiðir Hotel opened shortly afterwards, followed by Esja Hotel. Originally, the Saga Hotel was intended to provide accommodation for farmers when they were in town. It developed into this large building and that's why it's generally known as the 'Farmers' Hall'.
The Saga Hotel opened in 1962 and was designed by Halldór H. Jónsson, the well-known architect behind many of Reykjavík's iconic buildings from that era. There was actually a book published recently about Halldór's work, including the Saga Hotel. The building has so much historical and cultural significance. Halldór also selected all the furniture, strongly influenced by the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, which was designed by Arne Jacobsen."
What was the Saga Hotel like in those early days?
"It was the only hotel that could accommodate important foreign visitors. Heads of state and artists stayed in the presidential suite, which was the most luxurious accommodation available at the time. This was in the 60s – glamour and long dresses. Nordic and European royalty stayed at the Saga Hotel, as well as a huge number of artists. Past guests include Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Prince and Leonard Cohen, so the hotel had quite the musical pedigree."
The Súlnasalur function room opened first, followed shortly after by the Grill and the Átthagasalur. The Grill was open from 7 am to 11 pm. At that time, there were not a lot of competition in the restaurant business. There was only Naustið on Vesturgata, so the Grill was a welcome addition. Generally there were around ten or twelve waiters on shift at the Grill, which became the venue for more or less all public celebrations, until the Hilton opened.
"The Saga Hotel has always been a great place of learning. Although it wasn't academic study as it will be now, there was a lot of learning going on. The Saga Hotel maintained high professional standards and almost exclusively employed professional waiters and chefs. A huge number of apprentices came through the hotel and learned their trade here. When you look at the restaurant trade in Iceland today, you will notice that many key players learned at the Saga Hotel. Three generations have worked here and marriages have been made. There has been a real family atmosphere, but we have always strived for the highest professional standards. So you could say that this building has always been a place where new knowledge is created."
"The atmosphere has remained the same. Former staff and many others are following with interest. They care about the future of Saga. I believe that positive atmosphere will live on in this remarkable building, so full of memories, culture and history. I'm so happy it will continue to be a busy place full of young people," says Ingibjörg Ólafsdóttir, former manager of the Saga Hotel.
Plans to film Bachelorette at the Saga Hotel
The history of the hotel spans decades, but there's no avoiding the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic:
"It was a surreal time, but the hotel's problems went further back. Major renovations took place in 2016, converting half a floor into rooms. When that proved successful, it was decided that we would refurbish the restaurants as well, starting with the Súlnasalur function room which hadn't been touched since 1962. The work caused a lot of disruption. Competition was fierce at that time and we lost a lot of business. So when the pandemic hit, the Saga Hotel wasn't well placed to weather the storm. The business wasn't making a profit. On the other hand, 2020 was supposed to be a big year. The Saga Hotel was going to be the filming location for a series of Bachelorette. A lot of work had gone into the contract. Various conferences were also booked. Then the pandemic hit and we saw all our bookings cancelled. We had to lay off a lot of staff and in the end we were forced to lay everyone off and close the hotel. The Saga Hotel closed on 1 November 2020. It was a very strange situation. Of course, people were upset but there was no anger or ill will. Even though the hotel was shut down, there is still a lot of fondness for the building."
"It's more than a building. It's a village."
In its heyday, two thousand people could pass through the Saga Hotel on a good day. There were often parties in all the function rooms at once, with the meeting rooms all in use and the hotel accommodation fully booked. "It's more than a building. It's a village. A medium-sized village. The Saga Hotel has always provided great service and staff were often running all over the place to help the guests or their colleagues. That's what happens in a building that has such a positive atmosphere. The atmosphere has remained the same. Former staff and many others are following with interest. They care about the future of Saga. I believe that positive atmosphere will live on in this remarkable building, so full of memories, culture and history. I'm so happy it will continue to be a busy place full of young people. I also hope that the restaurants in the building are successful and that it will be a space open to the public. This is a huge opportunity for the University and the School of Education, for the neighbourhood and for Reykjavík. I know this this move will be successful and that both staff and students will be happy in this building. I look forward to seeing what the future holds."
Work on the exterior of Saga is going well
According to Kristinn Jóhannesson, Director of Operations and Resources at the University of Iceland, work on the exterior of Saga is going well and is due to be completed in October 2023. "We are currently ripping out the insides of the 5th floor and the basement. Icelandic Student Services have almost finished the student apartments and we are turning our attention to refurbishing the northern part of the 2nd floor – the conference floor. We hope it will be ready to use by the autumn of 2023," says Kristinn.
Work has not yet started on the interior of those floors intended to house the School of Education. "Preparation of tender documents is going well and that project will be put out to tender in March 2023. Then we will turn to the south part of the 3rd floor, where the offices of the Icelandic Farmers' Association are, when we know how the floor will be used. No major changes are required on that floor. We have just started opening up the basement, ripping out interior walls. The plan is to excavate around the basement to let in the light. This project is progressing well. The main thing slowing us down is that we need to be careful not to damage the various systems inside the building," explains Kristinn.
Interior walls are also being removed from the south side of the 5th floor, which will be part of the School of Education along with the 3rd and 6th floors. Access to Saga is currently challenging due to the building work, but the plan is to invite interested staff to tour the new facilities later this spring. The best features of the building are its high levels of natural light and great views from almost every floor. The changes to the basement floor will also create an exciting space for teaching and creation of various kinds.
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Photographs of the building works in Saga were taken on 3 February 2023.
Images: Kristinn Ingvarsson