VATICAN CITY - Workers hauled in trunks marked diplomatico. Crews labored over the entrance foyer. Maids gathered in the basement cafeteria to rest for a moment.
There were so many things left to do yesterday to prepare the Casa Santa Marta for the conclave of cardinals it host to beginning April 18, when they begin their secret deliberations to elect a new pope.
"Yes, I'm nervous," sighed one maid, who declined to give her name because neither the hotel staff nor its construction crews are allowed to speak publicly about their role.
Though the cardinals have chosen the date they will convene, the staff has yet to find out who will work and who will be shut out during a meeting that could last a single day or much, much longer.
Tight security was already in place. Security cameras watched the gates leading to the building, and a bodyguard was posted outside to prevent from peaking inside even the dignitaries who had special access to the Vatican.
Anyone who made it past the guard, the entrance bust of Pope John Paul II and down the marble staircase to the white-columned foyer, was quickly and firmly ushered out.
The five-story building faces a cobblestone road the cardinals will use to walk to the Sistine Chapel for their private meetings. Inside, on the walls, are oversized sketches of ancient Rome in cream and brown, and there is no shortage of marble and gold leaf in a foyer lit with sunlight through frosted glass.
But compared with the architecture of the other Vatican City buildings, the hotel is a sleek, modern design - the newest Vatican City structure, built on the orders of Pope John Paul II and completed at a cost of $20 million in 1995.
Usually the quarters for visiting church officials, the building was intended to relieve cardinals of the notoriously poor living conditions during previous conclaves.
The major change for the cardinals will be their having individual rooms, each with its own bathroom. Of the 117 cardinals eligible to participate in the conclave, 108 will have suites.
The building also has an elevator, which may be useful to a group that has an average age of 71.
Some Vatican analysts have cautioned that such luxurious living might prolong the conclave. The theory goes that cosseted cardinals may feel less pressure to make necessary compromises in their voting.
Church rules dictate that a Pope be chosen by a two-thirds majority of the cardinals. But after two weeks, a simple majority can prevail.
According to John L. Allen Jr.'s Conclave, , the longest conclave in history began in 1268 and ended only after church members ripped the roof off the living quarters and rationed their food to bread and water.
The pope who emerged, Gregory X, quickly established a new set of rules for the cardinals who would choose his successor. He held that food would be continually cut back to the cardinals.
The longest conclave in the 20th century was in 1922 and lasted five days.
In recent conclaves, cardinals took up temporary residence in the Apostolic Palace, a building normally used for offices and inhospitable to cardinals not used to sharing bathrooms and sleeping on cots.
But this year, there should be little reason to grumble.
Asked this week whether the cardinals might enjoy their stay too much, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington said, "Well, we'll be comfortable."
Then, he laughed, saying, "No, no really. Everyone will want to get home."