Back from the brink

Thursday 21 Apr 2011

Destined for demolition in the 1960s, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is returned to its full splendour by Richard Griffiths Architects

It creeps up on you, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. One of London’s most prestigious and important landmarks, the gothic Victorian beast appears as if from nowhere between the overly modern towers that surround it.

The project was won through a competition in 1865 hosted by the Midland Railway Company to design England’s most prestigious station hotel, with leading architect of the time George Gilbert Scott selected for the scheme. The finished product is typical of Scott’s gothic, turreted style, however in the time it took to complete construction, the overly ornate approach was already going out of fashion.

With a lack of running water and few bathroom facilities, the manpower to supply guests with the luxurious stay for which they had paid became too much for the high end establishment, and it was therefore closed in 1935 and threatened with demolition in the 1960s. After minor renovations, the expansive structure was saved by British Rail and used for offices but failed health and safety regulations in the 1980s and was again shut down.

Falling into disrepair, the hotel’s new life came at the hands of successful businessman Harry Handelsman, who funded a large proportion of the £200m renovation works through his property company, Manhattan Lofts Corporation. Working with Continental Railways and Marriott Hotels, Handelsman collaborated with heritage specialists Richard Griffiths Architects on the hotel, RHWL on a number of private apartments across the top floors, and interior designers GA Design to restore this extravagant masterpiece to its full glory.

A short brick wall does a surprisingly good job of containing the Renaissance Hotel - formerly the Midland Grand Hotel - encasing it’s intricately carved beauty in a contemporary shell anchored with a flourish of amphitheatre steps where guests of the hotel (and currently renovators) can sip coffee and marvel at its expanse of ornate original masonry.

My neighbour on the steps sketches frantically in his moleskin notebook, leading me to question if he is an architect by trade or just a passer-by struck by the artistic prowess of the building’s designer – George Gilbert Scott.

On the approach, it’s difficult not to imagine the scores of horse-drawn carriages that once delivered top hat and tail coated young businessmen to St Pancras Railway Station in the early days of the hotel’s life. The curved pathway leading up to its wrought iron sign is guarded by two similarly dressed gentlemen who wouldn’t look out of place in a Jane Austen novel.

Once through the newly fitted glass doors the contrast between original and contemporary fittings is oddly jarring. This is the only space within the immense hotel where two styles clash to the detriment of the building; exposed structural beams have been painted in a pastel blue hue, and lime green shrubs are perched proudly on overly polished surfaces against the backdrop of original Victorian stonemasonry.

Despite the minute details designed to make guests feel at home – plush leather sofas, delicately arranged vases of fresh flowers – the space retains an air of austerity, more akin to a meeting room than the lobby of a welcoming hotel. Is this the essence of grandeur imaged by the original architect or a mood fashioned by the 21st century hotel renovators?

Over the doorway to the cavernous dark-wood restaurant (which overlooks the platforms of St Pancras Station) are the words ‘BOOKING OFFICE’ in large capital letters – one of many small details saved from the wreckage of the building’s original shell. Through this stone archway is an atmospheric bar whose walls are adorned with 173 unique, hand-carved wooden flowers. It may have lost the tone and feel of a Victorian booking office, but perfectly curved windows that frame the views out over the adjoining station concourse more than add to the buzzing atmosphere within.

Another exit from the main lobby leads to a tastefully-decorated function room, illuminated with natural light which pours in through a frosted glass screen. Our tour guide, Roydon Stock explains that this screen has been introduced to combat the biting north winds and is cantilevered at the top. Outside, a team of builders are hard at work constructing a sculpture garden, on completion of which the frosting on the screen will be removed.

To the right of this screen is the newly completed and cantilevered extension. Although easily distinguishable from the original mass of the building (opened in 1873 and Grade I listed) this new section has been tastefully decorated with Brinton carpets designed especially for the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and is equipped with all the modern amenities one expects from a luxury establishment. This said, it lacks that intangible quality that is offered in the older portion of the building, whose twisting corridors and gothic archways evoke feelings of nostalgia for a bygone age.

Life-size portraits of young men and women in Victorian dress, holding artefacts rescued from the ruins of Scott’s masterpiece adorn the hallway that connects the extension to its aged counterpart, in an attempt to mask the seam where the two buildings become one.

The hallways that link the 250 original rooms are lavishly decorated, with velvety reds, rich ochre, and similarly jewel-toned hues delicately swept across the smooth stone walls. A combination of original and replica light-fittings complete the décor, with raw features from the hotel’s previous life embedded into its glossy new finish. Such embellishments include an aging (and now defunct) fire extinguisher, a boarded up lift shaft and a Victorian heating coil.

Arguably the most well-known feature of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is its flamboyant staircase. Deliberately faded Brinton carpets woven to match those from the hotel’s heyday mute the guests footsteps as they travel the three flights of stairs to the top level. The handrail is smoothly varnished and yet the flaws and gnarls in the wood retain a sense of purpose and power. Blood-red walls that line the staircase are flocked with a golden crest, which clashes dramatically with the emerald-toned vaulted ceiling . Fibrous plaster curls have been worked to appear as wrought iron structural supports, purely for the aesthetic pleasure of guests and visitors to the hotel.

It is difficult to put into words the sensations that one feels standing in such a majestic environment, suffice to say that the feeling is more regularly evoked by a religious structure rather than a hotel.

Further down a sensitively restored corridor is the Gilbert Scott Restaurant. Due to open to the public on the 5th May, this sunshine yellow room has been brilliantly renovated with intricate patterns etched into the ceiling and stunningly beautiful limestone columns in vivid red and green uncovered from their blue-painted shrouds. Through the elongated windows on the room’s right-hand side, 116 diners will gain perfectly framed portraits of the hotel’s gothic clock tower.

Nearby is the ladies smoking room – the first in the country – which was opened for use by female guests in 1898. Smooth granite pillars separate the elaborate volume into two areas; one large and airy, the other leading onto a private terrace affording views across the road and hotel concourse. Looking upwards from this recently decked balcony, one can only marvel at the brilliance of George Gilbert Scott, whose sharp eye fashioned an immeasurable number of cornices, gargoyles, statues, turrets and other gothic flourishes. Sadly with today’s health and safety standards, 15 of the Victorian cornices stand empty – their statues thought to be hazardous to passers-by.

Beneath this groundbreaking smoking room is a bar which was once home to England’s first rotating door. Lavishly decorated with gold leaf and a number of large metal bells fashioned into an experimental chandelier, this social space is at once contemporary and of the past. Dark wood has been coupled with exotic patterns which are not only employed on the walls but also spread to the ceiling, and are lit by shafts of pure sunlight which filter through the tall, slim windows.

Bedrooms and suites at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel range in size, style and price. Starting at around £250 for a rather generic but high quality double room, prices spiral to a hefty £10,000 for the Royal Suite. This exquisite set of rooms comes complete with a butler, fully equipped kitchen, study area, banqueting table, sumptuous living area and three double ensuite bedrooms; the porcelain-tiled lighting feature above the dining table a fixture worthy of its own review.

The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel offers regular tours of its magical interiors and is well worth the £20 fee. Onsite historian Royland Stock is as knowledgeable a guide as one could wish for and makes the entire experience an educational joy, happy to share personal stories picked up in his 15years working at the hotel and secrets such as the intimate bedroom fashioned around a single spiralling staircase.

Already open for business, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel will celebrate an official relaunch on 5th May, 135 years to the day since the Midland Grand Hotel opened for the first time.

Sian Disson
News Editor

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