Gavin Stamp applauds the sensitive restoration of George Gilbert Scott’s High Gothic masterpiece by RHWL with Richard Griffiths Architects.
The reopening of the former Midland Grand as the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel marks the conclusion to a long saga over the fate of the prominent masterpiece of High Victorian Gothic designed by George Gilbert Scott. It is a story which also reflects changing attitudes to Victorian architecture over the last century, for seldom has a building provoked quite such extreme reactions, from blinkered hatred to enthusiastic admiration.
Scott won a competition held in 1865 for a new luxury hotel to be built in the Euston Road in front of the Midland Railway’s new London terminus, then under construction. It is clear that the directors wanted a building by a famous architect as Scott’s design exceeded the specified estimated cost and, in the event, a whole floor had to be lopped off. The great train shed designed by William Barlow and RM Ordish – at 243 feet then the largest clear span in the world – whose section, ‘as if by anticipation’ Scott was delighted to find, ‘was a pointed arch’, opened in 1868. The main part of the hotel opened in 1873, the curved west wing running to meet the Euston Road with a porte-cochère following three years later. The old canard that the architect had simply recycled his modern secular Gothic design for the Foreign Office rejected by Lord Palmerston is easily exploded by a glance at the plan, though Scott ‘was glad to be able to erect one building in that style in London.’ Some contemporaries were critical however: JT Emmett complained that ‘an elaboration that might be suitable for a Chapter-house, or a Cathedral choir, is used… for bagmen’s bedrooms and the costly discomforts of a terminus hotel’. Hence Scott’s confession that ‘my own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose’.
For all the vaunted flexibility of Gothic, the main problem with the Midland Grand was the limited extent of its plumbing, and it was overtaken in a couple of decades by new hotels like the Cecil, the Savoy and the Russell which, with their legions of en-suite bathrooms, were better able to cater for increasing numbers of American visitors to London. By the 1920s Scott’s hotel was very old-fashioned and in 1935 it was closed. Received opinion liked to contrast its elaborate Gothic unfavourably with the apparently rational proto-modernism of much simpler King’s Cross next door. Mercifully, however, Scott’s building was not then demolished but converted into offices: St Pancras Chambers. But shortly after nationalisation of the railways in 1948 John Betjeman had ‘little doubt that British Railways will do away with St Pancras altogether. It is too beautiful and romantic to survive. It is not of this age’.
That threat became real in 1965 when it was proposed to replace both St Pancras and King’s Cross with a new joint station. Barlow’s train shed might have survived but the fantastic skyline of Scott’s hotel with its towers and pinnacles was an utterly unacceptable image for those attempting to modernise the railways. The Victorian Society, led by its chairman Nikolaus Pevsner, was, however, determined that St Pancras would not go the way of the Euston Arch and fought back hard with the architect Roderick Gradidge demonstrating that Scott’s building could perfectly well be made back into an hotel by the introduction of modern services. In the event, it was saved by Wayland Kennet, who, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing & Local Government, upgraded the listing from III to I in 1967. Thwarted, British Rail neglected St Pancras Chambers for a quarter of a century before abandoning it altogether. Only with the decision to convert the station into the Eurostar terminus did restoring the hotel become a realistic commercial proposition.
A competition held by London & Continental Railways for the redevelopment of St Pancras Chambers was held in 1997 and planning permission and listed building consent for the approved scheme was granted in 2003. Bringing Scott’s building, with its awkward linear plan, back into use was far from a simple matter. Just as Barlow’s train shed had to be altered and extended to make it suitable for both Continental and Midland services, so the hotel had to be changed and enlarged. In fact, only the two lower floors of Scott’s original building, containing a small number of bedrooms, have been restored as an hotel. The upper floors and towers, together with the huge roofspace which originally contained servants’ rooms, have been converted into private apartments, accessed by a new entrance facing the station forecourt. To make the hotel viable, therefore, the developer – latterly the Manhattan Loft Corporation – needed many more new bedrooms and 190 of these have been provided in a new West Wing, erected further north between the train shed and Midland Road.
This new wing presented considerable problems, both structural and aesthetic. The site was formerly occupied by a parcels office and by additional railway tracks placed on top of the huge raised basement, intended for the storage of Burton beer barrels, which ran underneath the entire station. The red-brick arcaded structure along Midland Road was largely demolished and replaced, partly to enable the construction of the new Thameslink station on the railway tunnel which curves underneath. The new hotel wing had to straddle this void and be soundproofed from both it and the main station adjacent. The first proposal by the selected architect, RHWL, was for a steel-framed glass box containing tiers of bedrooms. This, however, was not acceptable to English Heritage, who requested a solution in the ‘Scott manner’. Richard Griffiths Architects, already employed for conservation work on the original building, therefore designed red-brick elevations to be hung on the steel frame.
At first, Griffiths tried to avoid literal Gothic, but it was found that the pointed arch fitted well into the cross-braced steel transfer structure carrying the building. The eventual solution – used both for the hotel block and the lower building above the new arcades following the oblique line of Midland Road – was a simplification of Scott’s elevations, with tiers of arches both pointed and round, and with two floors unified within single tall arches. This clever solution, completely harmonious with the brick masonry of the original station and hotel buildings, thus achieves a satisfactory compromise in terms of the tiresome debate over the legacy of William Morris’ attitude to adding to ancient buildings; that is, between the conviction that new work should be distinct and radically different to the old and the need seamlessly to continue an original design.
The new and old parts of what is now called the St Pancras Renaissance rather than the Midland Grand Hotel needed a common reception area to unite them. This has been achieved by converting the former cab road into the reception foyer with a new function room beyond. The front elevation of Scott’s building is penetrated by two prominent arches, each with flanking arcades with stone and granite columns and internally crossed by a decorative iron bridge carrying the first floor corridor. The right-hand or eastern arch, intended for cabs which had picked up arriving passengers, remains open as an entrance to the train shed. The left-hand, western arch, directly below the tower, intended for departing passengers, has now been glazed in as the hotel entrance. This leads directly to the reception area, which is still covered by the original iron and glass roof and retains an ‘external’ character. When this was a cab road, passengers could proceed directly into the adjacent booking office and then to the station concourse. Today hotel guests can still proceed into the former booking office which now serves as a restaurant. Thanks to the Victorian Society, which fought for it at public inquiry in 1980, this large space retains the original timber ticket office as well as panelling. The only pity is that the budget did not extend to recreating Scott’s original open timber lantern roof which was removed following damage in both world wars.
As for Scott’s hotel block, RHWL and Richard Griffiths Architects have carried out a careful and resourceful restoration. It is probably a mercy that the building was not made back into an hotel in the 1960s as the treatment would have been nothing like as sensitive. As it was, the main problem was making Scott’s masonry and wrought iron structure – fireproof in its day – meet modern fire regulations. It was agreed, therefore, that the original lath and plaster cornices and other decorative features would be repaired or replaced where necessary and then treated with intumescent paint, over which the decorative colour schemes have been applied. Many of the original decorative schemes in the hotel – by Scott, Frederick Sang, Gillow’s and EW Godwin – have been uncovered from beneath layers of twentieth century drab paint, recorded and carefully recreated. The result, with lavish use of gold-leaf, is glorious.
In one sitting room the original wall decoration has been carefully reinstated. Other hotel rooms retain their cornices but have been necessarily modified to create the separate bedrooms and bathrooms so lacking in the original hotel. The most impressive spaces, however, are the public rooms in the curved western wing. Here internal partitions have been removed to open up the former long, curving restaurant. Rather more work was required in the former entrance hall off the Euston Road, for here Scott’s original open stone Gothic screen had been irreparably damaged in an accidental fire during the construction work. This, together with the decorative finishes, has been immaculately recreated. Above, on the first floor, overlooking the road, is an impressive room with a round arcade of granite and carved stone, which later served as the ladies’ smoking room and will now be another restaurant; here the elaborate ceiling decoration has been restored. As for the Grand Staircase, in which Scott’s stair, supported on decorative iron beams, rises and divides with almost Baroque enthusiasm beneath a painted ribbed vault, this has also been cleaned and restored. Long-missing lamps have been replaced, and a new carpet – based on the original which was still in place when I first saw inside the building in 1966 – has been woven. This staircase was always one of the most exciting, if little known, spaces in London; it is now spectacular.
The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel surely no longer seems ‘too good’ for its purpose but sets a welcome high standard in building quality and decorative design. Just as Barlow’s great nineteenth century train shed has been made suitable for travel in the twenty-first century, so Scott’s hotel has come into its own again: it now seems inconceivable that it could have been demolished less than half a century ago. To anyone who knew St Pancras Chambers before – dirty, neglected, and divided up, overpainted and mutilated internally – the restoration must be thrilling. The quality of it very much reflects the personal enthusiasm of Harry Handelsman, founder of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, as well as the expertise of RHWL, Richard Griffiths Architects and other consultants in addition to the watchful eye of English Heritage.
St Pancras, for better or for worse, was always a symbol of the values of the Victorian age. Today the stature of its once much-reviled creator is rising, as George Gilbert Scott increasingly emerges as one of the most resourceful and intelligent architects of his day – at his best an imaginative designer of new buildings as well as a most conscientious restorer of ancient ones. It seems appropriate that the reopening of Scott’s great railway hotel coincides with the bicentenary of his birth on 13th July.
Architect: RHWL Architects; design team: John Simpson (project director), Les Broer, Jane Hilling, Geoff Mann, Victoria Frawley, Rosie Chang, Sybille Sawall, Jamie Don, Tiffany Woo, Farhan Khan; conservation architect: Richard Griffiths Architects; design team: Richard Hill, Richard Griffiths; structural engineer: Arup; m&e, lift, drainage and acoustic engineer: Aecom; lighting consultant: Aecom; client’s project manager: Gleeds Management Services; interior designer (hotel): GA Design International; planning supervisor: Safety Services; transport consultant: Arup;
brickwork consultant: Lister Beare; catering design: Hansens Kitchen Equipment; fire: Jeremy Gardner Associates, Bodycote Warrington Fire; landlord’s consulting engineers: RLE; main contractor: Galliford Try; client: Manhattan Loft Corporation; tenant, operator: Marriott International.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Lifts: GB Lifts; m&e subcontractor: EMCOR; steel: Bourne Steel; penthouse subcontractors: Karen Thatcher Associates, Firmco; pool: William Taylor Pools; kitchens: Barget Kitchens; glazing subcontractor: Charles Henshaw & Sons; windows: Schüco; roofing: Lakesmere; bathroom fit-out: Martek Contracts; brickwork: Irvine Whitlock; West Wing Metsec and drylining: MDG UK; West Wing bathroom pods: Elements Europe; timber doors and joinery: Atlantic Joinery; residential timber stairs: Parkrose; surveys and investigations: Crick Smith Conservation, Michael Gallie & Partners, GB Geotechnics, Ridout Associates, Manestream, Frost Associates.
AT217 April 2011 p50