The very recent re-opening of the resplendent St Pancras Renaissance Hotel has blind-sided and dealt a sucker-punch to all, especially at a time where we’re being told to respect restraint and shrink from avarice. Well, obviously someone didn’t get the memo. The Sir George Gilbert Scott Gothic Revival ‘magnus opus’, with its Hogwarts-style steeples and gargoyles, has stood for over 150 years as a reminder of Victorian assertiveness and potency. A location that has, nevertheless, been lying to waste for over 20 years with nothing but apparitions, vermin, the occasional vagrant and the echoes of its former eminence as occupants. Yet now, at a time where buildings tend to look forward and financers are tightening their purse strings, this remarkable salvage enterprise has been restored and revamped with no expense or lack of quality spared. It is without doubt a celebration of British workmanship and endeavor of the utmost level.
This story really begins back in 1863 when, not wanting to miss out on trade opportunities and consequential prominence of the industrial revolution, the coal pit owners and factory bosses of the East Midlands constructed a train line from Leeds to London and other branches throughout the country. (The Midland Railway Company would go on to become the largest transporters of coal in Britain.) Land in the parish of St. Pancras was bought for their terminal, right next to their rivals, the Great Northern Railway station at King’s Cross. Public uproar arose at the sheer number of houses that had to be knocked down without compensation and the volume of bodies from St. Pancras Old Church and neighbouring St. Giles-in-the-Fields that were unceremoniously removed and interred into a massive pit beneath the railway. In short, the public’s perception of the project needed to be boosted and in an effort to elevate themselves above their adversaries, the Midland Railway Co. in May 1865 held an architectural contest for the 150-bed Midland Grand Hotel to compete with GNR’s Great Northern Hotel. George Gilbert Scott (The Albert Memorial, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh) offered up a most jaw-dropping vision of neo-gothic extravagance that literally blew the intellect and original budget of the Midland railwaymen. A brazen and shameless submission, yet Scott played cleverly to the egos and vanity of his paymasters. It took roughly 10 years for builders, carpenters, stonemasons and artists to bring to life Scott’s vision and on completion it was described alternately as “the most perfect in every possible respect in the world” and as “completely obsolete and hopeless”. When Queen Victoria officially opened the Midland Grand Hotel on the 5th May 1873,the final bill totalled at £438,000, (around £438 million today). It was pretentious and grandiose in every sense, quite the opposite to Victorian modesty, showing off the best of the Midlands with 14 different types of granite and limestone with an abundance of gold leaf, stencil and mural decoration. It was the first privately owned building to install hydraulic lifts, electric bells, flushing toilets and its own pioneering ‘revolving door’. The aisles were ample enough in width to accommodate the bustles of 2 ladies passing each other, and the ceilings high enough for the oil and gas burners not to irritate the eyes. Fireplaces were designed to fall in on themselves so that the fire would last all night. There were roughly 20 social rooms for gentlemen, including a cosey, a hairdresser, a billiards room, an American bar, 20 smoking rooms and 1 ladies smoking room. ( At the time, this was a first in Europe and therefore deemed rather overly generous)
For 20 years it stood as the marker for excellence and modernity until suddenly it all went horribly wrong. Built on the back end of the industrial revolution, the structure was too obstinate for change, so the deep fireproof concrete floors meant that plumbing and electrics could not be altered. Washing facilities had to be shared meaning that 5 baths served 300 bedrooms. By 1901 20 rooms had en-suite bathrooms whilst the rest still had to contend with a potty beneath the bed. Even the addition of a Moroccan coffee house and an in-house orchestra was not enough to entice the dwindling number of guests and so by 1935 it closed it doors to later become offices for the nationalised British Rail. Opulence was replaced with austerity, seeing most of the original stencilled and painted surfaces whitewashed over and the stonework boarded up. Always the subject of derision, city planners often threatened to knock it down, calling it degenerate and a hindrance to progress. Had it not been for the campaigning work and stalwart resilience of the poet and founding member of the Victorian Society, Sir John Betjemen, the building would not be standing as it is today. In 1967 he secured a Grade 1 listing for the structure, despite his apprehension that St Pancras was “too beautiful and too romantic to survive”. Yet ironically, after so much attention to save it, the site was only occasionally used as a film set with nothing to stop its slow downward spiral into dilapidation and neglect. It was only more recently when its owner Harry Handelsman together with the Marriott group that they decided to make it their flagship hotel and give it the attention to restore it to its former glory.
One person to witness this metamorphosis is the former caretaker, Royden Stock. He has marched these halls and passageways for over 15 years now. His enthusiasm and understanding for the place is paramount, – familiar with every crack, shadow and whisper, he made it his business to collect anything he could find on the old place and often corrects historians who are of the opinion that they know better. A peerless and extraordinary man that could only have been drawn to an exceptional building as this, it only seems appropriate that he was asked to front the tours upon its re-opening.
He starts you off in the main reception, or ‘Hansom Hall’ as it used to be called, which used to be the entrance for the horse drawn Hansom Cabs, with the hotel on one side and St Pancras station on the other. Royden points out that the new framework of the hotel never actually touches upon the old structure, evident in the mismatched shades of pipes and beams. Similarly, the Booking Office Bar that aligns the curve of the old ticket office never actually comes into contact with it, but lines up around the shape of it like an impeded parasite with commitment issues. The bar itself serves a wide range of popular Victorian drinks such as punch, porters, ales and a range of cocktails inspired by Victorian celebrity chef, Alexis Soyer. Royden continues in painting the complete George Gilbert Scott vision of gothic drama throughout the rest of the hotel, directing your eyes from the obvious to the diminutive details: the gold and red fleur-de-lis wallpaper design; the original gas fittings; the ornate peacock wall paintings that were discovered beneath the ugly whitewash; the Minton Hollins floor tiles perfectly restored, the original Wilton Axminster carpet design, the ornate wrought iron ballustrading that snakes up the three stories of the heart-stopping Grand Staircase to the ecclesiastical vaulted ceiling. Scott collaborated on over 800 churches and worked on all but 2 of Britain’s Cathedrals in his time, so when you take in the repetitive symbols of stars, virtues and the heraldic arms of Midland Railway across the vaulted ceiling, the rest of the hotel and station you can see that Scott has craftily created a ‘Cathedral-of-sorts’ in homage of the Midlands Railway Company.
The rebirth of the St Pancras Renaissance has been painstaking in its attention to detail thanks to the perseverance of owner Harry Handelsman and the guiding hands of English Heritage, and although I’d like to see it through the rose-tinted glasses of John Betjemen, you can’t help not believe that this was all just a gameplan in sentimentality and the return of traditional methods. Eurostar showed a record number of 9.5 million customers in 2010, something that has helped rejuvenate the economy of such struggling towns as Derby, Nottingham and Huddersfield with ticket sales. Analysts even suggest the beginning of a golden age in the luxury hotel business and that multinationals like the Marriott, InterContinental, Wyndham and Hilton groups will each have in excess of 1 million rooms across the globe by 2020. Business aside, I’d still like to look upon the St Pancras Rennaissance as a shining example of ‘out with the new and in with the old’, a setting of excessive space that invites your imagination to lose itself, for here there is a sense of mystery and magic that no amount of money can afford. Just to prove my point, as Royden finishes telling us one of his countless ghost stories at the top of the Grand Staircase, an absorbing and ominous rumble quietly rolls its way from the depths below. No-one moves, but it takes just a second to realise that it’s an underground train. Giving nothing away, Royden tries desperately to hide his amusement, offering up that “… that one was free of charge”. Indeed, one would hope so.
Tours of St Pancras Renaissance Hotel can be booked by contacting Royden Stock – 020 7841 3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org