With the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras about to reopen as the St Pancras Renaissance, I thought it worth posting a piece I wrote about the renovation last year for Metropolitan.
Of the six major London stations, strung out like new gates to the old city along the Euston Road, there is none quite like St Pancras, where all Eurostar journeys begin and end. Much is made of the station’s emblematic steel-and-glass roof, but that delight will soon be upstaged by the refurbished wonder that lies outside the station walls. The Midland Grand Hotel – even when sheathed in scaffolding and protective hoardings – is a breathtaking sight. ‘It’s a fantastic building,’ says a besotted Harry Handelsman, the property developer. ‘It’s amazing, such a legacy, such an important structure.’
A vast red-brick neo-Gothic vision of spires, arched windows, clock towers and weathervanes, the Midland Grand looms over the Euston Road more like a Transylvanian castle than a hotel. But guests have not been welcomed since 1935, when the hotel was converted to offices, desecrated internally and left to rot. Renaissance has been a long time coming, but will be confirmed when the hotel reopens after 76 years of neglect and near destruction.
Handelsman is a German-born London-based property developer whose Manhattan Loft Corporation pioneered loft-living in London. ‘In 1997 I was asked if I would be interested in converting 20-odd rooms in St Pancras into flats. That was it, the extent of our involvement. For me the chance to have a small share in such a fantastic building was very exciting.’ Thirteen years later he finds himself financing and organising a project that now includes 68 apartments and a bar, restaurant and health club in the original building, as well as a newly built 250-bed five-star hotel next door. ‘Have I kept an apartment for myself?’ he muses. ‘No, I kept the hotel.’
The Midland Grand Hotel opened on May 5, 1873. It was designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect who also built the Albert Memorial. In ‘St Pancras Station’, Simon Bradley describes the hotel as ‘the grandest single monument of the Gothic Revival in Britain’ and upon completion, Scott believed the Midland Grand was perhaps ‘too good’ for its intended purpose.
The hotel cost £437,335, making it one of the most expensive buildings in London and one of the most modern hotels in Europe. It had a revolving entrance door, only the second in London and also some of the capital’s first ‘ascending rooms’, or lifts. The central feature was the breathtaking main staircase, which rose grandly from ground floor to fifth. Although the hotel was at the cutting-edge of Victorian technology, it was not an exclusive venue. Victorian hotels were built for everybody, with rooms getting smaller and cheaper the higher you got, so the aristocracy had suites on the first floor and the travelling salesman attic rooms at the top. This floor-by-floor ranking was reflected in the furniture: oak and walnut on the first floor; teak on the second floor; mahogany on the third floor; ash on the fourth floor; softwood on the fifth floor.
Striking, modern and open to all, at first the hotel prospered, but slowly decline set in. The reasons for the hotel’s demise were built into the fabric of its creation: there were around 400 rooms, 250 of them bedrooms, but no central heating and only nine bathrooms.
‘The toilet was invented six years after it was finished, so this place was redundant almost overnight,’ says Geoff Mann, principal director of RHWL, the project architect. As newer hotels with en-suite bathrooms were built, the Midland Grand began to look outdated. And it was a problem that could not be solved. While a hotel like the Savoy could turn balconies into bathrooms, there was no way the Midland could modernise as the fire-proof floors proved resistant to inserting pipes. Further difficulties came with maintaining the exterior of such an elaborate building and the sheer cost of running it – the census of 1881 recorded 115 resident staff to 91 guests. Even the bloke who chalked up the score in the billiard room was on ten shillings a week.
‘It never lost money, but it wasn’t making as much as they’d have wanted it to,’ explains the building’s unofficial historian Royden Stock. ‘So in 1930, they did the group accounts and found this one had made a profit of £2,700 whereas the Midland in Manchester had made £51,000. This was the flagship and today people would have kept it open as a loss-leader, but back then it was about straight profit. It closed five years later.’
Now began the dark days of the hotel’s life. Railway staff moved in and set about trying to turn an ornate Victorian hotel into utilitarian offices. ‘They had no respect for the building whatsoever,’ says Handelsman. ‘It was awful, awful, awful, awful. The destruction. It was almost like they said, “oh, there’s an amazing feature let’s stick a hammer through it”, and they did this with pedestrian efficiency.’ Cheap false ceilings were installed, walls were knocked through and beautiful features painted over in an orgy of philistinism.
It got worse. In 1966, a plot was hatched to demolish St Pancras hotel and station, a fate that had already befallen nearby Euston. Led by Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, conservationists managed to secure Grade I listed status for St Pancras in November 1967, ensuring it could never be demolished. The hotel was renamed St Pancras Chambers and limped on as offices until it was abandoned completely in 1988. But the chance of a second life came with the proposal of a Paris-London railway in the mid-1990s. Mann explains, ‘With the high speed rail scheme [HS1] came an act of Parliament saying the hotel would be returned to its original purpose. This was an important point – it became a legal requirement of the consortium bidding for HS1 to find somebody who could take on this project. That wasn’t easy. RHWL, the Manhattan Loft Corporation and Whitbread, who owned the Marriott franchise, won the contract.’
Now began more fun and games. RHWL quickly ascertained that there was not enough space in the original building to open a modern, viable five-star hotel. Originally, 20 apartments were intended to underwrite the cost of refurbishing the hotel, but this was upped to 68 apartments, and a new 250-room hotel was built behind St Pancras Chambers, alongside the station, the design of which was vigorously contested by English Heritage and the architects. Then Whitbread pulled out. ‘We had two choices,’ says Handelsman. ‘We could pull out or we could ask Marriott to do a direct deal with us, which they did. So from doing 20 rooms, I suddenly inherited the whole project. The cost went through the roof, but by the same token I became much more personally involved because I saw this was an opportunity to create something. With Eurostar coming here I saw that the only way I could recoup my expenditure was by turning this into a five-star luxury hotel. My ambition is that somebody who is coming to London will want to stay at the Dorchester, Savoy or St Pancras – that’s where I want to be with facilities and aura.’
Renovation has been difficult – ‘It was a monster, there’s not one room the same in the whole building and we’ve discovered rooms we didn’t even know existed,’ says Mann’ – but is now complete. All work has been done under the close supervision of English Heritage, who insisted that six rooms were put back as they were original designed. As Mann points out, ‘this was quite a difficult thing to do as the hotel was in use for sixty years and kept being renovated. We’d scrape off a layer of paint and find six more underneath – so which one counted as original?’
But now it is over. Eurostar passengers arriving at St Pancras will soon be able to step straight off the platform and into the hotel to check in. They’ll be able to eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant, work out in a top-of-the-range health club, drink in a gorgeous Victorian station-bar or network in a state-of-the-art conference room. Or they’ll simply be able to wander around one of the most beautiful buildings in London and rejoice that it has not only survived, but it has prospered.