The Midland Grand Hotel used to be a vast, obsolete luxury liner moored alongside St Pancras station. Then it was an office, then a ruin, and in a few years it will become something truly splendid.
The ground floor coffee lounge in the former Midland Grand Hotel holds a makeshift exhibition about the building’s history. There’s a sepia photograph of stiff Victorian guests waited on by a battalion of staff in the same lofty, curving coffee lounge. The Victorian version is adorned with textured wallpaper, marble columns and a ceiling crusted with mouldings, whereas today’s is hidden under white plaster, but where patches have been peeled away, the glowing colours underneath are tantalisingly revealed. The past seems almost within touching distance – just waiting for someone to bring it back to life.
Ironically, the building owes its sense of suspended animation to the brevity of its glory days. The Midland Grand was closed 70 years ago. It was spared the multiple deprivations of the war years, the austerity of the 1950s, the suspended ceilings and asbestos paneling of the 1970s and the glitzy makeovers of the 1980s. If the Midland Grand Hotel had been commercially successful enough to justify refurbishment, far less of the original decor might have survived.
But when it re-opens as a five-star Marriott Renaissance in 2008, the hotel will once again display the opulence that made it the place to be seen in late Victorian London. The 100 ft coffee lounge will become the hotel’s main restaurant catering for some of the 50 million visitors flowing through the neighbouring station every year, its curves, then as now, offering a good view of fellow diners. A smart crowd will sip cocktails in the old entrance hall, admiring the mosaic floor below and stenciled ceiling above. Upstairs, metropolitans will enjoy themselves in a suite of function rooms converted from the ladies’ smoking room and the guests’ dining room.
After a £100m redevelopment led by the Manhattan Loft Corporation, the bedrooms on the first floor will revert to their original use as 37 of the most imposing places to stay in London. On the second and third floors, the rooms will be turned into apartments, while two stories of servants’ accommodation tucked high into the eaves will become contemporary lofts. The astonishing grand staircase is three flights of baronial splendour guaranteed to make anyone who ascends it feel two inches taller.
“It will be an absolutely stunning building, it has amazing Disney-like features. The public will be able to go in for a drink or a meal and see what the building has to offer,” says Roger Groom, development director at London & Continental Railways. “We hope it will be a beacon for the development of the King’s Cross lands, and a spur for other projects in the area.”
LCR became responsible for St Pancras Chambers when it was awarded the right to build the CTRL and the international stations in 1996. After a competition in 1997 to find an architect and a developer, LCR selected the architectural and financial formula offered by Manhattan Loft Company, with RHWL and Richard Griffiths Architects as designers and the Marriott group as the operator. The scheme’s main advantage over hotel-only proposals was that revenue from selling the loft apartments would cross-subsidise the expensive renovations needed to make the Midland Grand truly grand again.
“The mix of uses is the best possible way of preserving it and bringing out its qualities,” says Richard Griffiths, a specialist in sensitive heritage projects. “Sometimes getting a new use to fit a building involves a lot of compromise. But this solution means you can keep more of the upper floors undivided and exploit their potential.”
To ensure that the hotel is commercially viable this time, it will have a further 190 rooms in a new extension tucked into a narrow site between the railway tracks and the British Library next door. Its facade, designed by Richard Griffiths Architects, continues the neo-gothic tableau of arched windows topped by dormers perched on a steeply sloping roof. From the street, the building should look like an extension that just happens to have been built 130 years after the main hotel.
In its heyday, the Midland Grand Hotel was positively sybaritic. Built between 1868 and 1874, it was commissioned by the Midland Railway Company as an act of corporate and architectural one-upmanship over the more modest terminuses and hotels of King’s Cross and Euston. Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of the Foreign Office and the Albert Memorial, won a competition with a design that doubled the number of rooms in the brief. But with a clock tower to rival Big Ben and a facade inspired by Italian masterpieces such as the doge’s palace in Venice, the design embodied the exuberant self-confidence the client wanted.
Yet the hotel was a product of its times. It was built with only rudimentary central heating in the public areas, and relied on an army of servants to shuttle coal to 300 fireplaces. There were only two bathrooms on each floor: guests would ring for a chambermaid who would fill a bath in the servants’ quarters then wheel it to their room. The grander, more expensive rooms have wall-sized mirrors, not so much for vanity as the necessity of making the most of flickering gaslight.
There were only two bathrooms on each floor: guests would ring for a chambermaid who would fill a bath in the servants’ quarters then wheel it to their room.
When 20th-century guests demanded electricity, en suite bathrooms, lifts and telephones, the Midland Grand struggled to provide them. At the same time, railway locations fell out of fashion. The hotel was closed in 1935, renamed St Pancras Chambers and retired to a straightened private life as British Rail offices. In the 1960s it was threatened with demolition by Dr Beeching, but a campaign orchestrated by architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner and poet laureate Sir John Betjeman secured a grade I listing.
In 1995, St Pancras Chambers was treated to a £10m restoration by British Rail with help from English Heritage, which included cleaning stonework and restoring eight murals on the vaulted ceiling at the top of the grand staircase. In the new development, EH laid down a condition that the colour schemes, ornamental ceilings and textured wallpapers of the “significant” ground and first-floor areas would be restored. Interior design for the rest of the hotel would blend historically appropriate colours and materials with modern tastes.
The design of the new west wing provoked most debate. At one stage, RHWL and Camden’s conservation officers preferred a modern building to pre-empt accusation of “pastiche”. But EH argued that the contrast between old and new would be too jarring.
“EH was very keen to see the extension complement the Victorian gothic design, and not see it spoiled. We think Richard Griffith’s and RHWL’s design is an extremely good match,” says LCR’s Groom. However, the facade overlooking the station concourse will be as sleek and contemporary as a Eurostar train, with the zinc of the roof dropping to ground level as a dramatic grey curtain.
For the Midland Road facade, Richard Griffiths has adopted the same design language as Scott, but with a more contemporary accent. Where the window arches on the original intricately alternate stone and brick quoins, the new version is less fussy. And instead of timber infill screens, the new building has steel-framed glass or mesh. “I felt entirely comfortable about updating the design,” says Griffiths. “I hate the word pastiche, so what we came to appreciate is that if you step back from Scott, and be inspired by the same sources – such as Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic – it’s a way of avoiding pastiche, which is a boringly literal take on the same style.”
The hotel was built with dramatic vaulted basements, part of which will be brought back to life as a fitness suite, and the kitchens underneath the grand staircase could become a swimming pool. “The basement was not previously open to the public, so it’s a public again,” says Les Broer of architect RHWL. “They should also retain some of the original texture of the building. The original brick walls will be there for people to see, and we’ll retain the original York stone floors wherever possible.”
On the second and third floors of the hotel, the rooms measured around 20 ft2, with lofty 12 ft ceilings. “Converting them into hotel bedrooms would have severe consequences. So our strategy was to make three rooms into one apartment, which meant we could make minimal alterations to one or two of them. It would have been more compromised as a hotel,” says Richard Griffiths. Existing floors and ceilings will be preserved, but new kitchens and bathrooms added.
The biggest technical challenge in the original building is accommodating the “back-of-house” infrastructure of plumbing, wiring and heating that the original hotel so conspicuously lacked. “It’s a question of patient ingenuity to find the best way of getting them in,” says Griffiths. Two solutions include threading pipework down old chimney flues, and disguising pipe runs in corridors behind vertical timber casings.
There is a striking historical continuity between the original Midland Grand and the new Marriott. The Victorian hotel was a gateway to the industrial north, while the new version is a portal to Paris and Europe. The original celebrated the golden age of rail, the successor is part of a new era of sustainable rail travel. Even the interior design strategies share common ground. “You associate rather opulent furnishings with Marriott, but the hotel is very over the top already. In that sense it’s a good fit,” says Griffiths. “The design brief for Marriott Renaissance hotels ask for what’s called a “Kodak experience”. The whole thing will be one glorious Kodak experience!”
“My interest in the hotel started way back – I was an acolyte of John Betjeman who regarded it as the finest building in London. In 1981 I gave a party in the place – it was derelict but we filled it with lights and music and special effects. We invited everyone to come to draw attention to the splendid interiors. Then we started up the St Pancras Dining Club, and we had a dinner in one of the derelict rooms on
St Pancras day in June each year and discussed the future of the station.
We continued that ever since, as the plans went through transmogrifications and horrors, until the last one, last June under London & Continental.
I used to write articles every two or three years just saying “this is appalling”. It was a nightmare – every time something was about to happen there was another postponement to the railway station plans behind it – it was always the add-on to whatever was happening on the King’s Cross site and it suffered as a result. But since LCR took it over, they’ve done the right thing by it – and they’ve got a
first-class architect in Richard Griffiths.
The gothic style was unpopular a few years ago, but I think it’s now restored and St Pancras is going to be its finest exemplar. It’s going to look tremendous and I’m sure it will lead to a revival of rail travel. In a sense it will help recreate the great age of hotels and the relationship between hotels and travel that planes have removed. It’s about the romance of travel and the romance of railways.
You’ll come down from Scotland, stay the night at St Pancras then catch the train to Europe.”
Simon Jenkins is a columnist with The Guardian
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St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel: A hotel to remember
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St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel: A hotel to remember