George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian gothic masterpiece, the Midland Grand at London St Pancras, is about to reopen as a five-star hotel after a painstaking restoration. The result is stunning



The golden age of the railway hotel will be evoked next month with the reopening of George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian gothic masterpiece, the Midland Grand hotel. After a long and painstaking refurbishment, the building will make its debut as the five-star Renaissance St Pancras and complete the regeneration of St Pancras station.

In 2007, the opening of the Eurostar terminus at St Pancras International proved new life could be breathed into clapped-out railway stations, and the Renaissance St Pancras is intended to do the same for the railway hotel. Originally these were glitzy, high-class destinations built by railway companies as they vied for supremacy, but most have declined into cheap bed-and-breakfasts or, like the Midland Grand, closed down altogether. 

More latterly known as St Pancras Chambers, the building will be taking in its first paying guests for 76 years thanks to the collaboration of its owner, the Manhattan Loft Corporation, and hotel group Marriott. Famed for its extravagant celebration of gothic style, the enormous redbrick building features a distinctive curved facade dotted with towers, spires and arched windows capped with polychromatic brickwork.

Many consider the interiors particularly special. They were sumptuously decorated with lashings of gilt and rich colours, and a wide central staircase sweeping up through the building. Apart from some crude interventions when British Rail used it as offices, little else had changed since the hotel closed in 1935. Stepping inside before the restoration was a trip back in time to a romantic, forgotten world of smoky coal fires and gas lights.

Now guests can once again experience the romance, grandeur and style of a great Victorian railway hotel - with modern plumbing. The Midland Grand was completed just before the WC was invented and had only eight bathrooms for 300 rooms, a statistic which led to its closure. The space-hungry central staircase was also from another era, rendered redundant by electric lifts. In the thirties it was deemed too costly and difficult to punch services through the thick, heavy floors. The restoration team has had to grapple with this and the building’s grade I listing, making alterations even more difficult. They have also had to remove the damage wreaked by British Rail. As it was earmarked for demolition, BR had no scruples about hacking through plaster mouldings to install suspended ceilings and slapping emulsion paint over hand-blocked wallpaper. Leaks caused more damage, and in 2007 a fire destroyed one room.

Walking into the refurbished building today, there is a feeling of déjà vu. It is as it was. The walls of the grand stair have been redone in rich red paint with gold stencilling. The decoration is breathtaking, with hand-blocked wallpapers recreated and gaslight chandeliers remade for electricity. Entering some rooms is like stepping into the 1870s; the ladies’ smoking room features three grand gothic arches supported by pink granite columns in perfect condition. The walls and ceiling are sumptuously decorated, the carpets fit the period and there are superb views out. There is no doubt this is going to be a very impressive hotel.

This transformation has been carried out by contractor Galliford Try and an army of specialist subcontractors. “Because of the size of the project and complexity of the schemes, we have had three or four specialists working on the heritage schemes and several conventional decorators as well,” explains Simon Frawley, Galliford Try’s project director. This project has been a game of two halves for him. Conversion of the top four floors into apartments was completed in May 2009. Since January 2009, Frawley has been concentrating on the hotel, where the changes have been much more restricted.

Before work began, the whole building was surveyed to establish the historical details and its condition. A company called Crick Smith Conservation began recording and analysing the paint and wallpapers in the nineties and have been popping in and out ever since. “A little bit of paint might peel or a little bit of paper might fall down and they would come in and investigate,” explains Frawley. Another firm, Hirst Conservation surveyed the plasterwork.

Getting plumbing into the apartments was difficult enough, but air-conditioning requirements meant space had to be found for bulky ductwork and plant. “Integrating the services and running these around the building has probably been the hardest part of the project,” says Frawley. Minimising ductwork and pipe runs was a key strategy, so plant is dotted around the building to be as near as possible to where it is needed: in the basement, on the roof of the new 207-bed extension, and in the roofspace of Barlow House, which connects the original hotel to the extension. Air-handling units have been hidden behind ceilings, services distributed vertically using the original lift shafts and false ceilings hide the horizontal runs. In many rooms a modern-looking pod houses the bathroom.

According to Frawley, the services strategy was based on what could feasibly be shoehorned into the building. This was fine until the client decided to bump up the hotel specification, which meant more baths and showers. “This was challenging as we had to work with the services as they were,” says Frawley. Some had to be rerouted. Bigger pipes were used along with bigger pumps to push through a higher volume of water.

The nature of the building meant change was part and parcel of this job. “Day to day the design would change,” says Frawley. “You’d find you couldn’t run a duct where you wanted to so we would literally go out, sketch up an alternative and proceed on that basis.” This process was helped by having a co-located team on site and regular meetings to evaluate the feasibility of changes, but it did delay subsequent alterations and repairs.

The other great unknown was the decoration. Although the condition of the plasterwork had been established, as work progressed new areas of blown plaster would be discovered. Old decorative schemes were also uncovered, notably in a corridor where hand-painted birds were found under newer layers of paint. Recreation of these took four months. “It added time but as it’s a corridor, the follow-on work was minimal,” explains Frawley.

Other unexpected discoveries had more of a knock-on effect. Scaffolding was erected in the grand staircase for repainting and stencilling the walls. This also enabled close inspection of the hand-painted vaulted ceiling right at the top, an area that had suffered water damage in the past. In the nineties, £9.5m was spent on repairing and other damage to the the roof and exterior. When some residual water damage to the ceiling was discovered, the choice was either fixing it at once and delaying the project or leaving it and having to put scaffolding up in the staircase once the hotel was operational.

“It’s better to take the pain now,” says Frawley. “Decorative repair work is a very slow process so it added a lot of time to how long the scaffolding was in the staircase.”
Galliford Try was meant to have finished last November, but these delays mean it will still be in the building when the first guests arrive. “Rather than finishing and handing over to the furniture, fixtures and equipment team, we are overlapping with their work and the client,” explains Frawley. “It allows us to work later in areas that should have been completed earlier.” 

Royden Stock, an expert on the Midland Grand and its history, says: “If Gilbert Scott was reincarnated I don’t think he would be disappointed with the restoration.”

A brief history of the Midland Grand

St Pancras station consists of a railway shed designed by engineer William Barlow, completed in 1868, and the Midland Grand hotel designed by George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1876. When the hotel opened it could accommodate up to 300 guests in 228 bedrooms.

An army of staff was needed to keep more than 300 coal fires burning and bring hip baths and bedpans to guests’ bedrooms because of the lack of bathrooms. The servants’ stairs were so badly worn down that Galliford Try had to cut out the worn treads and insert new sections.

In many ways the Midland Grand was the last of an era and by the thirties other hotels had overtaken it. The Savoy had its balconies enclosed and turned into ensuite bathrooms and the Ritz hotel had recently opened. Because of the difficultly and cost of modernisation, the hotel closed in 1935 and the Midland Railway, by now part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, took over the commercial rooms as offices and turned the staff rooms in the attic into a hostel for cleaning ladies. The building was renamed St Pancras Chambers.

By 1966 Victorian gothic was deeply unfashionable and what had then become British Rail wanted to knock it down and redevelop the site. A campaign to save the building was launched, led by future poet laureate Sir John Betjeman. In 1967, 10 days before the wreckers were due to turn up, St Pancras Chambers was awarded a grade I listing. Defeated, BR stayed in the building until 1985 when it failed to get its fire certificate renewed.

Restoring the George Gilbert Scott building was part of the 1996 deal to turn the station into a new terminal for high-speed Eurostar trains to Europe. Owner Manhattan Loft Company turned the top four floors into three floors of apartments, which were completed in 2009.

The hotel needed at least 240 rooms to be viable but there wasn’t the space. The answer was to build an extension on the west side of Barlow’s train shed, providing 207 bedrooms. The original building houses 38 suites which will be the grandest rooms in the hotel.

Conserving and restoring the hotel

The plasterwork

Hirst Conservation was responsible for the plaster condition survey and advising on repairs. It also carried out some of the work. Principal architectural conservator Elizabeth Hirst was given three weeks to survey 800 rooms in December 2007. “It was freezing cold and very derelict at the time with a lot of pigeons and soot still in the fireplaces,” she says. Hirst says 19th century plaster is generally good quality, but in this case had been hacked about to fit suspended ceilings. It was analysed so a repair mix could be specified.

Much of the work was concentrated on the ceilings. These sag over time so stainless steel hangers are used as supports. The ceiling of the coffee room (now the dining room, right) was punctured with hundreds of square holes for suspended ceiling joist hangers. Each one had to be repaired using new laths and three coats of lime plaster. “Many new lime plaster ceilings aren’t very strong as not enough time has been allowed between each coat,” says Hirst. She insisted on five weeks between coats. “That is a long time when you are doing a project of this size,” she says. “It needed very careful programming.”

The decorative plasterwork has been restored by taking moulds of missing areas, casting a new section and sticking it into place. In the coffee room, sound mouldings had to be taken out because they were perforated to allow fumes from gaslights to escape. This compromised the fire rating of the room so solid plaster replacements were made and painted to replicate the original.escape. This compromised the fire rating of this room so solid plaster replacements were made and painted with black dots to replicate the appearance of the original.

The hand blocked paper

When workers took down a huge mirror over a fireplace in a white-painted bedroom, they found richly decorated paper behind it. The company responsible, Angel Interiors, turned to wallpaper expert Allyson McDermott to recreate it. “We did it exactly as it was done 130 years ago,” explains Gary Butcher, managing director of Angel Interiors. The first job was to make a paper that exactly matched the composition of the original, then cover it in gold leaf.

The original design was traced and used to make wooden blocks to print the replacement paper. Then select areas were glazed with colour and the detail was painted on by hand.

More than 30 colours had to be matched and redone. Finally the paper was cut into sheets to match the size of the original and put up on the walls of the bedroom.
According to Butcher it took four to five people 18 months to do the work at a cost of £60,000. “To all intents and purposes it’s 70m2 of artwork,” he says. The results are stunning.

The specialist paintwork

Most of the hotel has been repainted in three historic colours using modern paints. But seven select areas have been restored and conserved. One is the corridor leading to the ladies’ smoking room. “We had to engage on a voyage of discovery,” says Paul Humphreys, co-director of specialist decorators Hare & Humphreys.

Small areas of paint had been removed but further investigation revealed hand-painted birds (right) forming part of the pattern. The original decoration had been varnished, which made it easier to remove subsequent layers of paint. Despite this the paint has to be scraped off using a scapel, which is a time-consuming job. Solvents are used to remove the varnish.

Most of the birds were “tired”, according to Humphreys, so a decision was made to conserve two and recreate the rest. The birds were traced and scanned into a computer. From this, an elevation of the decorative scheme could be created. The computer can also be used to control cutting equipment to slice through the self-adhesive plastic film used as a stencil.

Paint colours are matched in traditional oil colours and mixed into a matt oil paint. Finally, additional detail is painted on by hand. Humphreys says it took a total of four months to do the job, with eight people working in the corridor for two months on the painting.

Hare & Humphreys also repainted the grand stair (left), which was relatively straightforward - the rich red base colour is a modern water-based eggshell, and gold paint has been used for the stencilling. “The hardest thing was marking out the wall for the stencil,” says Humphreys.