Archive for May 6th, 2011

Victorian St. Pancras hotel reopens after 76 years

Friday, May 6th, 2011

The glorious Victorian High Gothic revival building adjacent to St. Pancras Station that once hosted the Midland Grand Hotel hasn’t been a hotel since 1935. It was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and built between 1868 and 1876. The hotel made a huge splash at its opening on May 5, 1873, with its lavish grand staircase, the country’s first Ladies Smoking Room and revolving doors, cutting-edge hydraulic doorless elevators (“ascending chambers”), electric bells to call for service, corridors wide enough for two hooped ladies’ gowns to pass each other comfortably, even flushing toilets.

Unfortunately, the concrete structure which made it fireproof also made renovations a challenge, so when those five bathrooms shared between 300 rooms came to provide a little less privacy and convenience than the traveling public was looking for, the hotel’s sole response — to outfit every room with chamber pots — couldn’t stop the hemorrhage of paying guests. The Midland Grand closed in 1935.

After that, St. Pancras was hit by German bombs in the Blitz, then clumsily redivided to make offices for British Railways while the magnificent red brick facade and roof were allowed to degrade. It barely survived the destruction of Victorian London in the 1960s. Gothic spires and grand staircases were firmly out of fashion in those days. It took a dedicated campaign by Poet Laureate, Victorian architecture and train afficionado and all-around beloved figure Sir John Betjeman to keep the wrecking ball from knocking it all down and replacing it with some hideous grey rectangle. Thanks to his efforts, the St. Pancras building, both station and hotel, was given Grade 1 listed status in 1967, the same status as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, and it was no longer in danger in being bulldozed.

(A charming statue of Sir John stands on the platform on St. Pancras station looking up at the soaring, light-filled ceiling while a passing train blows his coat up. An inscription under his feet describes him as the man “Who saved this glorious station.” Here’s a beautiful 360° view of the station and statue.)

It was still in danger of decay from lack of maintenance, however. BR vacated the former hotel space in 1985 because it was such bad condition. Emergency work in the early 1990s stabilized the structure and plugged the leaks, but it wasn’t until the station got a shot in the arm in 1996, when it chosen to be re-developed to act as the headquarters of the new high-speed Eurostar service, that the building saw some serious investment. The station rebuild took seven years and cost $1.3 billion, opening in 2007.

Now the hotel officially joins its brother as a restored and revitalized Victorian masterpiece. St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel had its new grand opening last night, May 5, 138 years to the day after its first grand opening. The restoration took over ten years and cost $245 million. Many historical details, like the custom carpet on the grand staircase, the custom wallpaper, the architectural details in each room and in the public areas, have been punctiliously restored, only now there’s running water and private bathrooms!

The magnificent interior has been restored to its former glory with painstaking attention to detail using expert teams of hundreds of craftsmen and painters. Many of the original areas of the hotel considered of particular historical importance have been carefully renovated including the ‘Ladies Smoking Room’, the first place in Europe where it was acceptable for women to smoke in public. The infamous sweeping forecourt, unique to a London hotel in its size and presence, provides a fitting entrance for the new hotel that will also showcase restored gold-leaf ceilings, ornate wall murals and the spectacular grand staircase. The famous staircase, widely revered as the most majestic in England with windows measuring over 50 feet and crowned by an elaborate vaulted ceiling, has been featured in many films and music videos most notably Batman and the Spice Girl’s video for their debut single ‘Wannabe’.

{Insert some clever zig-a-zig-ha quip here.}

You can enjoy more pictures of the newly restored hotel in this Telegraph slideshow.

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