Midland Hotel

In 1865, having just moved from the Admiral’s House, Hampstead; Sir George Gilbert
Scott, known for his churches and the Albert Memorial, won the competition to design
his first hotel, to front the Midland Railway’s London terminus, St. Pancras Station. It
opened in 1873/6 having cost £500 million in today’s money as a monumental
advertisement of the industrial might of the Midlands.
The interior included the latest modern conveniences such as a hydraulic
ascending chamber for guests and another as a service lift. There were also unheard of
luxuries such the first revolving doors, baths and flushing lavatories. Other hotels still
provided chamber pots! Electric bells had been installed to call room service and the first
ladies’ public smoking room was provided. The spectacular Grand Staircase leading up
to the heavenly bedrooms is a perfect example of the opulent decorations, fixtures, fittings
and furniture that were all in the best possible quality and Victorian taste, influenced by
William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement and Augustus Pugin’s ecclesiastical NeoGothic revivalism.
The exterior proportions were inadvertently improved by economic constraints
that lopped off a floor from the original concept. Following the destruction of the Houses of
Parliament by fire, the floors were made of reinforced concrete as a fire security measure.
Influenced by Venetian canal side or Tudor brick mansions, he chose sunny salmon
pink bricks that are set off and softened with contrasting highlights of sandy coloured
stone. The bricks arrived directly by train from the Midlands, conveniently to hand for the
builders to lay. It’s style is an eclectic potpourri influenced by Pugin and the clock tower,
erroneously known as Big Ben, that he had designed for Charles Barry’s Palace of
Westminster. Renaissance Italianate windows, steeply-pitched 17th C Dutch stepped
dormer roof windows, pinnacles, spires and Tudor chimneys all contribute to create a
harmony of uplifting splendour.
The Decline
By the 1920’s the hotel was unfashionable and out of date with no running water
and en suite facilities in the rooms. It still had only 5 communal baths for the guests, who
were by now lower in status and number. Finally in 1935 the owners were forced to close
the hotel and it became railway offices until 1985 when it failed a safety test and was
abandoned, only being used as a set for among others, Harry Potter & the Spice Girls.
The British Rail plan of 1966 to demolish both the hotel and station, was
successfully thwarted by the Victorian Society, chaired by Nikolaus Pevsner and
championed by John Betjeman, who had feared ‘it too beautiful and romantic to survive’.
And to survive, English Heritage had to pay for emergency work from 1990-5 to prevent
irrevocable damage from leaking roofs etc.
Harry Handelsman, the son of a Polish Jew, born in Germany and educated in
the U.S.A. where he got the idea for his Manhattan Loft Corporation, which he started
when he came to London in the early 1990’s, and never looked back. With a vocational zeal
he adopted a restoration that no other sane developer was prepared to consider, putting
quality before cost. But as he had established a robust financial package that eventually
incorporated; London & Continental Railways, Marriot Hotels and the Financier
Lord Stanley Fink, when some investors and contractors withdrew he managed to
successfully ride the storm of yet another major depression.
His architect, Richard Griffiths working closely with English Heritage, spent
some £200 million, (with no Government subsidies,) restoring the original decorations &
overcoming problems such as installing modern plumbing that had thwarted previous
attempts because of the concrete fire resistant floors. Converting the upper floors to
presold Pent House and Luxury Apartments, letting Restaurants & Bars below and
building a modern Hotel Annex of extra rooms to the side, made the whole project
financially viable.
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