The first time I was in London my grandfather and I stayed at the YMCA. We have stayed at the “Y” with our kids and Suzi and I have, in the past, stayed in the BBC Hostel, but this time we are staying in digs that couldn’t be more different than the “Y”. We are at the St. Pancras, which is an old railway hotel at St. Pancras Station. It has been completely renovated and restored into a 5 star hotel as part of the project that made this old Victorian complex the center for EuroStar departures. It is a great location, next to the British Library and at the convergence of many of the main tube lines. We would not consider paying £285 a night (a bit more than $450) to stay at such a hotel, but I had an excess of Marriott hotel points… I mean, if you are going to cash in nights, you may as well really cash in.
On past trips to London I have passed this building many times. The original hotel was designed by architect George Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Albert Memorial, the Foreign Office, and the iconic red London telephone booth. The hotel featured the first revolving door in Europe, England’s first “ascending room” (lift) and central heating with huge radiators. This was a real novelty, although the hotel did not include en-suite toilets or baths. The hotel closed its doors in the 1930s. A 70 year neglect set in. Its rooms became railway offices, it was bombed during the war and was slated to be torn down in the 1960s. It was pretty much derelict when I first walked by. Its empty halls and grand stairway were used as an on location movie set for spooky Victorian dramas and a Spice Girls video. My last time in London the railway station had reopened but the hotel was still covered in scaffolding. The whole project of redesigning an obsolete railway station and a derelict hotel into the new center for Britain’s high speed rail and cross channel trains fascinated me. I knew I wanted to stay in this hotel and, thanks to more 300 nights in other Marriott Hotels over the years, I could (with points to spare.)
The hotel refit has been a struggle between British Rail, the municipal government, and historical preservationists for at least two decades. Architect Norman Foster drew up an early set of plans for the restoration, and although others took over as different consortia tried to get the approvals to do the restoration work, one of his concepts, converting the carriage entry between the hotel and the station into a lobby and café is still the centerpiece of the restoration. The lobby, which is now “under glass” shows off the ways in which Victorian Architects integrated gothic vaulting with iron construction, showing the “bones” of the building but making those “bones” beautiful. The ironwork is not only structural but decorative.
Another part of the restoration included adding new hotel rooms in an area that had been shops and offices. Marriott needed at least 220 rooms to make the hotel pay and the old hotel could not provide that number, especially when retrofitted with modern plumbing. The new Barlow wing carries the red brick Victorian gothic design, with its arched windows, along the side of the train shed. Foster wanted this wing to be modern, contrasting with the traditional red brick. That didn’t happen, but the wing is integrated into the overall station. Two floors below our room the station exits into the cab rank. There are no rooms across the hallway from us. On the other side of the hallway wall are the backs of shops fronting on the railway concourse.
But the main glory of the hotel is the restored public areas, especially the grand staircase with its painted vaulted ceiling and iron supports for the steps. It is beautiful, as are the corridors, public rooms, restaurants, bars, and meeting rooms that spin off from the staircase. Crafts people have paid particular attention to detail in recreating wallpaper, moldings, cornices and glass work. They have added some modern art pieces that set off the ornate and bring it up to date. In the basement, where there the kitchen used to be, now sits a spa. The restorers recreated the tiles from the kitchen for the swimming pool.
The railway station has a concourse of shops, cafes, upright pianos and public art. There is a giant statue of a couple kissing with relief around the base of different departure scenes which bear close scrutiny. In one scene a man is hugging a woman, kissing the side of her face. She’s texting on her mobile phone. The pianos do not seem to be in want of players. We have heard jazz, classical music and “Heart and Soul” walking through the concourse toward the Piccadilly Line. But the hotel is a destination in itself.