Words & Photography Kirk Truman
“…too beautiful and too romantic to survive.”
This is no ordinary hotel. It’s a London icon, a spectacle; there’s something undeniably romantic about the sight of its fairy-tale towers rising above the eastern end of Euston Road. If its distinctive red exterior is High Victorian splendour, then its interior is the stuff of gilded fantasy – at every turn it reveals some new treasure. The Midland Grand Hotel, now once again resplendent as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, is one of the masterworks of architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who spent most of his time designing cathedrals and places of worship. It has been the face of one of London’s major gateways for almost 150 years. Firmly embedded within the British psyche, it has stood through two world wars and narrowly escaped death at the hands of 1960s planners. There is history and wisdom in the building’s red brick and coloured Midland stone, and quite a story to tell.
By the 1860s, the Midland Railway was thriving, connecting the industrial heartlands of the East Midlands and Yorkshire with the capital but, lacking a southern terminus, was forced to share tracks with other companies to get its trains into London. So, the decision was made that the Midland would create its own line into the capital. A site for the company’s new London terminus was chosen on the northern side of New Road (today known as Euston Road) in the largely undeveloped district of St. Pancras. Once William Barlow’s spectacular single-span train shed structure was in place, the Midland selected the prominent ecclesiastical architect George Gilbert Scott to design a hotel that would form a spectacular frontage for the station. Scott had recently received a commission from Queen Victoria to create the memorial in Hyde Park to her late husband, Prince Albert. Barlow planned for a large luxury hotel extending westwards along Euston Road, with Scott’s designs making the most of this huge canvas. Taking inspiration from Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin’s Gothic Revival Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament), Scott’s designs were grand, costly and far beyond the expectations of Midland: the imposing and ornate structure he was planning was more palace than railway station. In the face of scepticism, Scott persisted, feeling that he was creating an entirely new style as opposed to reviving an old one.
Scott’s audacity paid off, and he promised the Midland that his vision for the hotel would completely eclipse every other terminus in London. Red brick came to be the signature material for his creation; manufactured in the Midlands, it helped create new wealth to the region. While still unfinished, St Pancras Station began operating in 1868. By this time, construction of the neighbouring hotel was under way, and over the next five years, builders, stonemasons, artists, craftsmen and tradesmen laboured to bring Scott’s vision to life.
When the first guests saw the hotel in May 1873 its lavish interiors must have seemed plucked from the realm of fantasy. The grandest rooms on the lower floors included spectacular, 18ft-high decorated ceilings, neo-classical murals and vast south-facing windows to maximise the penetration of natural daylight into the deep floor plans. There were ornate Gothic fanlights over every door, wall-to-wall Axminster carpets, huge fireplaces with carved marble surrounds and Walnut furniture with gold inlay. In the Dining and Coffee Room (today The Gilbert Scott restaurant), pillars of polished limestone lined the walls, their gilded capitals carved with conkers, pea pods and bursting pomegranates. The Ladies’ Smoking Room, the first public room in Europe in which women were permitted to smoke, boasted a breathtaking painted ceiling as well as granite pillars, carved stonework and a magnificent terrace overlooking New Road. Walking about the corridors of the structure today, the grandness of the architecture still makes a powerful and lasting impression; compared to to Scott’s masterpiece, most modern London buildings seem dull and unimaginative.
Perhaps the greatest spectacle of the entire building is the Grand Staircase. This High Victorian, neo-Gothic explosion of extravagant decoration creeps up three storeys before reaching an extraordinary vaulted ceiling. At the time of opening, The Midland Grand was a masterful showcase not just of architecture but technology, featuring flushing toilets and hydraulic lifts. In its heyday, guests paid between three-and-a-half shillings and several pounds to spend a night here, with only The Langham on Portland Place being more expensive.
For over 30 years, the hotel thrived; but rival establishments around London had opened around the turn of the century, and by the 1920s the Midland Grand’s once revolutionary design features were considered to be behind the times. In 1935, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway accepted the inevitable and the hotel closed. Becoming known as St Pancras Chambers, the building survived all attempts by the Luftwaffe and London’s modernising planners to knock it down, being used as offices by British Rail and its hospitality business, British Transport Hotels. During the 1960s, city planners sought to sweep away ‘inefficient’ swathes of London’s architectural heritage, replacing them with system-built blocks – and they had St Pancras and the hotel firmly in their sights. Sir John Betjeman called the plan to demolish St Pancras “a criminal folly”. A founding member of the Victorian Society, along with architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, Betjeman was able to mobilise a popular campaign against the demolition plans, fearing that St Pancras was “too beautiful and too romantic to survive”. Thankfully, he succeeded in securing for it a Grade I listing in 1967, ensuring its preservation.
The hotel building was eventually abandoned in 1985, standing empty and neglected for almost two decades. It made occasional onscreen appearances, including scenes in Batman (1989) and as the setting of the music video for the hit Spice Girls single ‘Wannabe’. By the mid-1990s, change was in the air, and the largely empty and under-used St Pancras Station was chosen to become the new terminus for the Eurostar service. Again, work began to turn St Pancras into the most advanced and admired station in the UK. In 2002, new life was breathed back into the hotel, with work starting on luxury loft-style apartments on the upper floors. Supported and advised by English Heritage, the Manhattan Loft Corporation (MLC) partnered with Marriott International in restoring the building, and operating the remainder of it as a hotel once more. Hundreds of specialist craftspeople, painters and conservation experts from across the UK started to restore the Midland Grand to its former glory. Today, from the fiery, rich reds and golds in The Gilbert Scott Restaurant (taken from the 1892 interior scheme) to the lighter, calmer greens and golds of the Ladies’ Smoking Room ceiling (a replica of the original 1870s design), the hotel’s historic heart beats on, meeting modernity as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.