St. Pancras Hotel
Named Barlow House after the train shed's designer, the hotel addition was uncontroversial, imitating the traditional brickwork and stone detailing of the historic Midland Grand building, with a brick and zinc roof.
Sixty-seven apartments that had initially been Manhattan Loft Corporation's only piece in the project were created with their own separate entrance. On the third and fourth floors, some historic guest rooms were remodeled into apartments, while the fifth and sixth floors were altered more substantially to create contemporary loft-style units.
"We agreed with English Heritage at the beginning about which were the most sensitive areas," says Jane Hilling, the project architect at RHWL. "If we wanted to do work in there, we had to go back and discuss it with them, whereas in upper areas there was a payoff — a freer reign. They took a fairly commercial stance, for them. I think they realized that if they didn't meet us in what we wanted, it would never be restored."
RHWL did argue successfully for functional changes in the core three floors of the old hotel building, which is now known as the Chambers. Most significantly, the foyer and entrance were relocated to handle a greater volume of people and to be more accessible to guests staying in the new wing.
The architects achieved this by internalizing the former taxi drop-off area, creating a vast daylit space framed by blue-painted iron roof trusses, Victorian stonemasonry, and a glazed roof. The arches and windows of the previously exterior walls serve as a backdrop for the new reception desks, while rich furnishings soften the impact of the architecture. The use of Yorkstone paving with gray granite curbs echoes the original pavement, while oak-faced floor tiles above a newly created services zone reference the former end-grain timber pavers, which were once laid to soften the sounds of horses' hooves.
The adjacent former Booking Office, which leads into the station itself, is now a popular, richly wood-paneled bar and restaurant. One level below, the old steam kitchens have been converted into a spa, retaining much of the original tiling and character.
Handling with Care
English Heritage requested that all the original paint, plasterwork, and wallpaper be analyzed, recorded, and recreated as painstakingly as possible. This was achieved with an army of some 80 small contractors, many of them specialist tradespeople who work solely on heritage sites. The hotel's major public rooms and spaces were redecorated with their former polychromatic stenciled designs and original colors, although modern materials were used to allow easier maintenance.
To uncover a series of beautiful hand-painted bird murals along the corridor to the former Ladies' Smoking Room, modern layers of paint had to be carefully scraped away by hand using a surgical scalpel. Much of the paintwork was too damaged to save due to years of neglect. However, two of the original bird designs were restored, traced, and recreated by computer technology to produce stencils. It took four months to do this one corridor section, with eight people painting by hand.
The restored grand staircase cuts a particularly impressive figure, though it is sadly now tucked out of sight of the lobby. The hotel's furniture, fabrics, and fittings were selected by RHWL and interior designer GA Design International to give the public spaces an air of contemporary residential glamor. Most have been lit using chandeliers and lanterns in pseudo-historic designs, hung from the original chandelier points.
The original guest rooms — measuring up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall — posed considerable challenges, particularly when it came to installing bathrooms. "The most important criterion was that whatever be put in could essentially be taken out and not affect the fabric of the building," explains Hilling about English Heritage requirements.
The bathrooms were designed and inserted as simple single-height boxes, almost as if pieces of veneered furniture. Guests therefore get a sense of the original space, with no walls knocked down or holes cut. The roofs of these boxes were used to conceal air conditioning units and light fittings.
Rearranging the service zones accordingly proved more of a headache. The hotel had originally featured just one shared bathroom per floor, along with separate men's and women's toilets. "We brought everything down through the corridors rather than the rooms, but that caused problems because doors don't line up floor to floor," Hilling recalls. "We ended up with a service zone at the entrance level, a zone where they all travel horizontally on the first and fourth floors, and then drop down in vertical stacks and route ways, concealed in timber boxing."
The architects were sometimes able to work restrictions to their advantage, and a number of the 38 Chambers suites have been given unique characters, often connected to the previous incarnation of the space. In one room, for example, a redundant double-L staircase serves as a design focal point.
At certain stages during the renovation, the architects found themselves perversely caught between the demands of England's stringent health and safety legislation and those of its preservation watchdog. "Sometimes we had to play one against the other, but it was a delicate balance," says Hilling.
For example, to satisfy regulations on the accessibility of electrical sockets to disabled persons, RHWL would have had to chase into existing walls and upset the preservationists. By negotiating with the council-level access officer, the architects were allowed to keep many of the sockets at circuit-board level in the historic suites.
Yet in some realms, such as fire safety, compromise was not possible. Because the existing ceilings could not be tested to see if they would allow the full necessary hour of fire resistance, a layer of water-based intumescent paint was added. This covered over all the original detailing — which was recreated atop the paint — but serves to preserve the detailing as well.
In fact, many of the firm's best innovations were related to safety, says Hilling, such as the near-invisible fire curtain the studio designed to address a challenge related to closing off fire exits in an important front-of-house area. The fire curtain is a metal mesh that will drop down to isolate an open staircase in the event of a fire. A dummy downstand beam is used to conceal the fire curtain roller and mechanisms.
There were other clever solutions, too. RHWL ventilated bathrooms, for example, by lowering stainless-steel flue liners into existing brick flues — after the latter had been cleared of decades' worth of rubble.
Since its official opening, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel has become an object of interest to high-end travelers and history buffs alike. Its executive rooms and upper-level apartments should go some way toward recouping the money spent, though it remains to be seen whether the hotel can fully recover the cost of its restoration. Yet the project has positioned its developer as a patron of British history and culture, and the architects as achievers of the near-impossible.
"The first thing someone said when I started working on this refurbishment is that the building always fights back," recalls Hilling. "You'll think you've sussed it, and then you uncover something you weren't expecting — that's where the money goes."
"But at the same time," she continues, "I think it's proved that if you look long and hard enough, you can find a solution. Probably when people now say that something can't be done, the response will be — well, go and take a look at St. Pancras."
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Jo Baker is an independent writer and researcher based in Hong Kong and London, with an interest in design and social development. Publications she writes for include Time, the South China Morning Post, and Hospitality Design. More by Jo Baker