The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel may be a Marriott property, but the moment you gaze upon one of London’s most eye-pleasing buildings, you’ll know you’re in for a treat. You’ve probably seen it before, at least on the big screen. Its once deteriorating exterior has been used in several movies, including the “Harry Potter” films, with Harry and Ron flying past the hotel in Weasley’s Ford Angila.
A Neo-Gothic Victorian treasure, this is not just any high-end hotel. It’s had many lives, and many struggles, taking a dozen years to restore the red brick behemoth to its original 19th-century glory, reopening in 2011. For decades it was the city’s lost landmark, a historic, somewhat haunting hotel that lies abandoned.
The Birth of the Midland Grand
Its story all begins in 1865, the same year that marked the end of the Civil War, with the Midland Railway running a competition to design a hotel that would complement the soon to be completed St. Pancras Station, known today as a masterpiece of Gothic Victorian architecture as one of the world’s most elegant train stations. It was the highly-accomplished George Gilbert Scott, architect of Glasgow University, the Albert Memorial, dozens of churches, chapels and other iconic structures who took the prize, submitting a plan that was well-beyond the cost – far grander and far larger, than original specifications. The price tag was a staggering £438,000, about £500 million today, but worth the cost ultimately, developing both considerable prestige and a very lucrative revenue stream soon after opening.
If bigger and better than ever brings the vision of the Titanic in mind, well, that’s very close to the reality. The Midland is sometimes referred to as such not only because it was so grand, but because it accommodated guests with both small and large incomes. Rooms on the lower floors were priced the highest, 14 shillings a night which was about the average weekly wage at the time. Lower class guests were accommodated closer to the attic, for three shillings and sixpence. Fortunately, there were no icebergs ahead, but there would be a number of stumbling blocks in the future.
In the 1860s, Scott had a lot on his plate, but the hotel was the fulfillment of a dream. When Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert passed in 1861, she requested an elaborate public memorial to be placed in Hyde Park near the very spot Albert’s Great Exhibition had captivated the city in 1851. The architect’s time was occupied by both the memorial and hotel projects, but those intensive efforts paid off. He was knighted in 1872 for his work, and a year later, the 300-room St. Pancras Hotel, or Midland Grand as it was known back then, opened its doors by the queen herself.
Creator of Sherlock Homes Arthur Conan Doyle remarked, “Nothing in fact or fiction can match this wonder; it would be the envy of any medieval king.”
The Midland’s Heyday: Talk of the Town
The Terrace Entrance was the first entrance to open on May 5, 1873. Thanks to the massive restoration that took place in 2011, today it’s easy to imagine the ladies and gentlemen of the day stepping through the glazed cast-iron framed canopy that stood just outside, and into the waiting room of the St. Pancras Hotel. It quickly became the talk of the town, the place to see and be seen. A young Jesse Boot, who transformed The Boots Company founded by his father, a well-known UK pharmacy chain today; Lord Leverhume who built Britain’s largest company; Commodore Vanderbilt, one of American’s richest men, and George Pullman, creator of the luxurious Pullman sleeping car, were just a few among its high brow early guests. Pullman’s first car was made in 1864, but what thrust him into the spotlight came a year later, after President Lincoln was assassinated. He arranged to have his body carried on a sleeper, from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois, with hundreds of thousands of people lining the route along the way paying homage.
While the hotel did provide a generous supply of flushing lavatories, it did not have ensuite bathrooms – something that would lead to its eventual downfall, with newer hotels later introducing the much-wanted feature.
The Midland Grand was cemented as one of the city’s top hotels soon after its opening, the most expensive other than The Langham at the time. It continued to make large profits through the Second World War and bring in plenty of famous guests like actress and music hall star Marie Lloyd and opera singer Dam Nellie Melba. One of the most important authors of the 20th-century, British writer Virginia Woolf, lived nearby at 46 Gordon Square. The war and the poor reception of her biography of friend Roger Fry eventually led to her depression and suicide when in 1941, she walked into the River Ouse in Sussex. Next door to the St. Pancras Hotel is the world-renowned British Library, which houses her suicide letters.
St. Pancras Hotel: The End of an Era
In 1912, 14-year-old Reginald Squires began working at the hotel as a page boy. The same year Titanic sunk. Six years later, on the night of February 17, 1918, the First World War brought five bombs near or on the station and the hotel. One hit the western tower, two the forecourt and one plummeted on Midland Road. There were no casualties with the first four, but the fifth bomb wreaked havoc, injuring 33 people and killing 20, the largest number of casualties suffered in any air-raid on a London station during the war. The elegant roof to the booking office was lost forever, though train services continued uninterrupted.
The London Society suggested that St. Pancras be shut down in 1921, but both the station and hotel remained, at least for now. While the Midland was once the “it” place to be in the city, the first hotel to have lifts, flushing toilets – practically unheard of at the time – and, the first to have a Ladies’ Smoking Room, the only spot in all of Europe where women could smoke in public, it had just five bathrooms. They housed a total of nine baths to serve the 300 bedrooms – no longer meeting up to the needs of the time. And as fashions change, the advent of the 1930s meant Gothic was no longer the rage. The wealthy began flocking to newer hotels with Art Deco designs and ensuite bathrooms, like the Savoy and Claridge’s.
The hotel could no longer remain afloat, and on Friday, April 19, 1935, it closed its doors.
Reginald Squires had been a member of the staff for 23 years, and by then, he was the head porter. He remained employed for two more years, along with colleague Stan Humphrey, in efforts to take down the competition, the Great Northern Hotel, the Midland’s long-time rival that had opened its doors in 1854 to the patrons of the Great Northern Railway Company. The pair waited in the station for potential hotel guests, directing them to the Euston hotel instead.
The Revival of the St. Pancras Hotel
That over the years Scott’s 1873 building was twice bombed and left to rot, then hideously remodeled as office space in the ‘60s before being threatened with demolition two decades later, the revival of the city’s heritage hotel is a near miracle. Sir John Betjeman, English poet, writer and founding member of the Victorian Society, can largely be credited for the prevention of its total demise, calling the plans to demolish it a “criminal folly.” Campaigning tirelessly for its preservation, he succeeded in 1967, securing grade 1 listing, effectively saving the building.
More than three-quarters of a century after its closing, on March 14, 2011, guests once again walked through the doors of the St. Pancras Hotel, passing the statue that honors Betjeman, with the life of the city still swirling around it as it has for decades. Almost like a living being, it was rebirthed with the help of design firm Manhattan Loft Corporation, and designer David Collins, responsible for its impressive Gilbert Scott Restaurant. Of course, it includes a suite named after the man who saved it. The Sir John Betjeman Suite features floor-to-ceiling windows that include an opulent oriel window, allowing natural light to shine upon detailed Victorian-era finishes.
One can almost see the pride of Sir George Gilbert Scott beaming through every wall of the St. Pancras Hotel. A spectacular one-bedroom suite located on the first floor of the St. Pancras chamber was named in the original architect’s honor. Just as he called for in the 19th-century, it includes a sitting room of real gold leaf wallpaper.
Would Scott approve? The consensus is “yes.” Should he stroll into the St. Pancras Hotel today, he would likely gaze up at the colossal glass-roofed lobby before sitting down at The Booking Office Bar, once the ticket-booking room, for a drink. Even the cocktail menu would be sure to impress like the Mushroom Martini inspired by the French Toqués du Cèpe festival, using Burrough’s Reserve French oak rested gin and morel stock. The restaurant, named after the man himself is helmed by Michelin-starred chef and Gordon Ramsay alumnus Marcus Wareing, and would likely please his high-brow tastes as well. The menu offers a classic take on British cuisine including pigeon, steak, sole, and cheese, though the room may steal the show with its double-height ceilings detailed with more gold leaf, French lace-like white perforated tin, and massive chandeliers. While Scott had passed decades before in 1878, his presence could surely be felt when on September 27, 2017, Wareing recreated the five courses that were on the menu at the Midland Grand a century before, to the date. Guests dined on items like Filet de Merian frit au Citron, while listening to a talk by British Library curator and food historian Dr. Polly Russell on life during the Victorian and First World War periods.
When retiring at night, Scott would likely be comforted recognizing the original fireplaces, though he may be a bit taken aback by some of the modern features splashed into the St. Pancras Hotel, like the contemporary light fixtures, along with today’s musts such as flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi.
Pop Culture in Modern Times
Guests both famous and otherwise enjoyed the luxuries of the hotel which included gold leaf on the walls, innovative hydraulic lifts, revolving doors and fireplaces in every room. The highlight then as it is arguably now, is the grand spiral staircase, familiar today from countless movies like “The Secret Garden” and “Batman Begins,” and perhaps most famously, the Spice Girls’ video for their debut single, “Wannabe.” The double staircase loops up three stories and is decorated with stone arches, cathedral stone-work ceilings with paints of stars and the Seven Virtues while mosaic-tiled floors, extravagant wallpaper and iron balustrade leading to the very top. In the creation of the most lavishly appointed playground for the wealthy and famous, it was here and in the hotel’s cathedral height windows that Scott’s skills and experience as a prolific designer of chapels and churches were truly realized.
Ginger, Posh, Baby, Scary and Sporty ruffled the feathers of a more proper clientele in the clip that was not only unforgettable to fans, but to the groups’ members as well. In fact, in 2017, Geri Halliwell (now Geri Horner) took a trip down memory lane, returning to the hotel and the staircase, even recreating her pose for a photo posted on Instagram. It was captioned: “Remember this!!! @officialmelb @melaniecmusic @emmaleebunton @victoriabeckham.”
Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik were called “lust personified” cavorting at the hotel as part of a music video shot for the soundtrack to the somewhat controversial film “Fifty Shades Darker.” Swift writes on a bed in one suite while Malik smashes plates on the floor and Champagne against the wall of another, trashing the rooms with the damage reportedly coming at a cost of £2,500 (about $3,628).
In addition to “Harry Potter,” the hotel has been spotlighted in many film and television scenes like the 2012 romantic comedy “I Give It A Year” and the BBC’s period drama series “Parade’s End” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, with St. Pancras International working beautifully as the often-frequented station, an enduring symbol of the glamorous age of travel.
Luxurious Whispers of Another Era
While it may not be as well-known, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel evokes the awe-and-wonder of other majestic urban spaces, like New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, with echoes of the past that while cliché, make it feel as if one has stepped back in time.
We may know something about Scott and the famous guests that have walked through its doors, but little about the lesser-known people like Reginald Squires who spent day-after-day, night-after-night to ensure the hotel’s highly regarded reputation was maintained.
As this writer sat at The Booking Office Bar with its cathedral-like drama, indulging in a St. Pancras Sorbet, a unique twist on the European classic Scroppino, made with French clementines that are transformed into a sorbet before being topped with a house-blended vermouth and Champagne, I couldn’t help but wonder what this illustrious hotel would say if its walls could talk. I could almost see the ghostly figure of Scott, with his legacy apparent in so many details, more than 140 years his dream was fulfilled, as well as the ladies in their Victorian bustle dresses strolling through the extremely wide hallways, made as such so they could pass each other without difficulty. And the staff, who during the time, worked under very strict rules and conditions, but in return received a decent pay rate and good benefits like privilege train tickets, busily moving about to please guests of both high stature and otherwise.
But what were their stories? With time travel a fantasy that will likely never be realized, we may never know their secrets, but if you sit still here at the St. Pancras Hotel quietly long enough, you can almost hear the whispers.