Clare Mendelle – My Favourite Building

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So which building is your favourite?

What used to be the Midland Grand Hotel, which sits on Euston Road in St Pancras.

Do you think that’s an obvious choice – or do you reckon it’s a hidden gem?

Probably a fairly obvious choice now, or back in the 19th Century, but arguably something of a hidden gem for a good few decades in the 20th Century.

Can you tell us a little about its history?

It started life back in 1865, when a competition was held by the Midland Railway Company for the design of a new, grand hotel to be built next to the (still under construction) St Pancras railway station. The winner of the competition was one George Gilbert Scott, a prolific architect who ignored the brief for a 150-bed hotel and instead designed a luxurious, 300-bed establishment. Unfortunately, a bigger hotel meant higher construction costs, and so the proposed 5th floor was never built.

It opened to guests in 1873 and, by the standards of the day, contained state-of-the-art innovations such as hydraulic lifts, fireproof construction, and flushing toilets. However, in the 1860s, the sweeping infrastructure programme that brought us modern sewage disposal methods was still a few years off – meaning that ensuite bathrooms were not included. In no small part this led to the hotel’s demise; huge numbers of staff were required simply to manage the ‘bathroom situation’, meaning unsustainable operating costs. The hotel sadly closed its doors in 1935 and remained vacant until it was converted into an office building – the St Pancras Chambers – after the Second World War.

In the 1960s the building was saved from plans to demolish it by the actions of Jane Hughes Fawcett, who furiously campaigned to preserve Victorian buildings, and thankfully for us it received a Grade I listed building status. It was then used as an office building by British Rail until it was closed in the 1980s.

It took another 25 years before it was restored it to its original purpose as a hotel, reopening its doors as the St Pancras Renaissance in 2011. Now we’re almost 150 years on from when it first opened and, in my view, it remains one of London’s finest architectural masterpieces.

What about your history with the building – what is your first memory of it?

As a young child in the 1980s, when the redevelopment of the Kings Cross & St Pancras area was still a few decades away, we would regularly drive through Kings Cross on our way home from town. Even when derelict the building was incongruous with its surroundings – its curving red brick façade seemed to be a remnant from a bygone age. I remember my dad telling me all about its history and being very disappointed that I’d never get the chance to see it in its full splendour as a hotel (or so I thought!). It was then that I fell in love with this very grand but sadly neglected building.

Is it the inside or outside that does it for you?

Absolutely the outside –I’ve shamefully never seen the inside. When it reopened, I promised myself I would stay there to quell my inner child’s disappointment, but as I live so close it’s always seemed an extravagance. One of these days I will stay a night, and then hop on the Eurostar to Paris!

How do you think lawyers feel about it?

I’m sure they appreciate its beauty, but it’s no doubt caused a lot of grief for lawyers over the years. It closed in the 1980s due to serious structural and fireproofing concerns – issues that are just as relevant for construction lawyers today, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Nothing’s perfect though, is there anything you would change about it?

Certainly nothing about the outside – the inside remains to be seen!

Do you think it will last?

It has already been saved from destruction once and is now recognised as an iconic example of Victorian gothic architecture, so I’m pretty confident it will last.

Have you got any others to tick off?

If we’re going worldwide, then the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is fairly high up the list.

Any honourable mentions?

The Royal Courts of Justice. It’s spectacular inside and out.

Dishonourable mentions?

There is a perspective-defying monstrosity just north of Old Street roundabout that I won’t mention by name, but it’s an abomination and I passionately dislike everything about it.

Posted in Our Favourite Buildings.