The saintly and the sybaritic: restoring London’s astonishing St. Pancras hotel.
Photograph © Morley von Sternberg http://www.vonsternberg.com
Some buildings are more than mere buildings. They are symbols of something else. Consider the Sydney Opera House. Not great for opera, I’m told, but who cares? It is a confident statement of cultural intent. And this is how I see the Victorian gothic fantasy of London’s Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras Station, which has just been restored at a cost of some £175m and has its grand reopening party on the 5th of May, 76 years since it last took in a paying guest. Nice to see it back in use again as intended. But its real reason for existence is not to lodge well-heeled visitors to London. That’s just an excuse. It is there in order to exude magnificence.
This was the culmination of the construction of the last great intercity railway line of the 19th century. In order to compete with established, rival lines to nearby King’s Cross and Euston, it had to outdo them. King’s Cross was plainly functional. Euston, in those days, was monumentally neo-classical. So for St. Pancras, the Midland Railway directors chose spiky multicoloured gothic. The engineering of the broad single-span trainshed behind by William Barlow and Rowland Mason Ordish was a separate matter. Influenced by the Crystal Palace, it was a high-tech wonder in its time, and is still very impressive today, now it is London’s European rail terminus. But for the architecture of the hotel and other station buildings, they turned to Sir George Gilbert Scott, a fervent Gothicist best known for his big churches and the rampantly over-the-top Albert Memorial. He did not let them down.