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Inside Pandora’s Box

The arrival of high speed rail services did not quite complete the rebirth of London’s St Pancras station. Mark Hansford reports on the final challenge of restoring and reopening the Gothic glory that is Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel.

St Pancras station is one of London’s most iconic buildings - with its gothic revival exterior, a signature setting in the Harry Potter films and its stunning interior used in Batman Begins and by the Spice Girls in the video for their debut hit Wannabe.

Yet few realise that this stunning façade is not that of the station at all - but of the Sir George Gilbert Scott-designed Midland Grand Hotel. Even fewer realise the building has lain vacant since 1986, and indeed was last used as a hotel in 1934.

This all about to change. With St Pancras station and its refurbished Barlow train shed now providing the stunning terminus for High Speed 1, this once neglected part of north London is vibrant, and the hotel building a prime piece of real estate.

“The structure is not consistent and rooms have different ceiling heights and wall thicknesses Every room is different”

Simon Frawley, Galliford Try

It was unlikely to stay empty for long. And it won’t. Boutique hotel and property chain Manhattan Loft Corporation is nearing the end of a challenging six-year, £478M project to transform it into a deluxe hotel and flats.

Complex building

The price tag alone gives some indication of the challenges faced by the client, and its contractor Galliford Try. Starting with an original estimate of £315M, with £103M for the contractor’s efforts, this has soared to the current £478M, with Galliford Try now being paid £200M for its work. Clearly this was no ordinary refurb.

The complexity stems from its initial construction in the 1870s. The building was, frankly, a basket case from the off. Built as an entirely independent structure from the Barlow train shed, it is bizarre to say the least, explains Galliford Try Construction South managing director James Armitage.

“It opened in 1876 as a 500 to 600 bed hotel, but financially was a disaster - it didn’t have any toilets; there were just eight bathrooms; a fireplace in every bedroom for heating; and just one hydraulic lift. Within 20 years it was obsolete,” he says.

Obsolete as a hotel, and with no plumbing worthy of the name, high ceilings, walls galore and chimneys running everywhere, it was pretty useless when it came to be used as an office building too.

From 1934 to 1986 British Rail used it sporadically, but that did it few favours.

“British Rail vandalised the building, basically,” says Galliford Try project director Simon Frawley. “They punched holes through the walls and installed suspended ceilings throughout the areas they used,” he says.

Two good things have happened to the building since it was abandoned as a hotel, however. First, in 1965 English Heritage gave it a Grade I listing. Second, in 1994 its roof was reslated to stop it falling into terminal disrepair. But still no permanent use could be found until Manhattan Lofts came on the scene and took on the restoration challenge.

And challenge is the right word, says Armitage. “Structurally it is mass brickwork with a timber roof. But it is difficult to see where the loads are transferred, which makes it very difficult to analyse,” he explains. “It was difficult for our engineers to see how the loads flow through the building. So we proved it worked structurally and then tried to leave it alone as much as possible. We’ve added new floors and lift shafts but have been very careful not to change the loading pattern.”

More quirks

This was done early in the project, which is just as well as once work on the rooms began more and more quirks became apparent. “Every room is different,” says Frawley. “The structure is not consistent, and rooms have different ceiling heights, different wall thicknesses. There has been a huge amount of discovery. We’ve found rooms nobody knew existed. Most recently we took up a floorboard up on the first floor and found two unlit spaces the size of a Portakabin. But because the storey heights are so different we hadn’t spotted it.”

“Another time we found a space about 2m wide when drilling a hole in the wall that didn’t come through to the other side. Other than that we’ve found load-bearing walls on one floor that don’t follow down to the next, and other load-bearing walls that get thicker as you go up the building.”

The whole design team, including sub-consultants, has been kept on site so they are on hand to assess problems as they arise. The client also has a permanent on-site presence.

“We have been challenged daily,” says Manhattan Loft project director Harry Handelsman. “It is a really difficult project. It is such a special building that it becomes a labour of love and a frustration in the same breath. And there have been a lot of frustrations. But we’ve broken the camel’s back and I’m feeling a bit more confident now.”

In total there will be 244 rooms in the new hotel, although only around 100 of them will be in the original building. The remainder will be in a brand new west wing that has been erected alongside the St Pancras train shed. This was quite a challenge in itself, says Armitage. The steel-framed building is just single-skin clad.

“The weight being imposed on the foundations was a big issue because they are lots of Tube lines beneath us and we had to be careful not to increase the loads on the tunnels,” he says.

Original features

Back in the original Grade I listed building, all the original features are being retained, making for some interesting room transformations. The old ticket hall is being turned into a bar; the old taxi rank into the lobby; and some of the more unusual rooms on the top three floors turned into 67 deluxe apartments.

With work being carried out largely “top down” these apartments were finished first and many are already let, meaning work continues full pelt on the hotel but with absolute controls on noise and disturbance.

And that work has been highly labour intensive, with 50 project managers, 550 skilled labourers and a multitude of artisans needed to ensure all work could be done using traditional techniques. “We’ve got something like two dozen lime plasterers here, which is probably the lion’s share of that skill in the country,” says Frawley.

English Heritage’s philosophy was clear - either restore exactly as was, make any changes reversible, or simply cover over what is there.

So in seven high profile areas, rooms are being painstakingly restored to their Victorian splendour right down to their fixtures and fittings. One ceiling in what will be a private dining room is demanding three months of specialist painting. Elsewhere heritage issues are managed by installing en-suite bathrooms as pods that simply sit in the corners of rooms.

That still doesn’t mean it is straightforward. “There are still plenty of challenges ahead,” says Handelsman. Galliford Try aims to finish by the end of November to allow the hotel to open next spring.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Hats off to the whole team, I have often admired this building and hope for the day when someone would be brave enough to take on the project. There are some outstanding buildings in our cities and it is fantastic to see this level of project commitment and professionalism to restore structures using traditional techniques and forming the successful marriage of new and old.

    Well done to the whole team
    C.Cooper

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