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A Renaissance for Gothic?

2011 April 10
by martin dubois

Midland Grand Hotel

The Midland Grand hotel beside London’s St Pancras station is about to re-open – 76 years after closing its doors to its last paying guests. Following a £200million refurbishment, this most extraordinary of Victorian Gothic edifices, renamed the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel London, is now taking reservations ahead of its official opening in May. The occasion represents an extraordinary reversal in the building’s fortunes. When the Midland Grand first opened in 1871, it was the smartest of the Victorian terminus hotels, elaborately designed and richly decorated, having cost fourteen times more to build than its nearest competitor at King’s Cross. None of this was enough to ensure its survival in the twentieth century. Following the hotel’s closure in 1935, George Gilbert Scott’s building was converted to use as offices for the railway company. Partitioning and suspending ceilings now obscured the grandeur of the original design. Worse was to follow. Such was the distaste for the Scott’s building among officials of British Rail that it was lined up for demolition in the 1960s, and saved only by the impassioned protests of its admirers, most famously the poet laureate, John Betjeman. Since the removal of the railway offices in the 1980s it has stood empty, looming purposelessly over one of London’s busiest travel interchanges, the limit of its employment being as a location for the filming of scenes for Batman, Harry Potter, and the Spice Girls’s first pop video.

All that is now changing. And with it, seemingly, attitudes to Victorian Gothic. The building’s twentieth-century detractors found the flamboyance of the High Gothic style tasteless and embarrassing, sensing in it Victorian extravagance and excess. Its new owners trumpet the very same as a quality. Marriott International promise that ‘Guests can continue to re-live the glamour of the Victorian era’ while sipping on ‘signature Victorian cocktails’ in the new Booking Office Bar, which ‘towers over its guests like a great Gothic hall at Hogwarts’. More seriously, substantial efforts have been made to retain and renovate the many ornate original features. Scott’s arresting stone cantilevered staircase has been sandblasted and the balustrade polished. The ‘Ladies Smoking Room’, the first of its kind in Europe, has been immaculately restored as an event room. Reinstating the original decoration has proved an expensive business: working from a fragment discovered there, it cost £47,000 to replicate the Victorian wallpaper design in a single room. There are inevitably compromises along the way—fitted carpets are ubiquitous, and some romantic murals have been papered over—but there is no doubting the developers have been committed to recovering the splendour and majesty of the first hotel.

Does all this herald a corresponding return for the values which inspired Victorian Gothic? Some commentators appear to think so. Kieran Long in the Evening Standard contends that ‘there is a similar sensibility at work to that of the architectural romantics of the 19th century’ in contemporary appreciation for their buildings: ‘We want to know that public architecture can provide a setting for the things we care about that go beyond shopping, beyond work, and beyond subsistence.’ The newspaper’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, cites Sir John Betjeman’s remark that the Midland Grand Hotel was ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ the agitation in the 1960s for its demolition. Given the time and money spent on its restoration, Moore sees that Betjeman was wrong: ‘it has survived for precisely these reasons.’

One wonders, though, how far the vision of Neo-Gothic framing such plaudits matches that held by George Gilbert Scott. The building certainly bears the mark of romantic influence, but it was also an unapologetically commercial venture. Scott seems to have had few of Ruskin’s qualms about the spoliation of landscape by the railways and willingly entered into the Midland Railway’s attempt to trump its rivals. Though Scott owed much to Ruskin’s influence, the architect’s preference for Gothic was more malleable than that of the writer who inspired it. Scott’s revivalism was of a subtly different order. As Simon Bradley observes in his brilliant history of St Pancras Station, ‘Scott sought only to reform architecture, not to overturn the foundations of the society it served. If the Midland Railway raised capital to carry itself to London and sought to build the grandest hotel in the realm to proclaim this fact, it was none of his business to question the hows or the whys. In this sense the Midland Grand can be said be said to epitomise the failure of the Gothic Revival as an instrument of radical reform, as Pugin and Ruskin had in their different ways envisaged it.’

Amid the newspaper talk of romance and beauty, of a return to revivalist ideals, we would do well to recall the versatility and adaptability of Scott’s particular style of Neo-Gothic. The Gothic Revival was an architectural movement which in practice lent itself to considerable diversity. Scott’s accommodations with the demands of modern travel and commercial enterprise with the Midland Grand building superbly evidence such diversity. In that sense, the concessions made by the new hotel’s developers to the expectations of business travel in the twenty-first century are fully in keeping with the spirit of the building as it was originally conceived. For all the romance of his design, Scott saw the necessity of moving with as well as against the times.

By Martin Dubois

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