|John O'Connor, St Pancras at Sunset (1884)|
Many, but not all, Victorians admired St. Pancras station and hotel. Four factors combined to give it a special appeal: its Gothic architecture, its functionality, its originality, and its comfort. The Gothic revival, which started late in the previous century, had grown out of an interest in the romanticism of the middle ages and had been largely confined to the upper classes. In its early phases, the revival had dictated home and church designs particularly after the commissioners appointed under the Church Building Act (1818) discovered that it was significantly cheaper to build a Gothic church than a Neoclassical one.
Meanness as well as meagreness progressively controlled the design of their churches. Of the 612 churches built for the commissioners, more than 550 were Gothic or some related style.By the time St. Pancras Station and hotel were erected, the Gothic revival was in full swing and while the station itself may appeal for a number of other reasons, the hotel was (and remains) one of the great examples of Victorian Gothic and, therefore, aesthetically pleasing to many, if not most, Victorians. In addition, it is a railway hotel, an enormously functional building designed to service passengers at the height of the railway years. As the railways expanded in the second half of the century, so too did the railway hotels meant to provide accommodation for the weary traveller. And while the St. Pancras Station hotel may have been the most outstanding of these, it was not the first. That honour goes to the Great Northern Hotel at Kings Cross, opened in 1854 and shortly followed, within the month, by the Great Western Royal Hotel (now the Hilton London Paddington). Others followed although over the years they have lost some of their original charm. These included the Grosvenor Hotel at Victoria (1861) and the Charing Cross Hotel (1865).
The Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras (now the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel) opened in 1873, the creation of architect George Gilbert Scott.
Victorians were great train travellers, and the opulence of St. Pancras would have attracted them. It provided all the comforts of home and, in many cases, far greater convenience, for the Midland Grand Hotel was a nineteenth century luxury hotel. It had, what, for its day, were all the modern conveniences including lifts, although the lack of individual bathrooms meant that the facilities had to be shared. Indeed, this, plus the lifts, combined in May of 1883 to cause the death of a patron, Mr. G. J. Smith.
Mr. Smith and his wife were staying in a third-floor room when, at 2.00 in the morning, Mr. Smith apparently needed to use the water-closet. He crossed the corridor, entered a service room, crossed the room and in the dark (the hotel had failed to supply candles to its guests) fell down an open luggage lift shaft.
Perhaps it was the contrast between the religious severity of purpose which according to Clark, characterised Gothic architecture after 1845, and the luxurious appointments inside, that gave the hotel its attraction. What could appeal to the body and soul more than staying in a comfortable, well-appointed Cathedral? Scott, in his Recollections, noted that the hotel “is often spoken of … as the finest building in London,” but he goes on to comment that his “own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose.”
Not everyone was enamoured of the hotel. There were those who felt that Gothic architecture was a purely ecclesiastical form and that to use it for the design of commercial and residential buildings was inappropriate. Some years earlier, Scott’s plans for the Foreign Office were rejected by the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston who, in his reasons offered to the Parliament, said,
It is quite true that I did object to the first plan of Mr. Scott as being Gothic, and on that account not suitable. Gothic architecture is very fit for a church and other edifices, but I hold it to be very unfit for street architecture in a town where unquestionably a great number of our buildings are of a different kind.Scott quickly dismissed such criticism when, in a paper presented to the Yorkshire Architectural Society, he called the “supposition that Gothic architecture is exclusively and intrinsically ecclesiastical” absurd.
St Pancras Hotel
|Trainshed, St Pancras Station|
Another element of appeal, perhaps more in the case of the shed than the hotel, was the natural comparison made to other stations. St. Pancras was bigger and more functional, and certainly more interesting both architecturally and in the engineering of its great roof than Lewis Cubitt’s station at King’s Cross or Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Matthew Digby Wyatt’s Great Western Railway terminus at Paddington.
The major criticisms of the hotel and station tend to revolve around their being seen as a single unit. Lewis and Street, writing in 1875, two years after the Midland Grand hotel opened commented on just this relationship.
Of a class unknown to the last generation are the railway stations, some of the largest edifices of the time, but usually almost hidden by another new class of buildings, viz., the colossal hotels. … No one … can study the way in which most of them are attached to the station buildings which they front without wishing most heartily that the engineer of the one and the architect of the other had worked somewhat more in harmony with each other.In fact, much of the criticism appears to be rooted in an antagonism between architects and engineers and some of it is of fairly recent origin. Sir John Summerson, for example, finds the contrast between station and hotel “ludicrous,” and H.A.N. Brockman suggests that “there is no aesthetic contact whatever between the two.”
Nonetheless, they did exist happily together. The St. Pancras Hotel was first and foremost a railway hotel. As such it was there to service travelers. Thus, its very function lent an air of logic to the joining of the two structures, a logic that Victorians might well have applauded, rooted as it was in sound commercial common sense.
The criticism would, in all probability, not have interested average Victorian travelers. They would have found both buildings to their liking, manly, Dignified, and English. Had they thought about the station and the hotel separately at all, they would undoubtedly have agreed with D. T. Timmins who wrote of the hotel in 1902 that it was “an integral part of the station itself and therefore cannot be treated of separately.”