Monday, May 09, 2016

St Pancras Station and Hotel

John O'Connor, St Pancras at Sunset (1884)
With the expansion of capital and the emergence of the entrepreneurial middle class, Gothic architecture began to appear in more commercial buildings.  Much of its appeal to the middle class was, in the early days of Victoria’s reign, its romantic medievalism and its apparent simplicity. It could be judged by human, emotional criteria.  Its appeal lay in its “dignity” or its “manliness.”  One did not need, in order to criticise it, to waste time as Kenneth Clark notes, “in learning to pronounce Chiaroscuro.” Even so, much that can only be described as “trash” was erected in the name of the Gothic Revival, and the reason it was neglected for so long, again according to Clark,  “is that it produced so little on which our eyes can rest without pain.”

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.

Grand Staircase
St Pancras Hotel
If the hotel was “without rival … for palatial beauty, comfort and convenience,” as one writer noted in 1897, the station itself had a separate appeal.  St. Pancras Station, which opened in 1868, having been supervised by the engineer, William Henry Barlow, appealed to Victorians in much the same way as model factories, locomotives, and exhibitions of modern machinery, all things which attracted Victorians in record numbers to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the 1862 International Exhibition. But Scott's role was lauded, at the time of his death, by The Times which declared that "Scott produced in the Midland Station at St. Pancras the most beautiful terminus in London, remakable alike for its convenience and its imposing effect."

Trainshed, St Pancras Station
The station was both functional and innovative and its functionality was increased by its originality.  The great roof, spanning 240 feet and 105 feet high at its apex was the culmination of railway shed construction.  By its size and structure, the shed allowed trains, passengers, cabs and luggage to move in dry and commodious surroundings; an appeal to the tired traveler that cannot be overlooked.

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.”


Jane Steen said...

Love this post! I have happy memories of the Grosvenor Hotel in the 1980s, when I lived abroad but frequently traveled to London on business. The rooms at the Grosvenor were huge in those days--the bathrooms (attached) were old-fashioned but also commodious.

In the late 90s, I booked myself into the Grosvenor and discovered to my dismay that the room I got was the standard London closet-sized affair--I guess they modernized.

I'm also always impressed by how much of the railway infrastructure is still Victorian. There are huge brick-lined tunnels all around the hilly suburbs which were built well over a hundred years ago and are still holding up well. There are little Victorian red-brick stations all over the countryside. The Victorians were masters of building in brick, and they built to last.

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Camille de Fleurville has pointed out to me that there is a mention of the clock on the St Pancras hotel in E. M. Foraster's Howards End. Although this is referenced through one of the characters, there is an earlier comment in Forster's voice where he refers to the "facile Splendours of St. Pancras."