Lewis Cubitt’s Great Northern Hotel has been rescued from the shadow of St Pancras thanks to a flamboyant refurbishment.
For much of its history, the Great Northern Hotel has seemed a building at odds with the city that has taken shape around it. Designed by Lewis Cubitt, it was completed in 1854 by the same client — the Great Northern Railway — that had built Cubitt’s adjacent King’s Cross Station two years earlier. Within 20 years, however, St Pancras was constructed to the immediate west and whatever glamour Cubitt’s stolid exercise in stock-brick Italianate had carried was comprehensively eclipsed by George Gilbert Scott’s gothic fantasy.
To add insult to injury, the construction of St Pancras also involved the realignment of the road that the Great Northern addressed, robbing the building’s curving footprint of any obvious urban motivation.
The last century treated it no more kindly, with the internal layout being reconfigured to cater for a budget traveller who was prepared to put up with rabbit-hutch quarters, shared bathrooms and a windowless dining room.
Given the building’s location at the entrance to the former rail-lands to the north of King’s Cross, its future was cast into doubt once plans for that area’s redevelopment were first mooted in the 1980s.
Foster & Partners’ 1987 masterplan proposed replacing it with a Eurostar terminal that would fill out the triangle of land between the two existing stations, and demolition of the grade II listed building was still being discussed as recently as 2002 when John McAslan & Partners was faced with the question of how to accommodate a new concourse on the western flank of King’s Cross.
Eventually, the practice struck on a means not just of retaining the hotel but of taking its form as the generative geometry for its own scheme. Now lodged on the perimeter of McAslan’s semi-circular wing, Cubitt’s building enjoys a more considered relationship to its neighbours than at any time since the 1870s.
Next month the hotel is finally set to be fully rehabilitated with its formal reopened in April, 12 years on from its last period of operation. It is now owned and operated by Jeremy Robson’s company RAM, which has invested £42 million in a comprehensive refurbishment designed by Dexter Moren with interiors by Archer Humphryes, the practice which until last year operated under the name David Archer Architects.
Previous leaseholder Argent — the lead developer for the King’s Cross Central site — anticipated that the hotel would continue to be pitched at a budget market. Robson, however, felt that the scale of the transformation afoot in the surrounding area could support a more ambitious offer.
The scheme he has realised includes 91 rooms, substantially larger than those that the plan previously accommodated and each incorporating its own bathroom, which are priced midway between the Ibis that stands half a kilometre down the road at Euston and the palatial St Pancras Renaissance, which operates out of Gilbert Scott’s former Midland Grand.
It steers a course between historical revival and minimalist chic, with occasionally fruity results
Archer Humphryes has backed Robson’s ambition with a scheme that returns something of the glamour of 19th century rail travel to the building. The practice has sought to steer a course between straight historical revival and minimalist chic with results which, on occasion, are pretty fruity but communicate an impressive level of care and invention. It is an interior that one can easily imagine standing little changed in 50 years’ time.
For all the bustle churning around the building, a markedly domestic ambiance takes hold quickly once we are inside. In part, that is a product of the scale of the spaces on the ground floor. Prior to the sale to Robson, Argent undertook enabling works which dropped the floor level to accord with the street but also established an arcade around all but the west-facing facade, substantially reducing the internal area.
Until the resolution of McAslan’s proposals, the arcade was conceived as the main route into the King’s Cross Central site. Now it feels surplus to requirements, but Robson is negotiating permission for the ground floor bar to spill out in the area — a change that would give the hotel a more convincing interface with the wider world.
With its chequerboard floor, mirrored ceiling and chandeliers, the bar feels like a little corner of Manhattan transported to NW1, offering the committed drinker a refuge from 7am until the wrong side of midnight. Taking up the larger part of the available floor area, it consigns the lobby to some very compact dimensions: if more than a couple of guests present themselves at the tiny reception desk at any one time, mobile members of staff have to take their details by iPad.
More grandly conceived is the first-floor restaurant, Plum & Spilt Milk, which looks out over the square in front of King’s Cross that Stanton Williams is in the process of creating while offering extensive views also to the east and west.
High-lacquered walnut chairs, white leather banquettes and tables in richly figured black and gold marble rimmed in brass conjure a more exclusive mood than is encountered on the ground floor.
And yet, as such details as the absence of tablecloths suggest, what is on offer isn’t a fine dining experience but rather a decent meal served speedily enough to meet the needs of a traveller waiting for their train. Prices are just a notch above Carluccio’s.
Rooms in the roof
The loss of bedrooms required to accommodate the restaurant has been offset by the creation of new ones on the top floor through some visually unobtrusive remodelling of the roof. Featuring ceilings that follow the roof slope, these rooms are one of three types on offer.
The standard format is more generous but those on the inner face of the curving plan are masterpieces of gypsy caravan ingenuity: their beds run flush to the walls on three sides but can be reconfigured by a hidden mechanism to allow the hotel staff to make up the sheets.
At £180 a night, the cost per square metre won’t be everyone’s idea of a bargain; but Robson is betting that the luxurious detailing and view will persuade punters to splash out £30 above the price they’d be charged at the Ibis.
Cubitt’s building is hardly a great work of architecture and, if it had fallen to the wrecking ball, a tidier piece of London might have been created in its place. And yet the madcap conjunction of forms and styles that now characterises this gateway to the capital has an energy that you don’t encounter disembarking at the great rail termini of, say, Brussels or Paris.
The Great Northern makes a significant contribution to the sense that you have arrived in the city as soon as you set foot off the train.
Lead architect Dexter Moren Architects
Interior design Archer Humphryes Architects
Structural and mechanical engineer Ramboll
Quantity surveyor MDA
Furniture fittings & equipment Yoo Furnishings