The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was a period of prosperity for Britain, nurturing an industrial revolution and spawning a surge in artistic impression, the most remarkable of which are the architectural gems that are now home to some of London’s most legendary hotels. Whether by human or divine intervention, these splendid buildings survived the test of time. Their revival is a marvel, and hopefully, their legacy will remain on for future generations. Meanwhile, this is the time to experience these hotels at their very best. We focus on three of London’s most iconic addresses.
ST. PANCRAS RENAISSANCE
This hotel has got to be one of the most magnificent and audacious examples of Gothic Revival architecture during the Victorian era. Its resplendence is reminiscent of majestic cathedrals, which is no surprise, since its architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), was responsible for building and restoring many of britain’s beautiful houses of worship.
Originally the Midland Grand hotel, its construction began in 1868 and took eight years to complete. The hotel was part of an ambitious plan for Midland Railway’s expansion during the golden age of steam trains. In its heyday, the hotel’s distinguished guests included American inventor and industrialist George Pullman and Commodore Vanderbilt.
The grand staircase of St. Pancras Renaissance
Fortunes change, and after the first World War the hotel became too expensive to maintain, exacerbated by a shortage of bathrooms and 22-inch thick concrete floors that made it impossible to install new plumbing. With stiff competition from newer hotels, the Midland Grand hotel was forced to close in 1935.
In the 1960s, a time when bland architecture was considered “trendy,” the building came under threat of being demolished. Thanks to Poet laureate Sir John betjeman, who led a crusade to preserve the structure, the building was subsequently granted a Grade I listed status by English heritage in 1967. The hotel’s interior restoration began in 2005—a monumental feat involving hundreds of craftsmen, artists, and conservation specialists. The result is nothing short of phenomenal.
The exterior of St. Pancras Renaissance
The lower levels were larger, had high ceilings and lavish furnishings. Proof of the pudding are the exquisitely styled Chamber Club rooms and suites on the first floor. Cathedral windows look out onto the St. Pancras International Station’s concourse, where the gentle hissing of sleek diesel engines signals the arrival and departure of the Eurostar—a treat for trainspotters, a novelty for guests. Symmetrical patterns formed by St. Pancras’ arched ceiling are like works of art, and even more mesmerizing when the morning sun cuts through.
The booking office bar & Restaurant is another important piece of history, so called because it was the original ticket hall of St. Pancras Station. A ticket booth is still there—standing behind a 29-meter long bar that serves cocktails recreated from Victorian recipes. The Soyer au Champagne is a delicious blend of cider brandy, orange liqueur, cherry liqueur, vanilla ice cream and Champagne. Probably due to the high ceilings, the noise levels can be high, but guests can drink and dine in peace in the adjoining Chambers Club.
Indeed, St. Pancras Renaissance is legendary and a fine jewel in british architecture. Its close affinity to St. Pancras International Station, home of the Eurostar and the gateway to continental Europe, makes it even more special. When passengers alight from the train, they are in a sense going back in time. Euston Road, London NW1; +44.20.7841.3540; stpancrasrenaissance.com
The bar and restaurant at St. Pancras
THE LANGHAM LONDON
The hotel was Europe's first purpose-built “grand hotel.” Its beginnings can be traced back to 1865, when it was a florentine palace with 600 rooms, 100 water closets, and 36 bathrooms spread across seven floors (en suite bathrooms did not exist), and the first-ever hydraulic lifts. It soon became the place to see and be seen, its elegant lounges and ballrooms graced by society’s upper crust, dignitaries, and royalty, including prominent artists and writers: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Noel Coward, and William Somerset Maugham, among others.
The entrance to the Langham London
Langham’s glorious days were disrupted by the Zeppelin raids of the first World War, but it was the German luftwaffe bombing of london in World War II which destroyed parts of the building, forcing the hotel’s closure. Post-war langham served a different purpose—as the BBC’s radio recording studio. BBC’s plan to demolish the building in the ’80s to make way for a modern office complex would have been the worst disaster in the hotel’s history, had it not been refused a permit. Saved by the ladbroke Group when it took over the management in 1991, the property was restored to its former splendor, once again attracting famous personalities: Rod Stewart, Elton John, Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford, and more notably, Diana, Princess of Wales.
The flagship of Langham Hotels International, The Langham London went through an extensive restoration to the tune of £80 million to resurrect the grandeur and elegance of a bygone era—from marble pillars and floral arrangements to chandeliers and furnishings.
Artesian Bar at the Langham
Aesthetic and culinary sophistication come together at the Roux at The Landau Restaurant, a collaboration between two-star Michelin chef Michel Roux Jr. and his father, Albert, adding a modern twist to classic French cooking with a dash of British fare. The mood is convivial, the service friendly and efficient.
The Langham has become synonymous with traditional afternoon tea. Served at the Palm Court, it is an occasion to relish for as long as you can. Through the wrought iron jewel-encrusted gates, the eyes are riveted towards the Art Deco-style etched glass mirrors that line the ceilings and walls. A bold, modern take on the splendor of its older self, it has plenty of character and attitude.
Big cities can overwhelm, and london is no exception. So if a cocktail is not your cup of tea, then time spent at the Chuan Spa should do the trick. The tranquil mood and atmosphere soothe the nerves even before the massage begins. but then The langham is one of those places that induces a sense of calm. It is also a place to indulge and celebrate. 1C Portland Place, Westminster, London W1B; +44.20.7636.1000; langhamhotels.com
Mayfair is one of London's most prestigious addresses, and in the heart of this fashionable enclave lies brown’s hotel, once the popular haunt of English literature’s creme de la creme: Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Agatha Christie, and Bram Stoker were among its illustrious guests. It was here that Rudyard Kipling finished writing The Jungle Book, and where Alexander Graham bell made the first-ever telephone call in the U.K. in 1876.
Such is the inimitable legacy of Brown’s Hotel, london’s first hotel founded in 1837 by James brown, who served as lord byron’s valet. Throughout its 175-year history, the hotel evolved in size and reputation—a home away from home for discerning guests. Brown’s’ facade may look much like its neighboring period buildings, and you may not even notice it when you walk past, were it not for the flag of St. George flapping above and the liveried doorman. But it’s precisely this discreet, low-key refinement that places this hotel in a class of its own.
Exterior of the the Brown's Hotel
Originally comprising 11 adjoining Georgian townhouses, Brown’s seven-year refurbishment has updated the hotel to 21st century standards of luxury. Inside, wood-paneled walls retain the sense of tradition, while modern works of art liven up the surroundings. This mix of old and new extends to each room, individually styled and revived with vibrant colors. The suites facing Albemarle Street benefit from floor-to-ceiling windows. The Albemarle Suite, in particular, is trendy but subtle, with a separate lounge area, bedroom, dressing area, and large marble bathroom.
Albemarle Suite at Brown's Hotel
Second only to its reputation as a world-class British institution is Brown’s award-winning traditional afternoon tea. It’s easy to imagine ladies of a bygone era stepping out of horse-drawn carriages, parading their costumes as they enter Brown’s, relishing a langourous afternoon tea ritual peppered with a little discreet gossip.
The English Tea Room at Brown's Hotel
The tradition carries on at The English Tea Room—dainty sandwiches, warm scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam, and a posse of delicate pastries. A tea sommelier selects only premium teas, poured from silver teapots into bone China cups. And if there’s room left, a trolley of scrumptious cakes await.
I happened to choose a table which, I was informed later, was Agatha Christie’s favorite corner, which made perfect sense—from here she could observe all the comings and goings; who came in and with whom. I pictured her sitting upright, observing characters, and plotting scenes, oblivious to the gentle melodies played by the pianist.
The hotel’s HIX Mayfair restaurant serves excellent modern British cuisine, with a menu that changes seasonally, although dishes such as the tender and juicy ham hock is always popular. With attentive staff and a laid-back atmosphere, this is a good place for catching up with close friends and family. Brown’s hotel should be in everyone’s black book. Albemarle Street, London W1S; +44.20.7493.6020; brownshotel.com