IT IS SAID THAT RAILWAY STATIONS were the cathedrals of the 19th century. That makes the Great Eastern Hotel something of a 21st-century sacristy. Built in 1884 above and around the Liverpool Street train station in the East End of London, the elegant red-brick edifice embodied the romantic confidence of the late Victorians. As restored and reinvented by London-based architectural firm the Manser Practice, with interiors and graphic design by Conran & Partners, it’s become a modern British classic.
One of the grand terminal hotels of railway’s golden age, the Great Eastern was designed by Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament (a second wing was added to the hotel 17 years later by the less architecturally renowned Colonel Robert Edis). Its fortune, alas, declined with the era of glamorous train travel. By 1995, when Manser Practice principal Jonathan Manser spotted an ad in the Estates Gazette announcing that the Great Eastern was for sale, the building had fallen into seedy disrepair.
Still, it was at tremendously valuable piece of real estate. The Great Eastern is the only hotel within The City’s Square Mile, London’s financial center and Europe’s business capital. More than 51 million people pass through Liverpool Street station every year, and the area borders the fashionable neighborhoods of Hoxton and Shoreditch, known for burgeoning art scenes. In addition, the hotel had plenty of space well-suited to restaurants, which the locale was short on. Manser approached Arcadian Hotels (now owned by U.S. company Wyndam International) with a proposal to refurbish the hotel, and they subsequently invited Sir Terence Conran’s real estate company, Conran Holdings, into joint partnership on the venture. In 1997 refurbishments began, continuing for three years at a cost of over $112 million.
The expense has more than paid off, and while impressive measures were taken to preserve historical details–the team worked closely with English Heritage, the U.K. government’s main branch for historic properties–there’s nothing retrograde about the reborn Great Eastern. Throughout the hotel, contemporary design nests in classic Victorian architecture, and extravagant details are juxtaposed with simple styling. In a neighborhood where culture and commerce live youthful cheek by elderly jowl, it’s a harmonious, and very British, marriage of contradictions.
A new entrance leads into the recently built central lobby with a six-story rotunda (nicknamed the Baby Guggenheim for its likeness to the New York museum’s spiraling ramp). Beyond, an elevator shaft provides access to all floors and to both the east and west wings–previously it was not possible to cross between the two without going outside. In the new lobby, plaster reliefs by artist John Atkin, inspired by locomotive parts, adorn the perimeter of a space clustered with Mies van der Rohe Brno chairs and chocolate-brown wool boucle Perobell sofas strewn with fake fur throws and scatter cushions. The walls are paneled in American walnut, the floor is marble, and the overall tone is one of casual luxury. “The use of materials, the detailing, the internal references all deliberately trade on the historical background of the hotel and luxury travel,” says Manser. “It’s all about polished timber, leather, and chrome, the materials that gave the 19th-century empire its backbone.”
Conran’s designers based concepts for the 267 guestrooms on the traditional attire of City businessmen and their Victorian forebears. No two rooms are alike; the customization, according to Richard Doone, Conran & Partners’s managing director for the project, “was about taking advantage of the quirkiness of the original building.” Thus one room has a blood-red-painted foyer and dressing room, anothera wood-lined walk-in closet that recalls a humidor; some rooms have fireplaces, others original moldings or chandeliers. Some of the rooms on the top floor have barreled porthole windows big enough to sit in, while the 21 suites on the lower floors feature high ceilings and unique furniture pieces (a Philippe Starck chair here, a Tom Dixon Jack light there) and a choice of open plan or traditional layout. Standard fixtures include classic Eames EA106 chairs, giant linen antimacassars, Frette bed linens, 1930s chrome desk lamps, vanity units with integrated hairdryers and mirrors, and Matthew Hilton sofas and chai rs upholstered in quality suit fabrics (pinstripe, houndstooth, Prince of Wales check) with bed valences to match, the latter secured with cufflinks. The business suit references carry over to the corridors, where the carpet patterns range from pinstripe to herringbone. This clever conceit adds up to a rather masculine ambience: “It wasn’t our intention,” says Doone, “but given the references it was probably inevitable.”
Back down on the the ground floor, where a hairdresser, a dance studio, and various cheap snack shops squatted for years in the hotel’s formerly resplendent function rooms, the Great Eastern now offers six restaurants designed by Conran & Partners, splendid in their variety and synthesis of past and present. The hotel’s boys’-club feel reaches its zenith in George, a bar featuring carefully restored oak paneling, Georgian wired-glass windows, communal tables, and tankards hung around one of the hotel’s original function rooms. Contrast this with Miyabi, a sedate 28-seat, bamboo-finished Japanese restaurant; or Terminus, a contemporary updating of a classic railway brasserie, with shiny black granite bar and picture windows facing the street. Then there’s the elegant Fishmarket Champagne Bar, where a horseshoe-shaped bar clad in aquamarine and silver mosaic tiles sets off the original wood-paneled walls. Fishmarket’s adjoining sister restaurant features sea-green walls, plaster cherubs on the ceiling, and an impressive altar of seafood set before white linen draped tables.
The Great Eastern’s signature restaurant, however, is Aurora; it dates back to 1884, when it was known as the most popular place in town for high tea. Restored with meticulous care, the 176-seat restaurant features ornate moldings on the ceiling, while columns and painted friezes above the windows form a backdrop to its most striking feature: a massive stained-glass dome that stretches across the entire central portion. When back-lit at night, the room is nothing short of stunning.
In a period when high-concept boutique hotels have sprung up on every cosmopolitan corner, the new Great Eastern might have been dismissed as an off-the-beaten-track business hotel with delusions of hipness. As Manser puts it, “the massive quality of the building and the materials used are the antithesis of the normally transient nature of hotels. This hotel feels rooted in something much more permanent.” The Great Eastern is dead–long live the Great Eastern!