The St Pancras Hotel was fading and dying when Harry Handelsman, the man who introduced London to cool loft living, went where no other developer dared to tread.
- © Simon Dawson
- © Glenn Copus
He adopted the restoration of the capital's most challenging unwanted child - the neo-gothic "Transylvanian castle" on Euston Road.
'The results are spectacular... interiors of operatic beauty have emerged - all gold leaf, raspberry and renaissance blues'
The epic restoration is now complete - the culmination of a 20-year journey for the developer, which began in Clerkenwell in the Eighties when he bought and converted into flats an Art Deco printworks. In those days he would drive past St Pancras and wonder what would become of this awe-inspiring building.
The day came when he could make his bid for one of London's most ambitious, risky and eye-wateringly expensive renovation projects. He says, with absolute resolve: "I never want to do anything like this again."
Every phone call became a drama, some more epic than others, he explains. "The workmen would ring late into the night to tell me the booking hall ceiling had just fallen down."
But the results are spectacular. Out of the ashes have emerged interiors of operatic beauty - all gold leaf, raspberry and renaissance blues.
Even Sir George Gilbert Scott, the building's Victorian architect, called his prized monument to the railway network "perhaps too good for purpose" as a station hotel. Now reborn and poised to reopen, this luxury colossus will once again become a magnificent watering hole for passengers crossing continents.
The hotel first opened in 1873 but survived only until 1935 (it had three bathrooms serving 300 rooms). From then it was split awkwardly into offices and later abandoned altogether and left to fall into decay.
Handelsman's involvement in the project started in 1997 when he was asked by owner London & Continental Railways to transform 20 rooms into 67 luxurious flats. "That was the extent of our involvement. For me it was the chance to have a small share in a fantastic building," he says.
But when the original partner (Whitbread) pulled out in 2006, his love of this beautiful behemoth was too great to let go, and he took over the whole transformation project.
'Broad corridors radiate from a majestic staircase with 50ft windows and an elaborate vaulted ceiling'
More than £200 million later, and endless sleepless nights, Handelsman, 60, now has a room of his own in the building and takes his meals in the former booking hall, now turned into a sumptuous bar/brasserie. From there he can monitor standards and supervise finishing touches in preparation for the grand opening on May 5. His family remain at home in Hyde Park.
"I think I've achieved my mission to turn the building into London's most beautiful hotel," he says, proud as punch, though without arrogance, and dismisses talk of the gritty King's Cross location being a negative.
A sweeping recobbled carriageway brings residents and visitors to a glass-roofed reception hall that was once a taxi pick-up point. Broad corridors radiate from a majestic central staircase with 50ft windows and an elaborate vaulted ceiling. The first-floor state rooms are the grandest, with high ceilings and tall windows.
Victorian hotels were built for everyone, with rooms getting smaller and cheaper higher up the building, so the aristocracy had suites on the first floor and staff lodged in attic rooms at the top.
The Ladies Smoking Room (daring in Victorian England) has become a gilded function room, while the glamorous old dining room is a Marcus Wareing restaurant.
The painstaking refurbishment, carried out under the eagle eye of English Heritage, was "a monster", according to Geoff Mann, of project architect RHWL. "There's not one room the same in the whole building and we even discovered rooms we didn't know existed."
Connection to the past
Despite much internal desecration, many original features were covered over during previous "renovations". "We'd scrape off a layer of paint and find six more underneath."
Handelsman adds: "Costs escalated but there was no going back. Reproduction wallpaper in one room alone totalled £57,000."
Though the original architectural detailing is immense - including seemingly endless intricate stone and timber carvings, decorative plasterwork and fine wrought iron - Gilbert Scott indulged in a certain playfulness (stone carved lions have ears being eating by dragons).
Handelsman has continued this theme with pieces from his extensive modern art collection, including a Gary Hume abstract painting of supermodel Kate Moss's cleavage that hangs in the hotel's members club.
A man on a mission who saved a dinosaur
Relaxed and cosmopolitan, Handelsman lives in a superb Georgian home overlooking Hyde Park. The son of a Polish holocaust survivor, he was born in Germany and educated in the US, cultivating a taste for property, art and design while working alongside loft-living hipsters in New York in the Eighties.
He arrived in London during the early Nineties recession and set up Manhattan Loft Corporation, possibly the first commercial developer of contemporary loft living in the world.
Having a nose for a deal, he paid £435,000 for a disused printing factory in Summer Street, Clerkenwell, then a lost part of London between the West End and the City, which he split into 23 large loft shells priced at £130 a square foot. It was the start of a "movement". After Clerkenwell came Soho, Bankside, Shoreditch, Docklands, Fulham and Chelsea.
All 67 apartments at St Pancras Chambers were snapped up off-plan four years ago at high prices (from £450,000, or £850 a square foot), almost double the going rate in the area at the time.
© Glenn Copus
Tory party treasurer Lord Fink reportedly paid £10 million for the four-storey penthouse. Today, flats are worth about £1,000 a square foot, with two-bedroom rentals costing from £850 a week, says estate agent Knight Frank.
Many will consider this too pricey for a train station address next to a traffic-clogged main road. However, Marriott, operator of the appropriately named St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, is confident of the location. Rates for the 204 "standard" rooms start at £300 a night and rise to £10,000 for the stately Royal Suite - a price that puts St Pancras on a par with Park Lane.
For his part, Handelsman believes the halo of the new five-star hotel and the cachet of the apartments, underpinned by the two-hour Paris-to-St Pancras Eurostar service, plus the redevelopment of the King's Cross badlands - which is bringing a new campus for Central St Martins College of Art and Design - will indeed make the location a rival to Park Lane.
For outsiders, the "wake up" may come in July 2012 when royals and politicians can set off from St Pancras on a seven-minute train ride to the Olympic Park in Stratford.