The reopening of the magnificent Midland Grand Hotel in London's King's Cross this year is eagerly awaited – the culmination of a £150m restoration project that will restore one of the high points of Victorian Gothic architecture to its former glory.
As Gilbert Scott's creation enters a new phase in its extraordinary life, the focus is on the painstaking work that has gone into transforming the hotel back into a major landmark in the capital's life once more.
That narrative obscures perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the hotel's story – how it was saved from demolition nearly half a century ago thanks to campaigners who now look back on what they did with mixed emotions: pride at what they achieved then, dismay at how their deeds risk being forgotten now.
In 1963, Victorian Gothic design was then considered deeply unfashionable. Faced with spiralling maintenance costs, the government threatened to raze the edifice. The man most widely credited with saving the Midland from the wrecking ball (leading it to be mothballed until its reincarnation today) is the late Poet Laureate John Betjeman.
But campaigners now claim that the writer, whose statue greets passengers alighting at St Pancras station, was just a "publicist" for a behind-the-scenes fight. The building's real saviours go unmentioned – and uninvited to glitzy parties for its reopening.
One of the heroes speaks out today. "Betjeman was instrumental because he was good at publicity, but we did all the work," says Jane Fawcett, the Victorian Society's secretary between 1963 and 1976. Now 89, it is Mrs Fawcett and the society's former chair the architectural scholar Nikolaus Pevsner, who should be credited with saving the structure. The pair pursued what Mrs Fawcett calls the "nuts and bolts" of the drive that saw the Midland Grand listed in 1967.
"I think Betjeman was at the vanguard of changing people's attitudes but all I'm saying is we didn't get enough credit for the long slog we had for four years before we managed to get the buildings spot-listed," Mrs Fawcett says. "I think it is fair to say we did the focus of the work... We were the recognised organisation doing the spadework."
From its beginning, the hotel had led a troubled existence. Built in 1868, its £438,000 construction cost was considered extremely expensive. Cutbacks were implemented before it was finished. Visitors today can see empty plinths where statues were planned but never planted. After it opened, the country's railway boom turned to bust. The hotel struggled, and closed in 1935.
Decades later, the hotel became the base for British Railways' catering division and was gutted to provide for the organisation's needs, leaving the spectacular exterior. In the 1960s, the British Railways chair Dr Richard Beeching, proposing to scale back the country's railway network, advocated merging St Pancras and King's Cross stations. According to the historical case files, the Midland Grand was set to be demolished to make room for a new concourse. The nearby station buildings, engineered by William Henry Barlow, were also threatened. The Society, founded in 1958 by a group of friends including Betjeman and Pevsner, mounted an opposition.
"It was dirty and run-down and people couldn't see beyond their prejudice and the dirt," said architectural historian Gavin Stamp, author of Lost Victorian Britain. Stamp joined the Victorian Society as a teenager to help to save St Pancras. "Everyone thought it was hideous."
The Victorian Society has backed the building for 40 years. In the 1960s, it collected letters of support from hotel operators. The society's leaders now claim that Betjeman, a member of the Society, has been given an exaggerated role.
"It's erroneous to attribute saving the building to him," says Ian Dungavell, the Victorian Society's current director. "He wasn't keen on it initially and just went along with the rest of the Society's view and latterly became spokesman for it.
"We were a bit miffed that his statue was put in St Pancras instead of Pevsner's. He was a celebrity, people like supporting celebrities."
Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green, remembers sneaking into the building with her father when she was a child. "We used to wander around it and I remember how dusty and cobwebbed it was," she says. "I remember it being a thing of wonder." She confirmed that her father's role was minor. Although Betjeman had been a passionate supporter of a failed attempt to save the original arch entrance to nearby Euston station, he reportedly said that St Pancras Chambers was "too beautiful and too romantic to survive".
In October 1967, the former Midland Grand was spot-listed as Grade I, in effect protecting it from further demolition threats – the Victorian Society had won, though no one would realise for four decades. "In 1967, few would have given St Pancras a chance," says Sir Neil Cossons, chair of the Royal College of Art, who also campaigned to save the building. "Listing then was its life-saver. It bought time for the public view to catch up, for the lily-livered to have spine put into their backbones."
In the late 1990s, the developer Manhattan Loft, working with London & Continental Railways, announced its intention to restore the hotel. Critics now claim that its redevelopment has succeeded in regaining the original building's cathedral-like majesty.
Last year, 67 private apartments at the building's summit opened. They will be joined by a 244-room five-star hotel, allowing the Midland Grand to check in customers for the first time in more than 75 years.
Stamp claims that the Victorian Society was left out of the developer's launch-party celebrations.
Mrs Fawcett is reserving judgement on the new development: "It's terribly exciting but I suspect it will be very vulgar. Though I'd be interested to see how they've tackled it."Reuse content