Chambers of delight

The Channel rail link will bring thousands of European travellers to St Pancras in 2003. But will its new owners restore the magnificent Victorian building to its former glory?
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The Independent Culture
St Pancras, Roman martyr, Victorian railway terminus and Gothic Revival hotel, is back in the news. This week, the Government is likely to announce that a consortium including Richard Branson's Virgin Group has won the contract to build the high-speed Channel rail link between St Pancras and Folkestone. The consortium, London and Continental, will not only be given a 999-year lease to construct the 68-mile line, but will also develop passenger terminals (formerly stations) at Stratford in east London, Ebbsfleet in Kent and St Pancras in London. The project will cost an estimated pounds 3bn.

In addition to the obligation to undertake these major projects, the winning consortium will also be handed a "dowry" of buildings by the Government and be eligible for grants that could eventually total as much as pounds 1bn. This dowry will include the international terminal at Waterloo and St Pancras Chambers, the former Midland Grand Hotel. Waterloo International is, of course, a new building (designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners) with a long future ahead of it. St Pancras Chambers, on the other hand, remains one of the most important of Victorian buildings and the most threatened.

Penetrating the interior of the old hotel is not an easy business; its current owners do not welcome visitors. This may seem strange since the characterful building, once reviled as the epitome of dire Victorian taste and now a much-loved Grade I listed monument, has recently had pounds 10m spent on the repair of its facade and roof and is a structure any owner should be proud of. The Chambers' once grimy exterior now looks as good as the day it was completed in 1871 to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Yet the interior gives a very different impression.

It is clear to anyone who gets inside that the former hotel retains, potentially, one of the most magnificent Victorian interiors in Britain. The stone, metal and marble principal staircase with its sky-painted vault, emblematic frieze and richly coloured stencilled walls, is well-known. Yet the decorative interior possesses many other rooms with glorious, if mostly obscured decoration and still has most of its original doors, fire and door surrounds and other significant details.

At upper levels, seen by few hotel guests (the hotel closed in 1935) and now virtually inaccessible, there are some of the most exciting 19th- century interiors anywhere. Here are stunning essays in muscular Gothic construction, with castellated tie-beams, huge timber trusses and a magnificent marriage of materials - marble, wood, stone, plaster and paint - together with a quirky mix of architectural styles in which the railway aesthetic of bold, embossed iron girders is juxtaposed with delicate Arts and Crafts patterns and Gothic traceries.

The gold, star-studded sky ceiling above the sweeping main staircase has recently been restored - work that received an award from both the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and English Heritage last year - but in the upper floors, damp still penetrates, feeding the dry rot that is damaging exposed ceiling timbers. The precious original stencilled paint finishes, preserved beneath layers of later utilitarian paint, will soon crumble beyond repair, and even the new paint on the restored staircase ceiling is beginning to lift as damp seeps out of the walls behind. Clearly the repairs to the building must be completed quickly or this highly individual interior will soon be beyond recovery.

But no urgent action over repairs is proposed. The only firm plan is that when the winning consortium is announced, the ownership of the Chambers will be transferred from the British Rail board to the Government, which will in turn hand it down to the successful consortium. As things now stand, this exchange of ownership will take place with no schedule for the completion of repair works or even an agreed future use for the building.

This is not a problem that appears to worry the British Rail board, which seems content to tread water until the monument is taken off its hands. Indeed, a spokesman for the board said last week that the "Chambers are mothballed safely, wind- and water-tight, while the Government decides its future use". A tour of the building last week revealed that this description is more wishful thinking than objective fact.

But what are the opinions of those charged with the protection of this listed building, and what are the views of its future owners? When questioned last week, English Heritage admitted concern about the way the condition of the interior is, or perhaps is not, being monitored, and said that it planned an inspection in the very near future. Yet, as English Heritage pointed out, St Pancras Chambers is luckier than other listed buildings that fall within the area of the Channel Tunnel rail link. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill will enable the construction of the line at the expense of historic buildings standing in its way and with only the most rudimentary consultation with English Heritage and local authorities. Consequently, the spectacular listed gasometers that close the vista north along the great Gothic-arched St Pancras station train shed can be demolished without the need for formal listed building consent when the Bill becomes law.

St Pancras Chambers, along with most of the train shed, is not scheduled within the Bill, and these structures will not lose their current listed status. But, for the station to meet the demands of the new railway age with its 18-car trains, the existing shed will have to be doubled in length and most of the station facilities and infrastructure redeveloped. Quite how a masterpiece of engineering with the definitive quality of William Barlow's shed of 1864-68 can be extended will, no doubt, be one of the major talking points in the transformation of St Pancras into a major, modern European rail terminus. English Heritage has already let it be known that it does not want the existing train shed extended in matching style or even in a contemporary idiom, but wants lower, self-effacing platform canopies.

The company that will undertake the construction of the rail link and take on St Pancras Chambers is Promoco, and will consist of Union Rail, a British Rail offshoot which is now in the process of being privatised, and the winning consortium (either Eurorail or London and Continental). Union Rail, whose role will be to provide technical input, defers, when asked for its view on what should be done with the Chambers, to the Department of Transport, which in turn prefers not to offer any information about the future of the Chambers in advance of the official announcement of the winner of the bid to build the link. The two bidding consortia have been forbidden by the DoT to talk to the press about their bids.

But possible approaches to the re-use of St Pancras Chambers and station can be guessed at by contemplating the organisations and consultants that make up London and Continental. It is an engineering- and transport-led consortium with team members including Bechtel, the US construction company, Ove Arup and Partners (British engineers), Sir William Halcrow and Partners (civil engineers), Systra (part of SNCF, the French state railway, and responsible for running the TGV network in France and Spain), the National Express bus group and Virgin Group. London and Continental has also employed a number of "signature architects" as consultants, including Sir Richard Rogers. A spokesman for London and Continental last week waxed lyrical about both station and Chambers: "The London and Continental approach is to maximise the potential of the route to create a great railway. We need a splendid gateway to London, and St Pancras station is a fabulous gateway. As for the interior of the Chambers or a future use, we don't yet know."

The obvious use for the Chambers is the one for which it was built - a hotel. The King's Cross area is not, perhaps, what it was when the railways arrived here in the 1840s; yet, if the area is not salubrious, it is certainly central and has some of the urban excitement found around the Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est in Paris. British Rail recently attempted to devise a scheme for restoring the Chambers as a hotel which involved transforming the undercroft on which the station stands into a high-class retail area so as to improve its immediate environs and to secure any future hotel a high star rating.

This seems an idea worth pursuing. What must not happen is for the Chambers to be in limbo for the next seven years while the rail link is constructed. There is no question that the Chambers will become a vastly valuable piece of property when travellers start flooding into St Pancras from all over Europe in 2003, but if its interior is not secured now there will be little of the original left for them to appreciate. If this is the case, then St Pancras Chambers will become a monument to British incompetence and philistinism.