Once poverty stricken and a true East End haunt for gangsters, Bethnal Green has undergone significant regeneration in recent years with new apartment blocks, work places and restaurants cropping up alongside the ugly council blocks, dirty pubs and kebab shops that still pepper the area. For first-time buyers priced out of Islington and Shoreditch, and those seeking more for their money, the area is starting to look increasingly attractive - and with a new design hotel recently opened in the neighbourhood, its fortunes can only grow from here.
The Town Hall Hotel and Apartments is the brain-child of thirty-something entrepreneur and hotelier, Peng Loh, who bought the imposing Bethnal Green Town Hotel, a presence in London's East End since Edwardian times, as a derelict building with no planning permission.
The building had been empty for over 15 years when Peng bought it from the council, earning its keep as a backdrop to films, including Atonement, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. After gaining retrospective permission to extend and restore the Grade II listed building, Peng chose Rare Architecture to oversea what was to become a four year, £20 million make-over - all in an area still far from gentrified.
It was a risk by anyone's standards, but for Peng, the chance to breathe new life into the historic town hall was irresistible. "Basically, I fell in love with the building," he explains. "Once I viewed it I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to restore and convert her. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
That the area is not the most salubrious of neighbourhoods "didn't bother me," says Peng, pointing out that weekend markets, art galleries and restaurants such as Bistrotheque and Les Trois Garcons all help to make this part of town a really "vibrant" and characterful place to be.
And while it might seem a bit grimy from the outside, it's worth remembering that Bethnal Green is just one stop from the City and 20 minutes from Bond Street on the Central Line. For city workers on a business trip to London or visitors to the nearby Olympic Stadium in 2012, one of the hotel's 98 apartment rooms, each one different to the last, but all with fully integrated kitchens, architect-designed bathrooms, vintage Scandinavian-style furniture and lighting by Viabizzuno, will no doubt prove a tempting and accessible place to lay one’s head.
Those visiting the hotel can enjoy a happy cohesion between old and new: the 1930s building with Edwardian frontage and New-Classical fine stone frontage has been restored to much of its former glory, with original elements of the building, such as sculptures commissioned from Henry Poole, wide marble halls, dramatic staircases, traditional council chamber and original council meeting rooms all retained. Meanwhile, a modern extension, set back discreetly from the original frontage, forms a new and unusual rear façade covered in a metal "skin", which has been laser-cut in a pattern inspired by the Art Deco metal ornamentation still evident in the remaining Council Chamber. Throughout the building, beautifully restored elements of the past such as maple oak panelling, sash windows and old clocks, combine with modern elements such as glass partitioning, secret cupboards and contemporary artwork from local artists.
For Peng, engaging the local community has been an essential part of creating a viable business. "We want our neighbours to be proud to say they have such a property on their doorstep," he says. "In fact, on a few occasions a year, we are going to let our council chambers and other grand public rooms over to the council and local residents gratis so that they can once again use the town hall facilities for its intended community use."
The contemporary artworks – installations such as the tapestry moose head by Debbie Lawson or tiny wood figures engraved in risqué poses on a panel outside one of the bedrooms by Claire Morgan – were created by artists who each have a working studio in East London, and who were picked to contribute art to the hotel after an open commission scheme run last year by Artsadmin, an Arts Council funded organisation. Says Peng: "Our criteria of working with artists that live or work in the area made sure that we engaged with local residents and young local artists and ensured this landmark building had relevance to the locality."
Local residents can enjoy the hotel bar – a cosy place with more Scandinavian style furniture and a comprehensive cocktail menu – or treat themselves to the dinner at VIAJANTE, the restaurant headed up by leading chef, Nuno Mendes.
Meanwhile they can look forward to a fresh injection of money into this part of town. As Peng says, "We are bringing well over a hundred well-paying jobs into the area, as well as guests who are affluent enough to spend substantial sums in the local shops. I think this bodes well for the neighbourhood."