Victorian Grande Dame Reborn: St Ermin’s Hotel, London
By Marc Kristal
British double agent Guy Burgess passed government secrets to Russian spies in the bar. MPs arrived in the lobby via a secret tunnel connected directly to Parliament (for illicit liaisons as well as lavish luncheons). Winston Churchill convened a special covert operations council there, and guerilla warfare training classes (Noel Coward was an attendee) were conducted in the public rooms. And last April, the storied St. Ermin’s Hotel, a Victorian-era grande dame in the heart of London’s Westminster district, officially reopened its doors (following a $50 million revivification) to a new century of adventurers armed with BlackBerries, iPads, and all of the tools of business- and leisure-travel intrigue.
Aesthetically, the 331-room St. Ermin’s – the most recent property from the France-based MGallery hotel group – remains as extravagant as its history. Originally a luxury apartment building (known in England as “mansion flats”) constructed on the site of what had been a monastery, it received a hotel conversion in 1900; the architect, J.P. Briggs, was renowned for designing a number of theatres (including the Savoy, and Tunbridge Wells opera house). And it shows: The double-height lobby, with its low-ceilinged mezzanine and broad grand stair, is an architectural wedding cake of ornate plasterwork (cherubs, caryatids, medallions, swags), undulating balustrades, and colorful mosaic tile that seems deliberately contrived to showcase grand entrances and see-and-be-seen opening nights. Not surprisingly, given the multiple renovations that mark the hotel’s history, the guest accommodations are equally quirky: large suites have closet-sized bathrooms, small rooms are topped off by soaring ceilings, walls slide away at intriguing angles.
At the same time, the design’s elaborateness and eccentricity are balanced by a gracious forecourt (flanked by colorful gardens), the clubby intimacy of the Caxton Bar, and a contemporary interior design scheme, by Los Angeles-based Dayna Lee, emphasizing pattern, texture and materiality. The service, too, remains a mix, of what one of the hotel’s executives characterizes as “British professionalism and American approachability.” (There are also fourteen spaces, including the grand Crystal Ballroom, for business and celebratory occasions.)
The M in MGallery stands for “memorable,” and as with the St. Ermin’s, the company seeks to differentiate the properties in its portfolio (nearly fifty of them, in twenty countries) by developing hotels with historic backgrounds and highly individual styles, set in striking locations, and featuring distinctive interior design schemes. The objective, according to MGallery’s “ambassador,” the actress Kristin Scott Thomas, is an “original, personal, and special” collection of hostelries that derive their “soul” from this rich amalgam of parts. In the belief that a hotel should be, not only a place to stay, but part of a sojourner’s larger travel experience, MGallery also offers, at each property, a so-called “memorable moment” meant to capture the location’s defining spirit – in the case of St. Ermin’s, a private guided tour of Westminster Abbey (easily booked at the front desk), which is a five-minute walk from the hotel. Reinforced by the hostelry’s proximity to such touristic landmarks as Buckingham Palace, St. James Park and, most delightfully, the reassuringly solemn bong of Big Ben (in the clock tower of Westminster Palace), the multi-hour tour through centuries of British history marries the St. Ermin’s indelibly to the London of legend.
St Ermin’s Hotel, Caxton Street, London SW1H
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.