This article originally appeared on LondonLovesBusiness.com on 14/03/2012
The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel is one year old. Its story is one of blood, sweat and tears, and the dogged determination of a non-Londoner who until this project, renovated lofts
Hipsters and Harry Potter fans the world over owe a lot to Harry Handelsman. Both have had their experience of London shaped – saved even – by the German-born art collector turned property developer.
The man who brought loft-living to London in the early nineties, regenerating urban wastelands across the city and making a fortune along the way, has spent the best part of the last decade redeveloping St Pancras Chambers, transforming it into the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
The story of its restoration, however, is one wrought with twists and turns – as is the building’s history itself. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), the hotel was, for a time, the best of its day – a shining example of the grand Victorian railway era. But the post-war years saw its gradual decline in popularity until the 1960s when there was talk of demolishing completely.
Thankfully the hotel was saved and granted Grade 1 Listed Status. From there, it lived on as the headquarters for British Rail until the 1980s when it failed health and safety regulations and British Rail were made to evacuate.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s when English Heritage and British Rail funded a £20m restoration of the building’s roof, that St Pancras came to life again.
Now it stands proud as London’s most fashionable hotel with its apartments home to celebrities like supermodel Lily Cole.
But the journey has been a long and expensive one. So complicated became the project in fact, the hotel’s original developers Whitbred pulled out, leading to Handelsman purchasing the building and personally financing the project to the tune of £200m.
So how did the son of a Polish financier, educated in Germany, Paris and Canada, end up with one of London’s most iconic buildings on his hands – the building John Betjemen once said was “too beautiful and too romantic to survive”?
“My initial involvement was to be responsible for the roof space, to create 20 apartments, and that was exciting, because I knew the building of course – I’d driven past it many times. But they were tiny rooms that needed to be introduced into dwellings.
“Normally I would have said no, but the privilege to regenerate St Pancras, I couldn’t turn it down,” explains Handelsman in his pan-European drawl.
To understand how and why Handelsman and his company, the Manhattan Loft Corporation (MLC), were invited to tender, one needs to only take a stroll through areas such as Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Soho or Bankside.
Anyone familiar with London of yesteryear will marvel at the redevelopment and gentrification of these areas, but rewind the clock 30 years and they looked very different. Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, once dilapidated no-go areas, are now commercial hubs – with Shoreditch earmarked as the heart of London’s burgeoning ‘Silicon Roundabout’ scene.
It was back in 1992, with Britain in the throes of recession, that Handelsman bought an old industrial building in Clerkenwell for £435,000 – a snip at 20 per cent of its original asking price. Why? Inspired by the renovated lofts and attic spaces breeding a new style of urban living in New York, Handelsman decided to try and do the same in London, and so developed the buildings into 23 loft apartments.
Today it seems obvious. Back then it was revolutionary. The apartments sold quickly, fetching between £75,000 and £245,000 and London lapped it up. The Manhattan Loft Corporation established itself.
This was the first of many projects helping to inspire waves of regeneration through London as developers and residents discovered the hidden potential of many of the city’s old Victorian buildings.
Handelsman’s commitment to London throughout the nineties was so great it earned him two coveted spots. The first in 2000 when he was listed eight places ahead of the Queen in Time Out’s Power 100 as one of the “real rulers” of London and then of course into the Sunday Times Rich List where in 2009 he was valued at £35m.
But while one wave of developments helped grow his fortune, another has shrunk it. For the time being at least, his investment in St Pancras Renaissance Hotel means he no longer features in the Rich List. When a journalist asked about this two years ago, he answered simply: “I like it better this way.”
There were difficult times though. “At times I had to raid my daughter’s piggy bank,” he tells me laughing, before explaining how the cost of the development “totally escalated” because parts of the building turned out to be far less structurally sound than originally thought.
“Our budget went through the roof, but I felt very committed and didn’t want to abandon what I felt to be very important.” So he turned to the “family trust” and managed to secure the investment needed to carry on.
Originally, MLC was to do 20 loft conversions and Whitbred the other apartments and the hotel. But for Whitbred, says Handelsman, the hotel’s location was too much of an issue – “they felt the viability for a hotel in that location was suspect.”
Instead Whitbred suggested MLC develop more of the building into apartments, “they asked us to do more floors, not just the top floor but also the second and third, and this was much easier, we just needed to refurbish them to a fantastic quality, but costs were immense.”
But Handelsman believed fully in the project. We knew we could make it commercially viable, he says adamantly – “for us the geography of the location was fantastic, being equidistance of the west end and the city makes it a fantastic area.”
At this point Whitbread decided to extend part of the building, looking for an opportunity to create an extension where they could add more rooms. But English Heritage and The Victorian Society refused. “We fought incredibly hard,” explains Handelsman growing passionate. They fought so hard they were eventually granted permission to build the extension.
The extension wouldn’t come cheap though. They were only granted permission on the grounds they kept the style exactly faithful to the original – even areas that couldn’t be seen. It cost £45m, and at this point Whitman pulled out completely, selling the brand back to the Marriot.
“So I was left with 67 apartments still to develop and no hotel partner. Not doing the hotel wouldn’t have been an option,” says Handelsman matter-of-factly. “We approached London Continental Railways [who own St Pancras railway station] and said we will do the hotel and then we approached the Marriot.”
Marriot International agreed. MLC developed the apartments and sold them within a £500,000-£10m price range.
The revenue of the apartments helped finance the hotel’s restoration and seven years after planning permission was granted, the hotel opened on 21 March 2011. With 245 rooms, two restaurants, including Marcus Wareing’s The Gilbert Scott, and a stunning lobby doubles up as gallery, the hotel has been almost fully booked since opening.
For now, (alongside other developments which include the Stratford Tower – a mixed use development that Handelsman promises will be “the best built ever”) – Handelsman is focussing on his other love, art.
The St Pancras lobby has become an extension of Handelsman private collection (which is reported to boast works by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor among others), and showcases work by both established and emerging artists, including the final works by the late Gerald Laing.
The fruit of this labour is St Pancras Editions, Handelsman’s latest venture which commissions and sells limited edition prints and sculptures from new and existing works, available to view in the hotel lobby.
The lobby is open to the general public, and they’re invited to visit. This is a significant point for Handelsman: “It’s very important for London to offer St Pancras back to Londoners, back to the public,” he tells me more than once.
Well, on behalf of those Londoners, thank you very much Harry.