Chiltern Firehouse, London
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Archer Humphryes has converted a 19th century Gothic fire station in London’s Manchester Square into a boutique hotel for hotelier André Balazs.
The conversion includes the reinstatement of the original carved stone façade – removed in the 1960s - and the restoration and sensitive extension of the existing Grade II listed building. The resulting ensemble is designed to enhance the dynamic composition and romantic silhouette of the original. The hotel includes a restaurant housed in the former appliance shed and a new five-storey annex with a ground floor Conservatory bar. The hotel, which has become a popular celebrity hang-out, was the winner of the Hotels & Hospitality category of the 2014 New London Architecture Award.
Described by Nikolaus Pevsner as the best surviving Gothic example of early LCC fire stations, the Manchester Square fire station was designed by Robert Pearsall for the Metropolitan Board of Works. Completed in 1879, the station followed the creation of the first publicly funded fire brigade, set up after repeated fires across the capital over the preceding centuries.
Archer Humphryes carefully studied Pearsall’s original drawings before transforming the building into a luxury hotel. The reinstatement of the original Portland stone facade was a pivotal architectural decision, deploying modern methodologies to resolve the exuberant Gothic style. This involved the application of new fluid ogee arches, carved rosettes, articulated gabled buttresses, fluted columns and a crenellated parapet.
A new five-storey tower containing four hotel suites and a ground-floor bar seamlessly joins with the existing building to ensure the character of the site is retained, conceived as a new ‘sister’ sitting alongside the original. The tour de force of the new architecture is a prominent gable end, facing Chiltern Street, complete with a cathedral window featuring inset carved stone trefoil motifs. Bricks are handmade to imperial dimensions, aligning with existing coursing and bonded with precise vertical joints. Steel windows have Portland stone frames and include nine square fanlights with rotated ribbed glass insets.
Manchester Square Fire Station was built in 1887–89 , the result of an act of parliament which created the first publicly funded brigade, after repeated fires across England’s capital over two centuries. A previous London building boom saw Christopher Wren build 52 churches after the Great Fire; building in stone and brick was an important material change, replacing the former Medieval timber structures that had exacerbated the inferno. Wren utilised Vitruvius’ treatise from antiquity, asserting that structures must exhibit virtues of firmitas, utilitas, venustas—that is, they must be solid, useful, beautiful. This provided a useful mantra for modern design in which the archaic function of the fire station would be once again embedded within conspicuous civic history, this time as a ‘hotel’.
The ground floor includes a restaurant housed in the original appliance shed, a conference and meeting room in the former ladder shed and a lobby in the recreation room. Many original interior fittings and features were retained, including the firemen’s poles. The station courtyard is retained and repaved to provide a generous outdoor area for the bar and restaurant. A private dining area is located to the rear, below a new glazed roof light. The gym and hotel back-of-house spaces are housed in the basement.
Archer Humphryes conceive the interior experience as sitting somewhere between ‘museum’ and ‘theatre’. Public areas of the hotel are ornamental and luxurious, with every element designed to enhance the wellbeing and pleasure of the hotel guests. The walls of the conservatory bar are wrapped in bathed honey hues of onyx, cradled below a ceiling of basket panels lined with gilded gold frames. Hand- woven Indian jute ceiling panels are a key feature of the restaurant, while in the reception the architects have deployed dramatic straw panels with powerful single lines of colour interwoven to form a visually strong abstracted pattern.
The hotel’s 26 suites are designed to embody the idea of domesticity. They include slab marble floors in the bathrooms, handmade tiles in the shower and long benches in the windows.