Victorian hotel evolution

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Sculpture on facade of Victoria Station, London. (speel.me.uk)

With the grand history of train station hotel design no doubt cavorting in the back of his mind, British Transport Minister John Hayes argues in yesterday’s post “Sic beautiful transit? Not!” that Britons do not need to put up with the ugliness that modernists have inflicted on Great Britain. As I read his speech “Beauty in Transit,” I thought of passages I had just read yesterday in Victorian Architecture about 19th century hotels.

Here is a passage in which the authors, Roger Dixon and Stefan Muthesius, hint at the churning that animated the evolution of building styles. They are writing about hotels, which in several decades of the third quarter of the 19th century had sprouted from inns and hostels to grand hotels (while dropping the s in hostel). But they could be writing about any building type in which the elements of style are interesting enough to generate thought, debate, emulation and creativity. In the 19th century this led to the creation of new styles or new wrinkles on old styles – as it had in earlier centuries, but which stopped in the mid-20th century when modernist styles proved too simple-minded to generate interesting thoughts about design. The modernist credo – do something completely different – has proved, on the contrary, to be a sure source of vapidity in the evolution of design.

But I am straying. Here is the passage from Victorian Architecture that intrigued me yesterday.

Only the very largest office buildings could compete with the later [train] station hotels in size and splendour. From the point of view of architectural style and elevational treatment there are many similarities. The most common modes of decoration were the Classical and Renaissance styles. The Great Western Hotel in Bristol relates to the post-0Georgian terraces of Clifton; Hardwick’s Great Western, with its stuccoed front, has many features in common with the largest terraces of Paddington. But by 1850 most architects were searching for new, hitherto unused historical styles, or combinations of styles. The Paddington hotel was called “Louis XIV,” referring to its flanking towers and mansard roof. They correspond closely to what was to be called the Second Empire style, after Napoleon III’s extensions to the Louvre – a somewhat impure and ornate version of palatial architecture, with a smattering of the Picturesque and French Renaissance in the use of towers and roofs.

The mind boggles at the idea of “an ornate version of palatial architecture.” Isn’t a palace the ne plus ultra in ornatitude? And don’t you just love that most architects were seeking “new, hitherto unused historical styles”? What mavericks! I am not kidding. Today, they would be called revolutionaries by the moss-backed modernist establishment. Off with their heads!

Dixon and Muthesius continue:

As in office buildings, the problem arose of how to squeeze the growing number of storeys into the traditional framework of the two- or three-storeyed Classical elevation. Knowles, at the Grosvenor Hotel, got round this by playing down the divisions between the stories and by having a very pronounced main cornice and a massive carved roof which dominates the building. Thus the proportions of a Classical building remained basically the same, although the whole is very much larger. In addition, Knowles was to some extent a follower of Ruskin and his theories on decoration, and provided a lot of carved vegetation as well as sculptured heads of famous politicians. The hotel was thus elevated into the realm of modern “art” architecture.

Hmm. Now there’s a possibility. Encourage classical architecture in today’s building market by promising that a politician’s mug might end up as statuary flanking the entrance portico of a grand hotel. This enticement could also serve as a threat: your mug as a gargoyle if you don’t give the public the architecture it wants.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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