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Michael Blair

Any doubt over the value of archives is lavishly dispelled by the forensic refurbishment of the elegant Art Deco entrance to Claridge’s Hotel. Michael Blair reports

A scan of the large plate negative, a fount of unrecorded detail
A scan of the large plate negative, a fount of unrecorded detail

Old photos are not just for nostalgia. They can be a useful design resource, as London’s Claridge’s Hotel reveals with its newly-refurbished entrance on Brook Street. Since its completion in 1929, this beautiful example of Art Deco architecture lost many of its finer touches in unsympathetic modifications and repairs. Blair Associates Architecture turned detective to piece together those elements and return the entrance to its former glory.

I have worked on Claridge’s since 2004. As a grade II listed building any work must respect the existing historic fabric, so we worked with the hotel to build up the background required for refurbishment. The team began with the archives of the hotel, but to unearth the complete picture we had to spread our net wider to the RIBA libraries and the London Metropolitan Archives.

Putting back the pieces for a renovated Claridge’s
Putting back the pieces for a renovated Claridge’s

To piece together the original works and stages of evolution of the hotel, we delved first into the mass of papers that a building like this acquires over its lifetime.

Claridge’s is made up of two buildings, the original Victorian design of 1896 by C W Stephens (also the architect for Harrods) and Oswald Milne’s 1929 Ballroom Wing. The complexity of Claridge’s is where Art Deco architecture meets the Victorian original: for example the present main entrance and foyer supplant one allowing horse drawn carriages to drop off guests within the hotel precincts.

Oswald Milne and his contemporaries, Basil Ionides and Art Deco artists, also converted the dining room and many of the suites in the Victorian wing. Happily, however, they left alone the hotel’s greatest Victorian masterpiece – the flowing grand staircase by Stephens and Sir Ernest George. 

The refurbished canopy with its bronze and chrome detailing restored.
The refurbished canopy with its bronze and chrome detailing restored. Credit: Nick Carter Photography

The hotel’s extensive archive includes an extraordinary hand written account of the building process of the Victorian wing in the form of minutes. These are fascinating in their own right; meetings were attended by D’Oyly Carte, César Ritz of Ritz Hotel fame, C W Stephens and Ernest George, among many famous names. The highly descriptive account may be a little hard to decipher but it describes not only the design process but client decision making too. It gives the background to the original Victorian Claridge’s and allow easy identification of future stages of work by others.

However, there is little within the Claridge’s collection to document Oswald Milne’s design intention in written material or original drawings. For the Art Deco drawings and details we had to look further afield. 

Forensic research was needed before we could fully understand the original design, detailing and appearance of the Art Deco entrance. For this we went to the RIBA Library and Photographic Library, where we found a collection of images of the original design photographs taken just after the grand opening. These fantastic photographs are large plate negatives so it is possible to enlarge them and find otherwise unrecorded details. Despite the description of the highly polished canopy soffit with decorative chevrons, the shape and size of these adornments were not recorded. Zooming in on the photographs revealed their shape and form very clearly, and many other features of the canopy too; blowing up the photographs made details of stone joints, railings and urns quite clear. These RIBA photographs and Claridge’s own extensive collection of images resolved most of the missing detailing. The RIBA Library also had original 1932 editions of Architecture Illustrated and Country Life, which had extensive descriptions of the main entrance portico and other aspects of Milne’s work at Claridge’s.

We found Milne’s original drawings at the London Metropolitan Archives, which clearly illustrate in section the substructure roof make-up and the bronze detailing connections of the soffit.

For a long time now the underside of the canopy had been painted white with a suspended mesh to which Christmas decorations could be attached. But the original was a beautiful bronze framework with inlaid chrome mirror-finished panels and etched chevron detailing. Again the shape and size of the etching details were revealed in the photographic analysis which we then drew out fully to ensure the pattern worked across the whole of the soffit. During early trials we removed the white paintwork, and to everyone’s surprise the bronze detailing was all there. Unfortunately, however, the original chrome panels had tarnished and corroded, so they had to be remade and replaced.

Much of the original surrounding stonework had been replaced with new stone not consistent with the original Roman stone and in many cases had been painted over to disguise wear and tear. This has been replaced with stone matching the original.

The original revolving doors, luggage entrance and glazed screens have been fully restored and where elements required replacement the detail of the original has been faithfully reproduced. The corroded mezzanine windows and balustrade above the canopy have also been fully refurbished. 

On top of the portico sit floral urns, which having lost their original colour were no longer even noticeable, while behind it is hand carved brickwork that has got lost in years of atmospheric pollution. Both these elements have been magnificently restored, with the flower and fruit arrangements on the urns painted to Art Deco colour schemes and the urns themselves returned to their original black and gilded splendour. 

One of the original outstanding features was the ornamental fan-shaped wall lights which were removed during the war, and lost. The original lights would fill with rainfall, and early investigations made it clear that the canopy had been extended on either side to protect these lights from the elements. Again, the discovery of detailed photographs enabled us to have precise replicas made. 

So the painstaking work of gathering evidence enabled us to reconstruct the scene as it was in 1929. Restoring this beautiful Art Deco design must give Claridge’s the most glamorous hotel entrance in London. 

Michael Blair is principal at Blair Associates Architecture

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