The test of a truly great city is reinvention. Does it have the courage to change? London holds a PhD in meta-morphosis — just look at the buildings it converts into hotels.
Hazlitt’s in Soho is named after William, whose house it once was. Round the corner, the Courthouse occupies what used to be Great Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court, where Michael Caine was ordered to pay palimony, Oscar Wilde foolishly sued for libel and I was done for busking. (I keep meaning to go back and have dinner on the exact same spot.) Bow Street Magistrates’ Court is also being converted — four of the hotel’s bedrooms will occupy the old cells.
Down on the river, the old Greater London Council HQ has become the Marriott County Hall, which Ken Livingstone says annoys him, making it even more fun to stay there than it would be anyway. Also offering Thames views soon will be the ex-Port of London Authority building at Tower Hill, and Sea Containers House near the Oxo Tower. The latter is being transformed into the Mondrian Hotel — it’ll honour the nautical history with a huge copper hull running from outside the building into the lobby.
The Rosewood on High Holborn started life as head office for the Pearl Assurance Company, whose boardrooms are now the hotel’s meeting rooms, with listed mahogany panelling to match. Former office buildings are also in use at the budget end of the market, some of them in the Square Mile: the Bank Travelodge nestles in a peaceful courtyard off St Swithin’s Lane, while the excellent Tune Hotel is a few short steps from Bishopsgate. Over in Shoreditch, the Qbic is funky rather than (as so often in that neighbourhood) another word ending in the same three letters.
The variety of Londoners in whose footprints you can walk (or rather sleep) is staggering. Choristers from St Paul’s: the gorgeous 1874 building where the boys lived is now a YHA hostel (complete with 19th-century graffiti), some of whose regulars are City high-flyers because it’s easier than getting the train home. Prisoners: Clink 78 at King’s Cross was a jail. Firemen: hip hotelier André Balazs has recently opened the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone. And don’t forget the nurses: the Malmaison in Clerkenwell was home to those from nearby Bart’s — they now use the hotel for emotional reunions. Perhaps the record for a single site is held by the Taj 51 Buckingham Gate: before the Victorian private houses which form today’s hotel, the land hosted almshouses, then a hospital.
Some sneered when it was announced that Admiralty Arch was going to become a hotel. But why should a city be set in concrete, even the bits made of Portland stone? The Metropolitan Police’s first HQ on Great Scotland Yard is following suit, and good on it, and there’s also the Dorsett in Shepherd’s Bush (a cinema), the Beaumont in Mayfair (art deco garage) and Sir Edwin Lutyens’s Midland Bank head office on Princes Street. Change is on course to remain London’s only constant.