It is Good to be Here
Superlux brand Kimpton has four hotels on mainland Britain. North of the border, the two hotels are neoclassical: Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, and Blythswood Square, Glasgow. The two south of the border are High Victorian: Russell Square, London, and Oxford Street, Manchester. The late afternoon winter sunlight streaming down makes the terracotta all clear: Kimpton Clockhouse Hotel in Manchester is a panoply of barley twist columns and stylised ionic capitals and naturalistic floral patterns sculpted out of the red stuff, all towering up from the sweet flow of the River Medlock. The brick walls are aglow, on fire, red on red. The trio of buildings which form the hotel are the last bloom of High Victoriana; in fact they’re an overflow of this most dramatic of styles, for the iconic 66 metre tall clocktower was only completed in 1912.
The Refuge Assurance Building was built in 1895 to the design of master of the age Alfred Waterhouse. Architect Paul Waterhouse extended his father’s design and Stanley Birkett completed the vast urban block. Across the city near the Town Hall designed by Alfred Waterhouse is Friends’ Meeting House. It wins the award for most blind windows: just two of the window positions out of 10 on the west facing Southmill Street elevation are glazed. Jean and John Bradburn write in their 2018 Central Manchester History Tour, “This fine building was designed in 1828 by Richard Lane, a Quaker architect – one of his pupils was Alfred Waterhouse. The cost of the building – £7,600 – was raised by subscription from local Quakers, one of whom was John Dalton, the famous chemist and discoverer of atomic theory who worshipped here for years.”
Another famous, or rather infamous, building in Manchester city centre designed by Alfred Waterhouse is HMP Manchester, otherwise known as Strangeways Gaol. It predates the Refuge Assurance Building by three decades. The public facing gatehouse is a red brick building with sandstone dressings. It’s French Gothic in style, as if Château du Nessay had landed on Southall Street. Cassie Britland notes in Manchester Something Rich and Strange, edited by Paul Dobraszczy and Sarah Butler, 2020, “the prison owes its distinctive radial design to the panopticon architectural concept and the ‘separate’ system of prison management”.
Delivering a lecture on The Oratory Competition 1878: Who Were The Architects? at The London Oratory, Dr Roderick O’Donnell states, “Alfred Waterhouse was appointed assessor of the competition to design a new church for The Oratory. He was an interesting choice: a Congregationalist from Manchester. His architectural career started in Manchester with the design of Strangeways Prison. Waterhouse was incredibly ambitious and a fantastic professional; he came in on price. Waterhouse designed the second Victorian Eaton Hall in Cheshire.”
In their 1998 Manchester Architecture Guide, Eamonn Canniffe and Tom Jefferies lead with, “The cutting of Whitworth Street in the 1890s results in a series of large self confident buildings along it. a monument to insurance, the mammoth Refuge Building exploits the full possibilities of architectural ceramics. Its interior employs white glazed brick for the former office space, but the exterior exploits the potential of terracotta for insistent repetitive ornament over large surfaces. Articulated frames to the high windows culminate in barley sugar columns, while the great brick tower is a landmark in many directions. The porte cochère beneath it, with its glazed dome and memorial to the company’s War Dead, is now the reception for the Palace Hotel which currently occupies this dramatic and robust building.”
A cluster of contemporary talent has worked on moulding the Palace Hotel into the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. 3DReid Architects explain, “Our work on the hotel, the former Palace Hotel, sought to strip back poor interventions made in the 1990s and reposition is as a ‘lifestyle hotel’ worthy of the building’s history and character. In the former Refuge Assurance Hall we created a new Winter Garden as the focus of the space, surrounded by a new bar, restaurant and den. This enabled the space to be used as an ‘all day offer’. One of the key moves was improving circulation routes around the buildings that make up the hotel.” Michaelis Boyd were the interior designers and the 360 guest rooms and 11 suites are brightened by Timorous Beasties textiles.
The grander than grand ground floor spaces of the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel are all abuzz: the late afternoon winter sunlight streaming down makes the encaustic tiling all clear – and reflects off the hair curlers in female guests’ emerging hairdos. A bronze horse sculpture by Sophie Dickens, granddaughter of the writer, welcomes visitors in the marble floored stone walled glass domed entrance lobby. Up a few stairs, along a corridor – there are lots of stairs and corridorsc – and the bar and dining room have been branded The Refuge. This 930 square metre space spills into the Winter Garden which was formed by glazing over a courtyard. It is good, oh so good, to be here. Later, the bright and cloudless morning will break, eternal bright and fair.