The Rotunda Bar, photograph Ian Thompson
Local landmarks: Midland Hotel
By Barry Guise
When Morecambe's Midland Hotel opened in 1933 it was billed as a masterpiece of modernism.
However, with the demise of the traditional seaside holiday in favour of cheap package holidays abroad, the acclaimed Art Deco hotel suffered from neglect and was even threatened with demolition.
The hotel is back to its former glory, though, thanks to a multi-million pound revamp and is open for bookings again.
Barry Guise - co-author of The Midland Hotel: Morecambe's 'White Hope' - profiles the rise, fall and resurrection of Morecambe's most famous landmark...
Seven and a half years after it closed its doors to the public, the Midland Hotel in Morecambe is once again open for business. On Sunday 1st June, the gleaming white building on the seafront welcomed its first guests following an £11 million refurbishment by award-winning property developers Urban Splash. Hundreds of curious people queued in the drizzly rain to get a look inside and see the results of this large investment.
Architecturally, the Midland Hotel is the most important building in Morecambe and one of the most significant Art Deco buildings in the country. When it opened in July 1933 it received widespread critical acclaim, and its radical design was considered a masterpiece of modernism. According to Country Life magazine, the Midland was “in the opinion of many, the most beautiful contemporary building in the country”, its graceful lines seen as the epitome of Thirties elegance.
The origins of the hotel date back to the Depression when many people were no longer able to afford foreign holidays. This brought a new wave of custom to the English seaside, one with more sophisticated demands. However, facilities in England compared poorly with those on the Continent and there was an urgent need for investment in resort infrastructure and the upgrading of accommodation for visitors. In Morecambe the local corporation was already carrying out major promenade improvements when, in 1932, the LMS Railway Company decided to replace its existing Victorian hotel with “a building of international quality in the modern style.” The LMS saw Morecambe as an opportunity to make a new departure from traditional hotel design and selected Oliver Hill as architect - a man who "had international experience in regard to modern hotel building practice and construction".
Hill realised that the project would give him a chance to put into practice his vision of unity in architecture and decoration, and he accepted the LMS offer stating “you have here a unique opportunity of building the first really modern hotel in the country”. His design was for a three-storey, curved structure which followed the line of the new municipal promenade with its convex side towards the sea allowing good views from every room. The concave side faced the railway station and was divided by a tower containing the hotel entrance and spiral staircase. At the south end was a rounded bastion while the north end was finished off by a circular café.
Inside the sun terrace, photograph by Ian Thompson
The building was constructed around steel frames with concrete slab floors and brick walls resting on shallow foundations which spread the load across the sandy surface of the site. The walls were faced with white rendering composed of cement and carborundum, electrically polished to produce a surface resembling marble. This was relieved by the architraves of the principal windows which were treated with a mixture of carborundum and crushed blue glass. The soffits of the projecting ledges and the undersides of the balconies were glazed in blue-green.
Glistening in the sunshine the completed hotel prompted Lord Clonmore to write in the Architectural Review that the Midland was “in complete harmony with its natural surroundings…it rises from the sea like a great white ship, gracefully curved.”
What made the Midland Hotel different from other hotels was Hill’s holistic approach to the project. He believed that the exterior design should be intimately linked to the interior décor and to this end he took control of the hotel’s colour scheme, decoration, furnishings and works of art. These he saw as a counterpoint to the austerity of modern architecture, providing points of visual interest. He commissioned the renowned sculptor and engraver Eric Gill to make two seahorses for the outside of the building and to carve a large stone relief for the entrance lounge. The latter is entitled ‘Odysseus being welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa’ and is cut in Perrycot Portland Stone. Gill also designed a circular ceiling panel over the spiral staircase showing the sea god Triton which was then painted by his son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier. The two were also responsible for a pictorial map of North-West England.
The rotunda café at the north end of the hotel was decorated by another well-known artist of the time, Eric Ravilious. As the café was originally intended for the use of casual visitors to the beach its walls were painted with seaside themes. Unfortunately, insufficient preparatory work was done and the mural began to peel off within a couple of years. (It was reconstructed for an episode of the TV detective series ‘Poirot’ in 1989.) The furnishings of the hotel received equal care and attention, most notable being the exquisite hand-knotted rugs for the entrance lounge made by the famous textile designer Marion Dorn. Nearly five metres in diameter they featured a directional pattern of waves – an allusion to the Midland’s seaside location. Dorn was also responsible for the design of the mosaic seahorse in the middle of the lounge floor.
Immediately after its opening in July 1933 the Midland became the place to stay and quickly attracted the wealthy middle classes from across the north of England and even further afield. Its success was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the hotel was requisitioned by the government and converted into a RAF hospital. In 1946 it was returned to the Railway Company. However, following nationalisation the new British Railways Board decided to sell the hotel and in 1952 it was bought by Lewis Hodgson of Bolton Abbey. Although initially successful, the Midland gradually began to lose both its appeal and its wealthy clientele, and in 1960 it was sold to Scottish and Newcastle Breweries.
In the 1970s the Midland became a listed building (Grade2*) and again changed hands. The new owners, Hutchinson Leisure, were granted permission for a glass sun-lounge running the length of the seaward side of the hotel and this was completed in 1979. But trade did not improve as envisaged and when Anne Greenham took over the hotel in 1989 the Midland had become very run down. There was some attempt at Thirties-style restoration but financial difficulties led to the hotel being sold to Les Whittingham. During his ownership relations with the local council became strained and litigation was frequently threatened, particularly over the removal of the Eric Gill relief to London for an exhibition. The Midland went downmarket and acquired a cheap and tawdry appearance, its walls often adorned by garish advertisements. Little was done to stem the deterioration of the building and on Les Whittingham’s death in 1998 the Midland was in a sorry state. Shabby in appearance, its rotting window frames, leaking roofs and peeling paintwork were proof that the years of neglect had taken their toll.
In 2001 the Midland was bought by a company called Kalber Leisure with the aim of transforming the now almost derelict building into a 1930s themed 5* luxury hotel. However, due to financial problems this grandiose scheme never came to fruition and a year later the Midland was back on the market. To prevent vandalism the Council boarded up all the doors and windows. A blight on the promenade, the building was threatened with demolition – a move strongly opposed by the Friends of the Midland, a group set up by concerned locals to save the hotel.
Photograph courtesy of Ian Thompson
Salvation came at the eleventh hour when, in early 2003, it was announced that the Midland had been purchased by Urban Splash, an award-winning property regeneration company based in Manchester. It took some time to confirm financial backing and access the necessary grants and work did not commence on site until June 2005. The restoration, originally scheduled for 22 months, turned out to be more difficult than envisaged and it was eventually to be three years before the project was completed.
The refurbished hotel now has 44 rooms, including six luxury suites which have been added on the roof. The bedrooms are ultra-modern with a variety of layouts and colour schemes and all the latest facilities. Modifications to the ground floor have created larger spaces suitable for wedding receptions and conferences, while the old sun-lounge has been replaced by a more substantial structure – a pleasant spot to enjoy afternoon tea or watch the sun set over Morecambe Bay. Importantly, all the original artworks have been painstakingly restored to their former glory and are, once again, the jewels in the crown of the hotel. After all its trials and tribulations the Midland Hotel can now look forward to a bright future – a 1930s icon fit for the 21st century.
Already the Midland is acting as a catalyst in the regeneration of Morecambe which, like most seaside resorts in Britain, has experience a steady decline as tourists have opted for the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean and further afield. There is fresh optimism in the town and several new businesses have already opened. The proposed development of the promenade area adjacent to the Midland (also by Urban Splash) has reached the planning stage and should eventually result in a mix of shops, accommodation and leisure facilities. Almost opposite the Midland, the Winter Gardens is embarking on its own restoration project which should see it emerge in about three years as a multi-purpose arts venue. All this is crucial as the success of the Midland, while probably guaranteed for the first two years or so, will eventually depend on the way in which Morecambe can reinvent itself as a resort able to cater for a different type of holidaymaker with different requirements.
last updated: 20/06/2008 at 08:39
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