Rob Marks checks in to some of Brighton’s grand old ladies to check out their fascinating hotel histories…
Hilton Brighton Metropole
The Metropole was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of the Natural History Museum. It is unique in being the only red terracotta hotel on the seafront. Its opening, in 1890, was, indeed, a grand affair. Over 1500 guests arrived by train from London to be greeted by the Coldstream Guards playing in the central dining room. Little had been spared, by way of expense, on the hotel’s interior, with lavish silk curtains, luxurious chairs, and an ornate carved wood fireplace. Three grand dining areas, with vaulted ceilings of cream and gold, held up to 500 persons. Outside, the elaborate Italian gardens glittered beneath the impressive, newly installed electric lighting. Rooms ranged from extravagant suites to more modest bedding rooms. Guests with en suite rooms also had taps that supplied them with sea water to satisfy the deluded notion of its alleged health-giving properties. Many famous guests have passed through, including the actress Lillie Langtry and Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria. In the early 1960’s the hotel underwent a major revamp. Rooms acquired en suite facilities, the roofline was changed and two new floors added. The winter gardens were lost forever to become the Regency Ballroom and the former Turkish baths were turned into a swimming pool and health club. The hotel has changed hands many times and is now a part of the Hilton Group.
Radisson Blu Royal York
The Royal York Hotel was built on the site of a former manor house and developed out of three separate houses known collectively as Steine Place. It opened as a hotel in 1819, slightly preceding the completion of the Royal Pavilion and its gardens in 1822. The name derived from the Duke of York who was cousin to the Prince Regent. This elegant, symmetrical building, with prominent bow windows, sits proudly overlooking Steine alongside its neighbour the Royal Albion. Interestingly, the two hotels have much in common. Both opened at around the same time and attained royal patronage. They both also fell into a state of dilapidation at the turn of the 19th century to be later revived by financier Harry Preston a decade or so later. The hotel boasted 100 bedrooms, many looking inwards over what was soon to become the Pavilion Gardens. It rapidly became a fashionable watering hole with several distinguished guests, including: Benjamin Disraeli, William Makepeace Thackeray, the aviator Wilbur Wright and the Duke and Duchess of Clarence. Charles Dickens even put his head around the door in 1860 to read David Copperfield to a swooning and beguiled audience. The building was bought by Brighton Corporation in around 1930 and converted into offices, going under the name of York Buildings. It has since been returned to its former glory under the auspices of the Radisson Group, becoming the Radisson Blu. There are now 59 rooms, all equipped to a four-star standard, alongside classic Regency rooms, suites and apartments.
The Grand was the first truly exclusive hotel in Brighton, designed by architect John Whichord. It was built in 1862-64, ostensibly for the upper classes that visited Brighton when it became a fashionable resort. Its imposing fascia is an amalgam of grandiose Italian renaissance and classic Victorian architecture. The hotel offered sumptuous luxury accommodation with over 150 rooms. It also housed a grand ballroom and lavish dining facilities. Recreational areas included a smoking room, billiards room and library. For its day it also laid claim to an advanced feature of Engineering in the form of the “Vertical Omnibus”, a hydraulically powered lift, along with electric lighting throughout the building. Its notable guests have included: Napoleon III, John F. Kennedy, the Duke of Windsor and Ronald Reagan. In the early 1960’s it came under threat of redevelopment by Brighton City Council who, in their wisdom, sought to demolish it and replace it with an amusements centre. In 1984 the hotel was torn apart by a bomb planted by the IRA in an attempt to assassinate the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The attempt failed, but devastated the central structure of this magnificent hotel. Painstaking restoration work was undertaken in order to restore the building to its former glory at a cost of £10 million. The hotel reopened in1986, with Margaret Thatcher returning for the occasion. The Concorde flew low over the South Coast to salute its reopening.
Designed by Amon Henry Wilds, The Royal Albion Hotel opened its doors on July 27th, 1826. However, it was then known simply as the Albion, only acquiring the ‘Royal’ prefix in around 1847, due to the patronage of its distinguished guests and thus being conferred a royal coat of arms above the front entrance. This elegant building, with its grand Ionian and Corinthian columns, is unusual in that it faces inwards from the sea. This was due to the fact that visitors of the time preferred to look out onto the gardens of the Royal Pavilion, which then extended onto Old Steine. The hotel was a resounding success during its early years. Sadly, by the turn of the century, the moneyed classed, who had initially popularised Brighton, had begun holidaying in more farflung climes. Its fortunes began to dwindle and by 1900, having become dilapidated, it finally closed. However, its prosperity was restored in 1913 by the charismatic financer Harry Preston. Notable guests soon started flocking to the revitalised hotel, including Arnold Bennett, who began writing part of his Clayhanger trilogy while staying there in1910. Its stature continued with many authors, artists, actors and sportsmen residing there throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. In 1998 a serious fire broke out in the kitchen and spread through a ventilation shaft destroying rooms on the upper floors. The hotel was fully restored and is now owned by the Britannia Group of Hotels.
The Old Ship
The Old Ship is claimed to be the oldest hotel in Brighton. Its origins are said to date from the mid 17th century when it was situated at the end of Ship Street, which took its name from the inn. However, it possibly began life as a private residence, dating from as early as 1559. Its name is thought to have derived from the use of ships’ timbers used in much of the early construction. The building has acquired many additions over the years. Major development occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when Brighton prospered as a fashionable seaside town and health resort. Today, the hotel’s Victorian facade bears little resemblance to the original structure. It was, for a time, a place of great importance, housing meetings for the town’s commissioners. It has also been frequented by nobility. In the mid 18th century a huge ninety foot long ballroom was added with spectators’ and musicians’ galleries. Within the hotel’s splendidly restored interior can be found a plaque to one of its most celebrated guests; the famous violinist Niccolo Paganini, who played in the ballroom in 1831. The hotel has also had notable literary references in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and in Old Court by William Harrison Ainsworth.
Ramada Jarvis (formally the Norfolk)
The Ramada, formerly the Norfolk, began life as a more modest building that what is seen today. This distinctive hotel stands on King’s Road close to Hove Lawns. Built in 1824 as the Norfolk Arms, it stood just three floors in height with the central feature of a fourth floor. It was, however, to become one of Brighton’s leading hotels. In 1864-6 the original structure was demolished. A new and impressive building immerged, designed by architect and surveyor Horatio Goulty in the popular Renaissance style of the period. The hotel displays a pleasing, well-proportioned and perfectly balanced symmetry. In the 1960’s, as with the Grand, purchasers sought to demolish this architectural gem in favour of a block of flats; fortunately permission was refused and its future secured. Like many other hotels in the city it underwent major refurbishment in the 1980’s, costing a total of £2 million, with many of its original ornate features being retained and restored. Interestingly, it was the first hotel in Brighton town centre to have a swimming pool, although it is, sadly, no longer in use. To the rear of the building rooms were developed around an ornament lake, which has since been filled in. The hotel now boasts some 117 rooms as well as leisure and conference facilities. Its present owners are the Ramada Jarvis group of hotels.
The Queens Hotel, on King’s Road, dates from 1846. It is a Regency building of some note as it was built next to the former site of the famous ‘Mohamed’s Vapour Baths’. Sake Dean Mohamed was an Indian who had worked for the English East India Company Bengal Army as a trainee surgeon. On moving to Brighton he set up the vapour baths in 1786, which soon became fashionable for its ‘shampooing’ (massaging) services. Its popularity grew and was frequented by Brighton’s high society; including the Prince Regent himself. The building was sadly demolished in 1870 to make way for Markwell’s Hotel, which later became absorbed by the Queens, making it the building that is seen today. The hotel benefitted by being in a prime position, when Brighton was at its most fashionable. The Palace Pier, erected in 1899, was just a few hundred yards away, as was Steine, with its finely laid out gravel paths for the gentry to promenade. The Queens has 94 rooms, many being generous in size and offering glorious view across the Channel. Today the hotel has the biggest and best equipped leisure club of any hotel in Brighton. It also has a spa, with fully trained therapists who offer beauty treatments for men and women.