A Purpose Built Hotel-The Russell of London

A Purpose Built Hotel-The Russell of London


It was daybreak and I was just a few doors from the Horse Hospital by Russell Square Station. My bedroom window was street side. I could hear the voices of workmen heading to their jobs. First a half dozen and then dozens and then perhaps a hundred or more. My window was open so I could smell that they were putting out their cigarettes and heading into their work place. London is compact so they were less than thirty feet away.

Whether they knew it or not they were working on a project that would span the centuries. It was the Russell Family, Earls of Bedford from 1550, they gained possession of the Bloomsbury by marriage. I was sleeping in my favorite hotel on the side street of the most magnificent hotel in London. This is as close as I could afford to staying at Hotel Russell. My obsession is just across the street, (really across the back alley) and my room faces the back side of the Russel Hotel. It is situated across from Russel Square located in inner city London, Borough of Camden.

The hotel was one of the very first “purpose built” hotels in the city. The project was epic, imagine building the fanciest hotel possible, in which money is of limited concern. All of the finest materials were used to build this structure, nothing was left to cost cutting. The finest location in London, the rarest stone (Pyrenean Marble) , the finest stone masons, the wood work is nearly inconceivable and then I realize that it isn’t wood, it is the Pyrenean marble stone originating in the Pyrenees.

The story of this hotel started long before 1901.

Back in 1666 the London fire swept over a vast area of London destroying 70,000 homes. We climbed the 311 steps to the top of Monument Tower. We cast our eyes to the distant horizons and realize everything you can see was ablaze, all was destroyed by fire.

In a book called “Henry Mayhew’s London” Mr. Mayhew documents the street life, density and intensity of inner city London. London was one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Imagine sewers, rat catchers, street life, imagine orphans, gamblers and prostitutes, imagine cholera and the Black Plague. All of this was amplified 10 fold in a city with limited science, plumbing and no electricity.

Fire had burned London to the ground more than once. Boudica, the Iceni warrior set the Romans fleeing in about 64 A.D. an ash layer still lies 9 feet below the sidewalks of London as testament to her efforts.

FIRE, (1666) the singular event that created resolve in the people of London, from this date on, everything will be built of non-flammable material, STONE, tile, terra cotta and brick. The unexpected benefit of building a city out of stone was that it encouraged and rewarded the trades and guilds.

Stone cutters, stone masons, stone workers, sculptors, all of these trades were buoyed and were made valuable, the building of a new and lasting city began in earnest. The fire was a seminal event, people realized that creating this mandate for the entire city ensured one less reoccurring tragedy.

Our Goddaughter was studying in Paris and she takes the EuroStar to London to spend a few days with us. Arriving late at night, we aren’t ready to call it quits. We walk thru the alley ways to Swan Number Seven and have the best Fish and Chips in London. It is a favorite pub that we’ve frequented for a decade. We recognize that there is new management and they greet us with warmth and sincerity. The food is real London food.

It is late and we bid them goodbye as we are their last customers of the evening and then we wander off onto the streets of London. Wander as you may, my compass leads us to the magnificent Russell Hotel and we decide to get friendly with this landmark.

Upon entering the lobby we realize that we are not the genteel clientele that frequents this place. With a devil may care attitude I go up to the counter and explain that while we can’t afford to stay here, we are renting close by in the alley by the horse hospital.

I explain that we are the biggest fans of the Russel Hotel and were wondering if there were any special rates that we might indulge in the future?

I was our good fortune and they did have a special, it was still far too expensive for our meager budget.
We resign ourselves to realize that our station in life doesn’t fit into the Russel Hotel demographic.
My God Daughter winks at me and says “when I’m famous, you’ll spend a night in the Russell.

Undaunted we visit with the late night desk manager and continue to show our fascination and admiration for this great building.

We finally build up our courage and ask if we might look around? A smile comes across her face and she allows us free passage and says “go where ever you want”!

We step back with some astonishment and nod appreciatively.

Off we go up the stairways of beautifully hewn and sculpted wood bannisters only to realize that they are those Pyrenean Marble bannisters as aforementioned.

We wander a bit more and feel overcome with privilege, it almost inhibits our adventure.

We head back down the stairs and find a restaurant (within the hotel ) that has closed for the night. We walk in for a peek. It is a restaurant so beautiful that when they were building the RMS Titanic.
They reproduced an exact replica of this restaurant that now sits at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

I’ve strayed from my topic.

There is now a million dollars worth of scaffolding surrounding the Russell Hotel and the workmen, stone masons, terra cotta men are all headed inward. The owners are infusing an additional 110 million dollars into the refurbishing of this notable landmark.

It is 6:30 a.m and it is their job to see fit that this hotel is repaired, reconstructed and refurbished within the next eighteen months. It is an epic task, they extinguish their cigarettes and head off to work within this grand structure. I’m honored to be housed close by as I listen and watch them go to work.

There are many grand things to see in London, we have spent our sixtieth day in this city. I can hear from my bedroom, the accents of the workers, Cockney from the Hackney district, the English Creole from the Caribbean. They are all headed to make and save history. The Russel Hotel still beckons.
Tomorrow I head back to London and will once again stay at a nice hotel that sits in the shadow of the Russell, right next to the Horse Hospital. The Hotel should be complete and I will return to take a look this coming week. Stay tuned! as more will follow!

Bill Keitel RoadNotes

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