India and the UK share strong bonds, both historically and culturally. The newly opened Lalit London is another great example of how the two countries with so much shared yet individual heritage come together to create something truly special. SPACE’s Tonje Odegard visited to see how Victorian elegance and contemporary Indian design have transformed an old London grammar school into a luxury boutique hotel…
Originally the location for one of London’s most prominent educational institutions, St Olave’s Grammar School, the building that now houses The Lalit London, was built in the early 1890s by renowned architect Edward Mountford, who designed the Old Bailey and Sheffield Town Hall. The stunning Grade II listed building in red Georgian brick contains so much history and soul, something the developers wanted to keep intact, while at the same time putting their own mark on the place. The result is the striking Lalit London, the capital’s first Indian luxury boutique hotel.
Suri Hospitality Group, which has 11 luxury hotels throughout India, acquired the building to create their first overseas property and their first in London. It was one of Founding Chairman, Mr Lalit Suri’s last wishes to have a hotel in London, a place that meant so much to him, before he died a few years ago. His wife, Dr Jyotsna Suri, Chairperson and Managing Director, made his wish come true and launched the hotel on what would have been her husband’s 70th birthday.
Ending its function as a school in the 1980s, the architecturally significant building has stood abandoned for a number of years at its location at the South Bank near Tower Bridge. A substantial fit-out and restoration was therefore needed, and S&T Interiors and Contracting led the two-year £30m refurbishment, completing the 70 rooms, public areas, a restaurant and a basement spa this January. Around 95 per cent of the building has been restored to its original state.
The refurb by S&T included groundwork, the M&E and a total fit-out of the property. From original oak panelling, cornicing and striking arched windows to skirting boards, mouldings, chimneys and distinctive bricks, everything has been carefully repaired or replaced to maintain the original and characteristic look of the building. Where renovation was impossible, replication of original features were carried out – new woodwork was inserted and scratched and dented to make it look like the original fittings.
The majority of the parquet floors were taken up, re-machined and re-laid, sanded and stained to look like they would have done, and stonework throughout the project was carefully selected to resemble the original. Beautifully restored timber panelling and intricate carved plaster ceilings and cornicing feature throughout the building.
“As with any listed building, this project had its challenges, particularly as the building was left empty for nearly ten years and had substantial water damage through dilapidated roofs,” says Jeff Watts, CEO of S&T. “The emphasis of the renovation was always to maintain as much of the original fabric as possible while supporting the new loads and layouts. An entire new floor was added on the existing two floors, which also required a new Westmorland slated roof to be put in. A basement was also created for the spa area, requiring a nine-meter excavation into the ground, in addition to extensive internal reconfigurations. A new mezzanine floor between the existing second floor and roof was inserted and the existing roof trusses were strengthened to support the new replacement.”
Maintaining the school theme in the mix of Indian luxury and classic Victorian interiors, EPR Architects, the Suri Group and Archer Humphryes has created a unique hotel that really stands out from your common London hotel. Redolent of Indian opulence and old-fashioned English charm, the designers have managed to encapsulate both the educational heritage of the building and the authentic Indian experience, with the luxury of high-end modern design. All furniture is for instance handmade in India, and a number of bespoke art pieces from Indian artists are featured throughout.
Taking advantage of the strong Victorian architecture and original interior fittings, Indian design finds its place throughout, from the use of Indian stone sculptures and topiary details on the exterior, to the fretwork screens with traditional Indian Jali patterns in the reception area. Deployment of tapestries, motifs and patterned joinery work are further details that gently integrate Indian culture into traditional English design.
To complete the school theme, each room and public space in the hotel has kept its original name, referencing its old function. The Governor’s office, now turned into a Champagne and cognac bar, is called ‘The Headmasters Room’, the meeting rooms are ‘Laboratories’, the old clerk’s office is reincarnated as ‘The Teacher’s Room’, and the guestrooms are classified as ‘Classrooms’.
As you enter the hotel from Queen Elizabeth Street near London Bridge, you walk into a comfortable room where a striking glass chandelier in black hangs in the centre, over a tremendous constellation of fresh flowers. The Moroccan-tiled floor in a classic black and white pattern, but with a curvy Indian touch, guides you directly to a pair of dark wooden doors leading into the Great Hall.
Turning left to the reception, you find that there is no reception, as all check-in happens on your phone. Intended to break down barriers and redefine luxury hospitality, it’s another feature that makes it stand out from traditional London hotels. Instead is a spacious room with signature star lantern giving off a welcoming glow. The consistent Jali pattern swirls over the ceiling and beneath it is a modestly furnished room with intricate Indian details.
To the right as you enter the hotel is the Whisky Bar, where the original herringbone parquet floor is starkly contrasted by a beautiful ceiling made out of mother-of-pearl. There are more contrasts that work well together – the dark wood half-wall panelling, Victorian doors and black and white photographs from St Olave’s prime school days, meeting the Jali-patterned wall screens behind the bar, the purple lit bar cabinets and a mirrored bar front.
Leading into the ‘Headmaster’s Room’, the herringbone floor continues. The same style of upholstery is evident in this room, but the most striking feature of the room is the incredibly sophisticated details of the plastered ceiling. Restored from its original state, the result is impressive and beautiful. The atmospheric fireplace is a nice touch that provides a residential and cosy feel.
The crown jewel of the hotel is the former Great Hall, which now houses the hotel’s signature restaurant, the pan-Indian award-winning Baluchi, which brings fine dining into traditional Indian eating. Boasting a striking curved ceiling dome with dark wooden beams and wood panelling, the ceiling and walls are covered in a striking cobalt blue.
The triple-high barrel-vaulted space is tremendous and has four bespoke glass chandeliers in majestic blue suspended from the high ceiling. Genuinely Indian, the chandeliers are custom-designed, hand-carved, hand-blown and hand-polished and each weighs half a tonne.
With original herringbone floors, panels and woodwork, there are added golden panels in a Tree Of Life-inspired pattern and bespoke, hand-made Indian mirrors. The Indian design details blend seamlessly with the traditional furniture in comfortable colours.
The huge Victorian windows let abundance of natural light into the room, and through elegant doors, you can walk out onto the outdoor terrace, which offers an outdoor dining option.
The gallery serving Afternoon Tea, the Naanery, a bread bar, whose panelling repeats the Jali pattern showcased in the reception areas, and the show kitchen with an open tandoori oven completes the dramatic transformation from school dining hall to one of London’s finest destination restaurants.
Each of the guestrooms (classrooms) and suites (cosy rooms) are uniquely designed and each has a different layout. Rooms on the top floor, for instance, have 30-foot high ceilings.
The classrooms are all on the second and third floor, with each floor having its own colour scheme of yellow and orange. The Indian element of the hotel is more apparent here than in other areas of the property, where intricate details in the soft furnishing, lighting and colour palette hint to the Indian heritage. The print on the headboards is particularly striking.
Of the suites, the most stand-out ones are the Mountford Suite (named after the original designer) and the Tower Suite on the top floor, and the Lalit Legacy Suite on the first floor, which occupies what used to be the headmasters office. This is the hotel’s take on a Presidential Suite.
The Legacy Suite consists of three connected rooms and is dedicated to the Founder Chairman. The first room is The Butler’s Room, a rather small, but elegant room with a gorgeous four-poster bed and a lush en-suite bathroom, boasting details such as a mirror framed in mother-of-pearl and fabulous Moroccan tiles in black and white.
The second room is the Master Bedroom, which has a great view of the neighbouring Shard through a charming half moon-shaped window. The incredible, tall ceiling is identical to the Headmasters Room on the floor below, with pretty, intricate details painted in crisp white. Modest lighting and several windows make it a light and breezy room. Again, the bathroom has a framed mirror in mother-of pearl, but the basins are in black marble and there’s a lush tub. Frosted shower cabinets add another level of privacy while being a stylish design element.
The third room is the Governor’s Room, which has the original fireplace, ceiling and woodwork. There are some charming tiny windows and some huge Victorian ones, both original. It’s an open solution with the bathroom, where only partition walls separate the two areas. Accessed through steps to the elevated platform, the bathroom has the same design as in the Master Bedroom bathroom.
The Tower Suite has integrated one of the original towers and therefore has beautiful, high ceilings, providing a spacious and luxurious feel to the room. A small dining area has been created in the tower, adding a residential element. A further rustic and authentic atmosphere is apparent with the exposed brick painted in white. The signature star lantern gives off a gentle glow that completes the room and makes it intimate.
Every room and every detail of this hotel tells a story, which makes the Lalit more than just a hotel. It’s a tribute to a loved one, it’s reinvention at its best and it’s modernity meeting history in its finest form. Using history to its advantage, The Lalit London is a true success.