Posted in Projects on 12 September, 2017

The former headquarters for the Refuge Assurance Company in Manchester and a beautiful Grade II-listed Victorian Gothic Revival building, is now the home of the PRINCIPAL Manchester. Renowned for choosing historic locations for their hotels, how has PRINCIPAL managed to retain the building’s history while creating a modern luxury hotel? Tonje Odegard finds out…

PRINCIPAL has a wide selection of city-centre hotels based in landmark buildings across the UK. The aim of the hotel group is to create a relationship between the distinctive heritage of the hotel’s building and its surroundings. They want each of the hotels to tell its own individual story that reflects its history, environment and future through its architecture and design – with all its quirks and characters. How has PRINCIPAL Manchester mastered the challenge?

Following an extensive £25 million refurbishment, PRINCIPAL Manchester opened in November 2016. But the building’s life started more than 125 years ago with the original plans submitted in 1891. With an extension added onto the main building in 1912, which included the introduction of the building’s characteristic clock tower, it became the home to The Palace Hotel in 1996, following the Company’s move to the Wilmslow in 1987. The property now encompasses enough space for 270 rooms, impressive meeting and events areas (a huge theatre housing up to 1,000 people, a banqueting hall for up to 850 pax, a dinner dance place for up to 750 people, a classroom of up to 600, a cabaret for up to 500 people and a boardroom housing up to 100 people), and an extraordinary bar and restaurant.

Originally designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect behind the Natural History Museum in London, with the 1912 extension designed by his son, Paul Waterhouse, the building really is a beautiful starting point for a hotel. In charge of restoring the property to its former glory and giving it a modern and luxurious facelift needed for a five-star hotel, was PRINCIPAL’s own in-house design team alongside 3D Reid Architects, with interiors by designers Alex Michaelis and Luke Rowett of Michaelis Boyd. 3D Reid was behind the restoration of the 1000 person Grand Ballroom, the redevelopment of the original banking hall into a restaurant and of remodelling all bedrooms.

3D Reid stated on their website: “Our work on the Principal Manchester sought to strip back poor interventions made in the 1990’s and reposition it as a lifestyle hotel worthy of the buildings history and character. In the former Refuge Assurance hall we created a new winter garden as the central focus of the space, surrounded by a new bar, restaurant and den, enabling the space to be used as an ‘all day offer’. One of the key moves was improving circulation routes around the four separate buildings that make up the hotel and reorganising the different uses throughout the building to provide a more effective use of the front of house spaces and ultimately improve the guest experience.”

The refurbishment work has restored many original features as well as creating a brand-new restaurant and bar in the former ground floor, open-plan office, which included the most ornate interiors. The building is remarkable for the detailed ornamentation throughout, from stained-glass windows, decorative ironwork and glazed bricks, tiles and faience. As these elements were still in such a good condition and there was no need for period redecoration and repainting, the designers were able to use it to their advantage and integrate it neatly into the interiors.

Lighting Design International were responsible for the lighting throughout the hotel and had the task of discreetly adding modern architectural lighting to the refurbished building to enhance the historical features and provide soft ambient lighting. This was done using new decorative chandeliers and wall lights fitted with warm, white LED filament lamps. Integrated lighting was also detailed into the new furniture and fixtures bringing a modern aesthetic to the historic interior. The final scheme is a balance of modern architectural lighting and decorative lighting enhancing the original character of the space while creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere to the public areas of the hotel.

Public spaces

Notable architectural design features of the lobby include the original marble and bronze Director’s staircase and the vast, neoclassic style. Guests arrive under a domed stained-glass cupola, greeted by Sophie Dickens’ specially commissioned horse sculpture, which occupies the former turning circle for horse-and-carriage. Little old-fashioned suitcases are stored underneath the curved benches that sit on the turning circle, giving an interesting periodic feel to the room.

The lobby is located in the new part of the building, and the dome provides a comfortable and atmospheric light. The bright travertine floors are contrasted by beige bricked walls, which are adorned with roman inscriptions. It has an almost courtyard-like atmosphere with the buzzing of people and the grand entrance from the street outside.

The transformation of all 117 conference, meeting and private dining rooms sees the spaces fully restored and upgraded to combine modern technology with contemporary décor, highlighting the classic Edwardian features evident in the majority of the venue’s characterful function spaces. Housing the largest hotel ballroom in the northwest of England, the event space features an ornate design that has been lovingly protected throughout its upgrade.

Drinking and dining

The new bar and restaurant, whose name gives reference to the building’s history, is The Refuge by Volta, created in partnership between PRINCIPAL and DJs-turned-restaurateurs Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford, which are behind the award-winning Volta restaurant in West Didsbury.

With the scale of a grand café, yet the informality of a local drinking den, the 10,00 square foot space is partitioned by a 40 foot granite bar serving craft beers and cocktails, and an interior glasshouse, the Winter Garden, where the mood is more refined than in the bustling public bar.

The massive bar, with the Winter Garden as its backdrop, stands resolute in the huge room, helped by the ornate ceiling. With strong gold-painted, original pillars and industrial counter lamps, the meeting of modern and traditional is perfect. The multi-coloured REFUGE sign behind the bar, the contemporary ‘cage’ that surrounds the pillars and DJ music streaming through the speakers add a distinctly new and trendy feel to the room. At the same time, the original features such as the exposed brick walls, traditional lighting and periodic furniture bring all the history back into it. The result is beautifully balanced.

The Winter Garden, flooded with natural daylight and atmospherically lit at night-time with pretty lights on the plants, is effortlessly sophisticated. A black and white bird’s-eye patterned tiled floor is complemented with delicate furniture in forest green and greys. The plants add a nice freshness to the place at day-time and make the room warm and inviting after dark.


Many of the loft-style 270 guestrooms contain listed period details, from wood panelling and fireplaces to tiled brickwork. A variety of designs have been applied to the bedrooms and suites, all of them referencing the building’s original purpose, making use of the double-height windows on the lower floors. 

Far from uniform, each room has its own character due to its individual design. The period-style design of the elegant rooms is overarching with retro-style lighting, a comfortable colour palate of bronze, cream and grey, and quirky furniture, but it’s the small details that make each room unique. The grey and white herringbone-patterned carpet, comfy beds and heavy, metallic curtains form the base for the rooms, whereas bespoke furniture, case goods and decorative elements add that little extra to complete the look. Sheepskin, retro radios and retro music players, as well as old black & white photographs of the building and the surrounding areas are some of the items that make you appreciate the effort that has gone into making these rooms special while retaining the building’s history.    

The refurbishment of PRINCIPAL Manchester has helped to reinstate the ‘grand-dame’ reputation the building had in its heyday. It is the epitome of a luxury hotel when it comes to its design, services and offerings, while a true historic gem that remembers the city’s and building’s unique and fantastic history. PRINCIPAL Manchester is a huge success that’s true to what the brand set out to do.

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