The big reveal

James Parker speaks to the architect of a complex restoration project in Manchester to create a boutique hotel which enhances industrial Victorian architecture, and celebrates the city’s trading history

A new adaptive reuse project in Manchester has rescued three important Victorian industrial buildings and stripped them back to reveal their original character, including thoughtful interior design which refers back to Manchester’s global trade of the past. The project, realised in the heart of the city for boutique ‘aparthotel’ chain Locke, has created a high-end 160-room hotel whose guests now benefit from the proportions of the restored spaces, combined with comfortable interiors and guest rooms complete with kitchens. The site is sandwiched between key thoroughfare Whitworth Street and the Rochdale Canal, surrounded by bars and hotels, and adjacent to Manchester’s ‘Gay Village’ located in Canal Street. Whitworth Locke comprises three connected Victorian era buildings, which are somewhat Mancunian with their robust red brick facades. The slight exception is the listed Central House on Princess Street which was built as a showroom for textiles in the Scottish Baronial style, complete with corner tourelles. Behind it, and running along the canal is Johnson House, a former textile mill, and on Whitworth Street sits Dominion House, which was a warehouse for storing the goods produced in the mill. The architects of the project, New York firm Grzywinski + Pons, commented that the commission to restore what were neglected buildings, and remedy previous poor interventions, had “a special resonance” for them. The practice explained: “The beautiful former textile warehouses and showroom were highly reminiscent of some of the earliest work we did designing interventions to 19th century masonry buildings in New York City.” It added: “The proportions, materials, textures and quality of light we inherited felt a bit like home, and demanded to be exalted.” Part of that demand came from the fact that the buildings had endured a fairly disastrous renovation in the 1980s, with “no respect for the underlying structure,” says Matthew Grzywinski, founding partner at the studio. Converting the former mill into a boarding house and Indian restaurant, the intervention was a cost-driven ‘cover up’ job that was typical of the time. Despite the fact that the three buildings’ qualities had become hidden, Grzywinski says the C-shaped block they comprise was still regarded by locals as a “marker that you’re in the centre of town.” The architect says it was characterised by acoustic ceilings and drylined walls “just kind of floating in space”. He adds: “It was pretty banal and all financially governed by the least you could do to make a place inhabitable.” The new renovation by contrast was driven by a determination to “preserve and celebrate” the richness of the historic 19th century building fabric while “obliterating” the previous alterations, he says. The brief from the client included “a couple of dictums about things they wanted to promote,” says Matthew. He explains that these were “an inclusive nature, and a kind of hybridisation of aspirational – a special quality you’d like to have in a boutique hospitality project – and a homeliness,” exemplified in the fact the hotel apartments have their own kitchen facilities. “The idea was you could stay there a day or a couple of months.” In terms of dealings with the client, Matthew confirms that there was a “nice kind of back and forth,” applying Locke Hotels’ required number of rooms to the idiosyncrasies of old buildings. He says there are benefits for this kind of boutique project: “You’re constrained, but it gives you a reason not to create a really regular grid. That kind of whimsy and discovery – oh I have a turret in my room!” He says the project was notable for the good relations between the project team and planners. “Quite often, there’s an acrimonious relationship, but in this case, I wanted to do everything they wanted to do.” However, there was a fixed budget, and there were further constraints in terms of discovering issues like a lack of fire stopping in the roof, or plumbing problems that were critical to address.

Bringing clarity

There are guest rooms in all of the three buildings, and the common spaces and circulation spaces have been designed to connect the ground floors of all three as effectively one building. The architects did not retain many of the internal walls added during the previous renovation, but retained the floors ‘as is.’ While a lot of the internal layout was “pretty new,” says Grzywinski, some of the pre-existing layout was retained, notably in the attic/top floor space. However below this, many partitions and ceilings needed removing to provide a clearer layout, and at the same time benefit from the considerable qualities of the underlying structure. “They had not really considered the building last time, they had things like walls in the middle of fenestration, strange things like that.” While most of the original windows were retained (a requirement on the listed Central House), some secondary glazing had to be added to provide the necessary thermal and acoustic performance. A large part of the project was to make the layout of the ground floor as legible as possible, to help guests find their way around, and introduce a freer-flowing circulation. In addition, accessibility requirements were placed to the fore, for example in addressing the various level changes across the ground floor of the three buildings, including the basement level of the Johnson Building, which accommodates guest rooms overlooking the canal. “We made changes so that the small steps or ramps are not so conspicuous any more, and are part of the smoother flow,” explains Grzywinski. In the case of the rooms along the canal, some of the floor was removed to create new egress to help clarify the layout, and aid navigation. The layout of guest rooms in upper levels in each of the three buildings was also done with a focus on legibility, as well as aspects like fire separation. “By virtue of the fact that it’s three buildings with so much character, it was a bit of a challenge making the wayfinding, signage and navigating work.”

Atrium & thresholds

Matthew Grzywinski says striking the balance between “interfering” with old structures and ensuring they were rescued for future public as well as hotel use was serving a self-evident need: “You always feel like you’re walking on eggshells doing something to an old property, but I felt we were doing a real service to this building by ripping everything out of there.” At the centre of the three buildings was what was formerly a small closed-off ‘street’ (Galbraith Street, leading onto Princess Street). However it had been covered with a glazed steel-framed barrel vault in the previous renovation, which also closed off the access with glass doors. Grzywinski says: “It did feel a bit defensive, like maybe it was turning its back to what was considered a hostile neighbourhood at the time. We wanted to open this building to neighbourhood that was coming back to life in a lot of ways.” Addressing the atrium was one of the first interventions the practice identified, and set about removing previous alterations and simplifying the barrel vault roof structure. Matthew explains: “The main roof structure stayed, but everything below the barrel vault came down.” A new, simple rectangular steel structure increased transparency throughout the space, opening up views from the internal facades of Central House and Dominion House into the atrium. Matthew admits the previous renovation’s addition of salvaged cast iron columns supporting the vault were complementary– and as such were retained, partly also out of structural practicality. The atrium was one important ‘threshold’ the architects identified in the project – while blending the inside with the outside by being re-opened to Princess Street, it also included the new reception, a bar, and a granite paved floor, that “brought back some of the feeling of the street.” Removing the tiles and drylining revealed the internal facades of Johnson and Central House, and these were restored with ‘period’ doors, although this raised accessibility challenges. “Doors were tricky because of budget combined with DDA and Part M, we couldn’t really do period glazed steel-framed doors, but we tried to do the best we could.” The project uncovered “further thresholds between what are now public spaces,” says Matthew – “Beaver Street, Princess Street, the canal, all these connections, some of which were uncovered because of safety concerns, but some which we wanted to create so you could enter the building from all three streets.” The ground floor of Johnson House, which was “literally full of rubbish” previously, with “lots of weird level changes and a redundant service entrance,” was all ripped out. Now leading out onto Beaver Street, it includes a lounge, co-working space and coffee shop. Here, salvaged glazed brick was added to something retained from the 80s renovation – columns of masonry with steel cores, creating “a kind of atrium within an atrium.” A skylight was also revealed by removing ceiling tiles. “It was a deep floor plate because all three buildings were interconnected – so it was a nice way to bring light down, which there isn’t a huge amount of in Manchester,” says Grzywinski. The safety issues that needed addressing were chiefly around fire egress improvements. The previous 80s intervention had introduced fire stairs across the internal facades in Galbraith Street plus others into Beaver Street, and these had to be brought back inside the building to avoid disrupting the atrium’s newly clarified aesthetics. How the architects resolved this then fed into some of their decision-making on the internal circulation.

Trading heritage

“What we often see in boutique properties is that they’re lovely, but they’re not really liveable, not really comfortable,” says Matthew Grzywinski. He explains his motivation in this case to “walk the line” between something that was “aspirational, and certainly didn’t look like where people spend their daily lives,” and something which combined all the conveniences they’d expect, with a high level of comfort. Services have been exposed throughout the hotel, matching the generally ‘stripped back’ aesthetic. Matthew says the idea was well received: “I proposed exposing them and the planners jumped on it.” This extended to the new adaptive kitchen services running from the Dominion building, which couldn’t come through the interior, as the structure would have been compromised. Instead they were run across the internal ‘Galbraith’ elevation, painted, and taken into the attic space. This approach was continued in the guest rooms, where services have been exposed, which Matthew admits was somewhat controversial. “There was tension between the contractor and the planners, who didn’t want to cover anything up. However they also didn’t care whether there was a functioning restaurant or cooling, so I had to bridge that gap and try and please everybody.” As a result the distinctive decor, which in guest rooms is in subtle yet warm ‘blush’ tones that covers not only brick walls and plaster ceilings but also ducting, cast iron columns and virtually everything attached to the walls, caused “a lot of raised eyebrows.” Matthew adds: “It wasn’t trying to fight the fact Manchester is a grey and red city, but that feeling that in a muscular building in a gritty city could be really special.” The soft feel is enhanced by colour-coordinated headboards made like the decks of canal boats. While the internal colour choices, extending to the pistachio green of furniture and walls in the atrium, might initially seem to step away from the building’s heritage, in fact they drew inspiration from Manchester’s historic global trade links. “Manchester exists because of international commerce, and the textile business in particular was pretty far flung,” Matthew says. He’s a fan of the colour of skies in rainy cities, and has worked on several projects in such cities, from Seattle to Edinburgh. The architect applied this to Whitworth Locke in the form of palette of soft greys for metal elements in the atrium, and blues in the bathrooms, which work effectively with the warmer ‘equatorial’ colours elsewhere. The grey is also offset by a strong yellow in the atrium’s added steelwork (taken from the locally well-known symbol of Manchester, the Worker Bee), and botanical-themed textile murals in the atrium/bar, enhanced by hanging baskets, and behind the reception.


“You hear feedback from people who are staying there or working there, that there’s a level of ‘personality,’ says Grzywinski. The architect is delighted that this project, which has rescued important local heritage buildings for a new use, and opened up a formerly closed off street to the city, has received great reviews so far. Ironically, TripAdvisor is one problem to solve, given that its reviews are unfortunately conflating the new Whitworth Locke with its former dysfunctional identity. Matthew sees Manchester as having some similarities with New York in terms of its inherited properties from a bygone era, ripe for enhancement, but also a city with “so much soul, culture and personality, and a huge amount of creativity.” This new comfortable, yet colourfully elegant, hotel embodies those traits, and will likely be a big contributor to that culture. A product of sensitive architecture, it has also given venerable old buildings vibrant new life.