Harry Handelsman and the amazing St Pancras Renaissance Hotel
A meeting with one of London's hottest property developersby Victoria Gill
“Harry! How’s business?” Last night Handelsman’s hotel hosted ‘the coolest party in town’ - the Harry Potter party, just for a select few. The day before Lily Cole, who owns one of the St Pancras Chambers apartments above, was photographed on a white horse by Mary McCartney in the lobby.
The charismatic property developer-turned-hotelier who makes it all look so easy arrived here through a mixture of blood, sweat and tears over seven long years. “I cannot think of anyone I know that would have undertaken this project, that would have gone through the absolute misery I went through, because it was total madness and I don’t know anyone as mad as that,” Handelsman says with a devilish smile.
There is always an air of excitement around Harry, a dash of glamour served alongside the cool reserve. The chiseled features and steely charisma belie a suave sophistication and discrete charm. Handelsman has just released a coffee table book about the landmark building’s transformation – the former Midland Grand Hotel is considered the greatest Gothic masterpiece in London, the super iconic station building designed by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1873 – into the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
Handelsman describes the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel restoration not as a labour of love but rather a ‘labour of absolute frustration’ with the seductive purr of the Paris he was raised in and the gravelly, glottal stopped growl of Germany, where he was born.
Handelsman is one of London’s hottest property developers and most influential habitués. He introduced loft living to London after seeing friends in his previous home of Manhattan - “accountants, or artists, or diamond dealers,” seduced by the floor-to-ceiling windows, double-height ceilings and wooden floors of derelict warehouses – super spacious blank canvas living spaces in which to create their own personal worlds. He formed the Manhattan Loft Corporation in the depths of the last recession and bought a defunct printworks in Clerkenwell – followed by developments in Kensington, Mayfair, Chelsea, Bayswater and the iconic Ealing Studios among the twenty or so sites in Harry’s crown.
He’s opening a boutique hotel in a derelict fire station in Marylebone with Andre Balazs, owner of the Chateau Marmont and Mercer hotels, introduced to the New York hotelier by a mutual artist pal. “As you might have noticed we are aggressively buying art.” Handelsman points out, nodding toward the Bridget Riley and Gary Hume works lining the walls of the Club Room we are in. “We bring in some of the most amazing artists; there are sculptures here worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The beauty of art is that it’s so much more than one-dimensional. I’m quite a visual person, be it art, be it people, be it buildings, or nature, so I think that makes me a natural candidate to collect art. It becomes an investment, a privilege, a pleasure.”
Is Harry an aesthete, a sybarite or an epicurean, I ponder? “Definitely an aesthete!” his PR representative Camilla enthuses, to which Harry looks utterly bemused.
Handelsman favours the Gritti Palace in Venice and the Mercer in New York, flying the new British Airways First Class, eating at Dinings in Marylebone and The Box nightclub in Soho, where I bumped into him last. He declares that alighting from Paris to St Pancras by Eurostar is only trumped by the trip by Vaporetto from Marco Polo airport to St Mark’s Square (his uppish assistant used to say that, “Venice is the only place in the world where she doesn’t mind taking the bus”).
Perhaps the greatest challenge on Harry’s horizon is the development of a luxury hotel and residential development in Stratford, “this godforsaken place in the East of London,” close to the 2012 Olympic site. “My brief to the architect was to design the best residential tower in the world. It’s going to be amazing. With enough commitment we can transform London into a truly 21st century city.”
I wonder why Harry doesn’t take it easy, relax, stop working so hard, why when, last night, he couldn’t find a bedroom save for the Royal Suite, he didn’t take a deep breath, look down from his castle and survey the fat of the land. “If you affect people’s lives, you don’t stop, because why not continue? And it’s not altruistic. A lot of it is about ego, because when I do something really good I feel very proud about it, and if I feel very proud then I get a little bit of a big boost of my ego and I need a few more boosts before I retire.”
Then Handelsman looks at his watch – a Girard-Perregaux Limited Edition (he used to collect Rolexes, before he fell for art). “Is that the time? I’ve got to go, my daughter will kill me!” And then Harry Handelsman bids me goodbye and disappears – perhaps via platform 9 ½ – to attend the Harry Potter premiere.