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A SIMPLE PLAN: The curious tale of Hope Street Hotel

Hope Street Hotel’s Dave Brewitt had a great idea. Trouble is, it wasn’t this one. At least, not at first. Because, like all great origin stories, Hope Street Hotel’s is, well, complicated.

Dave Brewitt has a confession. “This was never the plan...any of it,” he says as we walk through Hope Street Hotel’s graceful new extension, with its beautifully choreographed collection of rooms, suites and gathering spaces.

As elegant and assured as you’d expect from Liverpool’s premier independent hotel, the extension’s generous new reception area and panoramic fifth floor function space feel every bit the natural next step to the hotel’s story.

But there’s a twist. Hope Street was never destined to have a hotel at all...

“I bought the original building, The London Carriage Works, fully intending to turn it into apartments,” he admits. “That was the original plan.”

“Then I did the maths, and I thought a hotel made more sense,” he says.

Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly tourism didn’t make quite as much sense any more.

Neither did it make a lot of sense for a man who had no experience of the hotel or hospitality industry, and who was a complete neophyte in the ways of the hospital corner, to open a boutique hotel In Liverpool. A city still a stranger to Harvey Nics, Disney cruise ships and artisan gin.

The original bank dropped out in the post 9/11 shakedown. The London hotel market collapsed overnight. Investors ran, screaming for the hills. But Dave ploughed on.

“My experience of hotels? A lovey break in the Med, or the Alps. Sitting on the balcony with a drink, gazing at the view…”

Dave learned a lot. Quickly. From many wise people.

“I discovered that plenty of guests don’t actually want to be in your hotel. They’re on business, away from their family. They don’t want to sit on a city centre balcony with a cocktail. They want a bed that’s slightly better than theirs, a great shower, and a comfortable work-station.”

So Dave set to it. Buoyed by visits to outliers such as the fabulous 42 The Calls in Leeds, Nottingham’s Lace Market, The Morrison and The Clarence in Dublin, and in Leeds, Dave fell in love with a new kind of city centre hotel. One that swapped the soulless dreich of corporate chains and their Corby trouser presses for minimal Scandi chic and rainfall showers.

But first he had the small matter of converting an 1869 furniture warehouse into a hotel.

“There were no joists. Just wooden beams and thick, three-inch planks between the floors. Cast iron columns went right through the building and there was no central staircase. I came up with the idea of our signature oak staircase because I calculated that the proposed steel staircase was £30 per tread. I thought ‘I could make a solid oak tread for that!’. Then I re-did the maths and found out that the steel was actually ten times more expensive. So oak it definitely was!”

It’s nice to know that, sometimes, inspired interior design flourishes arrive thanks to a miscalculation over the price of steel. Whatever its origin, it was genius, and helped convince Design Hotels of the World that this was the city’s first serious design-led hotel.

Liverpool’s tourist offer shifted seismically on its axis. You can trace it back to the day The London Carriage Works opened in 2003.

How do you know when you’ve got it right? When, within a year of opening, you’re welcoming US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with Foreign Minister Jack Straw on a three day visit.

That, and the fact that the hotel was one of Condé Nast Traveller’s top 50 new hotels in the world. All of which made Dave look elsewhere. Next door, to be precise.

The Hotel’s neighbour, a 1970’s-built police station extension was: “a bit of an eyesore, really,” says Dave. “I’d always considered extending through.”

So that’s exactly what he did. The team kept the building’s concrete frame, and reinforced it to transfer the new load. By some engineering miracle, they added six stories on top of the two existing stories to the rear, and four stories to the front. “We kept the top floor all timber, to keep it light,” Dave explains. “And we won a green award for not knocking it down and releasing all its embedded carbon, but it didn’t make life easy for us,” Dave recalls.

Et voilà, 41 new rooms. Just in time for the tourism economy to collapse for a second time, as the world dived into the 2008 recession.

“The world fell off a cliff,” Dave smiles. “But we carried on.”

And it came good. The hotel had its new, amazing, Fifth Floor. It had a proud new entrance on Hope Street, rather than its subtle - ‘is this a hotel or a clinic?’ - entrance on Hope Place. It had arrived.

The new build’s ribbons of Portland Stone were a nod to the original building next door. Just enough to make the connection that this was an organic evolution, not a cynical black-box-stuck-on-the-roof extension.

The scale might have increased, but the soul remained.

“I used to think boutique hotels couldn’t be more than 48 rooms. Then I decided it was 89 rooms. I just made the numbers up, because we learned that it’s about service and perception, not size,” Dave says.

That mindset would be put to the test for the hotel’s next phase. Enter the School for the Blind chapter, and an audacious plan.

“The School for the Blind was becoming a bit of a problem,” Dave recalls. “It was a neglected building with a great heritage, being used for nefarious activities.”

So what was the motivation for the move? Damage limitation or hotel expansion?

“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” Dave says. “In truth it was probably a bit of both. It was a fabulous collection of buildings that needed loving care and restoration. Was it the right space for us to move into? I don’t know…”

The building, according to Dave, was ‘broadly ok. A bit of dry rot, but sound enough.” The problem really was the years of neglect: the building was drastically overdue a little care and attention.

But in designing the world’s first school for the blind, the Victorian architects probably didn’t consider the needs of future visitors wanting to enjoy a sunset hot tub on their balcony, or a neck and shoulders rub down in the basement.

“I thought, ‘How do we make this work?’” Dave says. “We thought about serviced apartments, but that didn’t feel right. It isn’t what we do. So we ended up with 62 bedrooms, a cinema, a spa, a pool, a clubroom and extended function space on the fifth floor.”

Of course they did.

“A lot of my time is spent scribbling over drawings saying no, no, no. My team will tell you, they have to go through endless iterations.”

What’s likely to get Dave’s red pen out, I ask?

“It’s getting the balance right between aesthetics and economics,” he says. “I’m an engineer, I look at things numerically. But this is my baby, and we’ve come so far because we’ve never succumbed to the cynicism of the big chains. Every single room here is different. We always use natural materials, slate, wood, stone. We care about the small things,” he adds, pointing out a door handle that still irks him.

But the engineering challenge Dave had embarked on was immense. And the geography of Liverpool was not on their side. “First and foremost you have to get all the levels to work. When you walk in on Hope Street you’re a meter and a half above the exit on Hardman Street,” Dave says. “It’s the stuff you don’t see that really gives us sleepless nights. Still does.”

“It’s been a tricky challenge,” Dave says, with dramatic understatement. “When we began, Pizza Express was already in place. Building on top, alongside and underneath a functioning restaurant isn’t ideal. We dropped eight stories into the courtyard, and six on top of the two floors in the corner occupied by 92º Coffee shop. We then connected all eight levels through to a hotel which was already open for business.”

To that end, they took delivery of approximately 200 tonnes of steel, with the intention of ‘floating it’ over the scrubbed up Portland Stone. “But there’s one problem with that,” Dave says. “Steel doesn’t float.”

So steel went over and under, in, out and around the frame of The School for the Blind. It ducked and it dived. It buried into the ground, and raised itself above the listed building’s exterior. It weaved through the block and beam floors, with the Portland stone taking the load, and it artfully bypassed the 12 inch Sloppy Giuseppe with extra garlic sauce. Oh, and it definitely didn’t bump into the guests either.

“None of it is square,” Dave says. “We had to drop every piece of steel through the existing structure. We knew about complex challenges, and this really tested us,” Dave says. “We delivered a really complicated bit of engineering.”

Connecting the 1850’s building to the Blind School’s 1930’s extension caused a few headaches too.

“We followed through on the fifth floor to keep the levels the same, and naturally we kept the ground floor level the same. We had to have steps on the floors in between to tie them together,” Dave says. “Not easy when the third floor in the old building used to be its roof.”

But, while the engineering involved stitching together three very different buildings – clearly visible from the outside – internally the brief was clear: guests shouldn’t feel like they’re moving into a new space. “We didn’t want long, tedious corridors or abrupt changes of atmosphere. We still wanted to feel like an intimate, special space. Just as we did when we first opened our doors,” Dave says.

The work continues. The spa, with inside-outside vitality pool is set for a spring opening. “But notice I haven’t said which spring,” Dave laughs.

“I’m exceptionally proud of what we’ve all achieved,” Dave says. “And I’m grateful to the many excellent engineers, builders and architects who’ve helped us on our journey.”

“Yes, I’d like to start again knowing what I know now. And yes, there are problems yet to be resolved. But If you can’t keep improving on something, you lose interest.”

What started as a discarded idea has reshaped this corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street. Reshaped the city too. Isn’t it great when a plan doesn’t come together?