Business meets leisure at the Grove, a Fox Linton Associates hotel in Hertfordshire, U.K.
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 1/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
First the concept of the "weekend" emerged—linguists say the word was coined in 1638. Precisely 201 years later, weekends made a grand entrance at the Grove, extensively remodeled by the fourth Earl of Clarendon. Horace Walpole and Queen Victoria herself were known to arrive on Saturday and remain through Monday morning. After the First World War, louche interludes revolved around such visitors as Vita Sackville-West, who kicked off her lively career as a part-time lesbian during one much-discussed episode at the Hertfordshire estate.
The party atmosphere began to fade when the earl's descendants vacated the Grove in the 1920's. Endowed with grounds planned under Lancelot "Capability" Brown's direction, the property first became a gardening school. It then served as a nutrition institute, a boarding school, and railroad offices. Trains, ultimately, proved the Grove's salvation, as a 30-minute express from London made the location ideal for a five-star hotel and conference facility. Fox Linton Associates creative director Martin J.V. Hulbert began the 31,000-square-foot conversion job in 1999.
Existing brick facades, though rather plain, were nevertheless protected by a Grade II listing. Luckily, Hulbert enjoyed some flexibility with regard to entries, because the front door had been relocated twice. "Each family member who became head of household put a mark on the building," says the designer, who sited the hotel's main entry beneath a colonnade in back. Separate entries lead directly to Colette's, one of two restaurants, and to a conference and function center. "The last thing anyone hoping to relax at the Grove would want is to push past 600 people arriving for a ball," he explains.
In Colette's, which occupies three ground-level salons, Hulbert restored the 18th-century moldings, incorporated natural mustard in his wall paint, and chose purple Georgian goblets for the tables. He went considerably more modern next door, in two conference rooms filled with legions of Charles and Ray Eames executive chairs.
An enfilade of drawing rooms features a surprisingly eclectic mix of furniture. The mod blue-black of walls in the sequence's first space evolves into gray for the largest room—whose deco streamlining nevertheless admits a flamboyant touch or two. A fringe of crystals dangles from one plush chair, and console tables are supported by giant timber blocks from the parkland's fallen oaks.
Equally diverse in style, guest rooms on the mansion's two upper levels fall into three categories: decadent, classic, and contemporary. Even within those parameters, however, architecture ensures that each of the 27 rooms is unique—a parlor here, a garret there. Shared elements, on the other hand, include plasma screens and clear acrylic furniture. "Make lots of things see-through," Hulbert says, "and you're not cluttering the space."
Because a key count of 27 didn't fit the business plan of the Grove's owner, architecture firm Fitzroy Robinson built a 120,000-square-foot two-story wing with 200 guest rooms upstairs. These rooms can rent for far less than those in the mansion, thanks to a more standardized aesthetic—clear glass for desks, red or gold upholstery for headboards, daybeds, and wing chairs.
The wing's major draw is the seven daylit function rooms. (Most comparable London facilities are underground.) And a crisply efficient self-service restaurant with a modern open kitchen represents a sharp departure from the retro softness in the mansion.
Choice, Hulbert explains, was what drove his design. "Wear jeans—or a suit. The Grove is about individuality," he says. His accent is British, but his words sound almost American.