Liverpool's old White Star Line building reborn as a luxury Titanic styled hotel
PUBLISHED: 11:00 09 July 2014 | UPDATED: 18:31 07 October 2015
It was once a scene of great despair but now Liverpool's iconic White Star building is back to its best, writes John James
It has always attracted crowds in Liverpool. From the moment it was built in 1896 the headquarters of the celebrated White Star Line at 30 James Street attracted the local populace who came to “ooh” and “aah” at the city’s most trend-setting palace of commerce. It looked like a cross between a French chateau and a Baltic warehouse with its turrets, gables and dizzying chimney stacks.
The crowds came again late one night 16 years later in an entirely different mood, when news spread that some terrible accident had befallen White Star’s brand new flagship, RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage. Numerous Liverpool families had relatives or friends among Titanic’s crew.
Then just a few months ago, as the White Star Line houseflag fluttered over the granite entrance for the first time since the company vacated the building in 1934, excited crowds returned once more in huge numbers.
This was when the new owners of 30 James Street, husband and wife Lawrence and Katie Kenwright, who run the Signature Living hotel group, hosted a public open day - the first in 118 years.
They wanted everyone to see their progress with the £7m conversion of this Liverpool landmark into a swanky new hotel called 30 James Street - Home of Titanic.
The booking hall, once heavily partitioned and cramped with false ceilings, has been returned to its wide open original design as the magnificent White Star Great Hall, seating 210 people.
In an audacious move, the attic storey caretaker’s rambling flat has been gutted to create Liverpool’s first rooftop champagne bar overlooking The Strand waterfront road.
Called the Carpathia Bar and Restaurant after the Liverpool liner which rescued all 710 Titanic survivors, it caters for 120 people and has two glass-sided 100 feet long balconies giving spectacular views over the World Heritage Site and the Pier Head’s Three Graces buildings. Way down below a spa is carved out of the lower basement.
Sandwiched between these floors are 310 guest beds in 35 suites and 30 apartments, all with their own double whirlpool baths and kitchens. Each is named after people or places associated with Titanic and White Star, including the fictional lead characters from the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic, with Rose’s Suite and J Dawson’s Suite.
Top of the range is the Bridal Suite with its 15 feet wide bed - allegedly the biggest in Liverpool - with a whirlpool bath in one corner turret and a lounging den in the other. Less extravagant are the cabins on the lower ground floor.
Katie Kenwright said: ‘This has been our most exciting hotel project so far. We’re absolutely overwhelmed by the public response to us buying the building. At the open day people were coming up and shaking my hand for bringing it back to life from dereliction and allowing people in after decades.
‘Even before we opened we had 24 weddings booked, including ones from the US and Australia and I’m bombarded with 30 email enquiries a day.’
Lawrence Kenwright added: ‘We started our business in 2008 and were so lucky in being able to buy this amazing building, which I’d admired for so long. We’ve had 100 people a day working on the conversion over the last six months and employ 40 people in the hotel. I’ve designed most of the interior and furniture, which we’ve built ourselves.
‘We know from the worldwide enquiries how much people share our enthusiasm for White Star Line history and want to come and stay here.’
When originally completed, the avant garde property was one of Britain’s first skyscrapers with 10 floors and electric lifts. It was also Liverpool’s first open plan office, thanks to the innovative internal steel frame which also allowed it to survive a bomb in the 1941 Liverpool Blitz.
The exterior was wrapped up in an idiosyncratic Arts and Crafts style by the country’s most fashionable architect Richard Norman Shaw. White Star’s founder, Thomas Henry Ismay, saw Shaw’s New Scotland Yard in London and decided this design was just the job for his hugely successful shipping line’s HQ.
One striking postwar addition is the foyer’s huge mosaic floor map of South America installed after the building’s purchase by Pacific Steam Navigation.
A more recent owner, Blue Star Line renamed the building Albion House, but Liverpool loves nicknames and the striking property’s distinctive banding of red brick and white Portland stone made it universally known as ‘the streaky bacon building.’
Its latest name and dramatic theming as 30 James Street - Home of Titanic is not fanciful. White Star Line actually conceived and planned its doomed flagship in this very building and registered her in Liverpool.
The leading White Star Line historian Paul Louden-Brown, who donated the house flag and was a consultant on the interior, said: ‘White Star invented the concept of the ocean liner as a floating, moving luxury hotel. What we have is a resurgence of that ideal. This is where Titanic was created and where Captain Edward Smith her commander came to receive his orders.
The crowning endorsement is from Thomas Henry Ismay’s great grandson, Michael Bower Manser, 78, of Wiltshire, who made a poignant first visit to his famous relative’s Liverpool legacy.
He said: ‘It meant a great deal for me to stand in the very office from where my great-grandfather Thomas Henry and my great uncle Bruce Ismay ran the company.
‘I am so pleased that this building is being converted into a hotel and the public will see inside it as they did when it was a shipping office many years ago. My family’s contribution to Liverpool makes me enormously proud.’