Harry Handelsman is the man behind the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. A 10-year labour of love that reinstated one of Britain’s greatest buildings and reunited Kings Cross with its gothic masterpiece and the catalyst for its regeneration, the Chiltern Firehouse.
One of London’s oldest fire stations reborn as its most talked-about restaurant, bar and hotel. And now his latest project, Manhattan Loft Gardens, which will take loft-living to a new level – an extraordinary tower of expansive living spaces, three sky gardens and a design hotel right in the heart of Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
What does your current position involve?
As the founder and CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation, I usually identify sites, whether these are old buildings to restore or a place for a new build, from which I then come up with the overall concept for the project. I bring my vision to life by building a team around me; shortlisting and then commissioning any key people who will be involved in the project. I work closely with the architects, designers, creative teams and eventually the operators and/or tenants.
What was your background prior to becoming a successful developer?
I was born in Germany and raised in France and Belgium, and attended university in Toronto, Canada. I started my property career immediately after graduation.
I spent time in New York in the 70’s and 80’s hanging out with artists and creative friends, many of whom lived in converted lofts in SoHo. I was impressed how these beautiful warehouse buildings were being reimaged into fabulous living spaces, with emphasis on space, light and design.
I moved to the UK in the late 80’s, and it was the decline of the property market here in the early 90’s and the subsequent availability of old industrial buildings in then-derelict parts of town that enabled me to pioneer loft living in the UK. Looking through an auction catalogue, I found a stunning building located in Clerkenwell. It wasn’t a traditionally residential area at the time, but it had great infrastructure. This gave me the idea to bring NYC-style loft living to London, starting Manhattan Loft Corporation.
So Harry, you are an extremely successful entrepreneur. Did you ever dream that you would be so successful at such an early age?
I consider myself more of a passionate entrepreneur than a successful one.
With the current economic crisis everything seems to change – how do you see the future of the private equity industry?
The great thing about private equity is that once initial shockwaves dissipate, people learn to adapt in most climates relatively quickly. Creative businesses with creative ideas even have the opportunity to thrive in those times.
What’s been your best investment to date?
The 10-year restoration of one of Britain’s most iconic Grade 1 star Listed buildings, the 1870’s gothic revival of St Pancras. This incredible building was in such a chronic state of disrepair and when the original partners pulled out, the costs began to spiral out of control. We stepped in and set about pulling together a team of experts to restore the incredible building to its former glory, keeping every intricate detail throughout the mosaic tiles, wallpaper, etc.
In 2005, when King’s Cross was still deemed a ‘no go zone’ by many, we sold all 67 apartments off plan for record prices for the area. I have kept the ownership of the 245 room St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and continue to take an active role alongside the hotel management.
It was a hugely difficult journey at times, feeling like a lonely path. Every project has different challenges at the beginning, however I do believe that great quality projects driven with passion, commitment and integrity lead to success.
Turning to the topic of authenticity of experience, how do you approach each project?
Shortly after identifying a site, or looking at an existing building, I usually have a strong idea of what I want to create. I then try to surround myself with the best collaborators and set out to achieve those aims.
How important is design and architecture when developing a new project?
The quality of the architecture and design is absolutely paramount to any project we do at Manhattan Loft Corporation. I am passionate about restoring and bringing beautiful buildings to London. I don’t agree with the cheaply made, ugly high-rises that many developers are building around the capital.
Your latest opening The Stratford is a design hotel that does things differently – what was the idea behind the hotel and of course Manhattan Loft Gardens?
I feel living in high-rises can be a very anonymous experience, and I wanted to embed a sense of community within my building. I set out to do this by bringing in the surrounding neighbourhood to come in to eat and drink, short-term stay guests for the hotel and long staying guests in the lofts. A healthy combination of different aspirations, but if orchestrated properly can give the building and its inhabitants this sense of community.
How have you found becoming a hotelier in your own right, with your latest opening?
Challenging, interesting, frustrating and rewarding.
Have you noticed any particular trend in hotel design?
In recent years, the design of hotels is being considered more and more to appeal to locals as much as the traditional hotel guest. Over time, hotels have evolved into destinations, not just for the overnight guests but for the local community to enjoy the bars, the restaurants and the atmosphere.This gives the hotel guest the opportunity not only to be in the neighborhood, but to mix with the locals.
With the rise of the global nomadic lifestyle and remote working becoming the norm, many are now looking for longer stay accommodation. Travelling light, they’re still looking for the convenience provided by hotel facilities, and an integrated residential offering can give the additional comfort of a home.
Serviced apartments have always been an after-thought. As a function of convenience, being linked to a hotel, they have been existent for a number of years. But to be part of an attraction; this is new. This is what I have introduced at The Stratford; a holistic destination with integrated lofts, hotel, bars, sky gardens and restaurants. I believe this fusion is a template for the future of hospitality and hotel design.
What’s been your greatest risk?
When you introduce something new, there is always a challenge. I did that when I first introduced loft living into the UK – many thought it was a rapid way to bankruptcy. They were proven wrong.
Within The Stratford I see a new opportunity to turn high-rise living from a commercial venture into a place of desire, by introducing all the elements that form a community. Building a catalyst within an unestablished area is always a risk, but I fully believe in the success of the project and the now emerging surrounding area of Stratford.
What policies should the U.K. put in place to protect and encourage this industry, post Brexit?
Stay open for business
What’s next for you?
I’m not retiring! I currently have my eye on a beautiful old building in Central London. I’m always on the lookout for the next opportunity.
What would be your dream opening?
My ambition is to expand the integrated hospitality concept of The Stratford internationally. I’m still looking for new sites in the UK but also looking at opportunities abroad.