The Royal Stalemate
Southernhay House Hotel has been here, in Exeter, since June 2011. We made the hotel by accident; walking into the city centre each day we would pass the empty shell of a Georgian building. Believing that beautiful buildings deserve respect, and that they need to pay their way well beyond a human lifespan, we bought it in 2010 and converted it to an hotel. The ramshackle offices that occupied the period property previously were entirely stripped back and then the spaces rebuilt to its integral social self. A lot of thought went into this as well as structural engineering. More than anything, we wanted Southernhay House to be a building that Exeter could be proud of. There are too few working buildings in this city that locals can enjoy and recommend to our friends.
Since October 2016 we’ve reluctantly held the title of poshest hotel in Exeter. That’s because what was The Royal Clarence (est 1770) burnt down that month. Whatever our feelings about the interior in design terms, it was an iconic building for Exeter and it was the “posh” place. With an insurance policy of £22.3m on it, paid out early 2017, work began. Planning was sought and granted by Exeter City Council and Historic England for extension from 55 beds to 74 in August 2017. Grand designs were floated but not, in our view, needed, to restore a working building. Two flaws will always inhibit so-called 5* hotel use on that site: access and light. This was always a bourgeois building in a bourgeois city, enjoyed by the affluent bourgeoise. Whatever; since as of last year the owner has decided not to restore the building and it has remained a wreck. He can’t realise his grandiose plans for the property for under £34m, apparently. It’s skeleton is shrouded in scaffolding with barriers encroaching on Cathedral Green. It’s a big turn off for tourists and residents alike. It’s an embarrassment.
It’s ironic, because back in March 1766, William Praed took over the building which was then accommodation for the Cathedral choir and by August 1767 it was described as “a new assembly room”. By September 1770, the building was being advertised as a “New Coffee-house, Inn, and Tavern, Or, The Hotel, In St. Peter’s Church-yard, Exeter.” That’s four years start to finish in the 18th century.
Incidentally, we don’t mind what the building turns it’s talents to. It could be a very cool small hotel on a boutique model and rebuilt within the insurance figure – if any purchaser could access that money. It could be a really smart shopping arcade on the lower level with apartments above, if change of use were granted. It could be a historical interpretation centre for the lively centuries of Exeter that lie beneath the Close, if the site were gifted to Exeter together with the insurance proceeds. What it can’t be left to be is a broken facade within a shroud of plastic, a monument to failed hopes and unmanaged expectations.