Uncovering Torquay’s glimmering heyday, through the relics of its hotels lost and at risk.
Just below the surface of Torbay’s glimmering waters lies an even more glimmering past. The relics of a former heyday unceremoniously littered amongst the rolling headland hills, long curving beaches and single storey permitted developments. These few remaining monuments, from the minds of some of our most decorated designers, seem quiet and shy despite their imposing grandiosity on the landscape; bastions of a bygone era.
The fluctuating fortunes of Torquay throughout its history can be read in the evolution of these buildings, as marble gave way to concrete and stucco. This transforming architectural language tells us a story of boom and bust, of optimism and neglect, which continues to this very day.
Torquay was shaped during the nineteenth century to cater almost exclusively to the rich, the famous, and the powerful. The large, elaborate complexes detach themselves from the rest of the town both figuratively and geographically.
What is now referred to as the Headland Hotel, just up from Meadfoot beach, was once known by the Romanoff family as Villa Syracusa, poised in its cliff-top position just a few steps away from jumping into the bay itself. Sitting below a large mansard roof are four floors of Italianate grandeur, with quoins to each corner, and a cylindrical corner turret at first floor level. To the rear, an ornate greenhouse, the height of fashion at the time following the Great Exhibition, growing all manner of exotic fruits and plants.
The Romanoff’s grand receptions of royalty, including the meeting of the Prince of Wales and the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia in 1864, attracted status and celebrity like moths to a flame. The likes of Count Sergei Grigoryevich Stroganov, who fought Napoleon in the battle of Borodino in 1812, and Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, wife of the infamous novelist Leo Tolstoy, add to the assortment of fame and fortune that dined in the halls of the Headland Hotel. Sipping cocktails as they overlooked the bay from the covered veranda.
Villa Borghese, not more than 500m up the rocky headland, played host in 1850 to the Prince of Oldenburg, cousin to Russian Tsar Alexander II, during the opening of the new Torbay hospital. Royalty in Torquay, it seems, was common.
Commanding a dominating presence on Meadfoot beach is what is now called the Osbourne Hotel, a grade II* listed crescent commissioned in 1848 by Sir Lawrence Palk, who would later rise to peerage as Lord Haldon in 1880. The crescent was designed by brothers William and John Harvey as a sweeping row of 15 private houses and subsequently named Hesketh Crescent after Palk’s first child.
It celebrates its Classical facade, complete with Juliet balconies between fluted, composite pilasters and lightly rusticated base, in a diluted James Gibbs style (complete with the famous ‘Gibbs Surround’). Architectural styles such as this were coming under increasing scrutiny during this period from movements such as the Gothic Revival, a challenge which Hesketh Crescent boldly shrugs off.
This relic too had its share of notoriety during the Victorian era, as it is in the period following the Great Exhibition in London that Charles Darwin resided at number two Hesketh Crescent, where he is said to have worked on The Origin of Species prior to its publication in 1859.
During the nineteenth century, so much wealth was concentrated in these few establishments, often to the neglect of the majority of the town, that the1886 Worth’s Tourist Guide To Devonshire stated that Torquay was “in proportion to its population, the wealthiest town in England”
For each hotel that exudes an unwavering nineteenth century optimism, there stands its equal just one beach over that re-balances the scales. As if Cyprien Gaillard’s representation of a modernist fantasy is played out repeatedly at full scale along the coastline. For every one historic hotel that currently exists, there are two which have been lost, replaced or renovated beyond recognition.
The Imperial Hotel, overlooking Torquay’s Harbourside, shows little sign now of being anything other than a post-war Riviera condo, as if plucked from the hillside of Monte Carlo. However, these white and light-pink stucco walls conceal the hotel’s former character hidden below, that of the nineteenth century Italianate villa which was typical of Torquay’s illustrious heyday. This original hotel also came complete with an equally illustrious list of visitors to rival any hotel in the the country.
In 1871 the hotel hosted Queen Sophie of the Netherlands and her close friend Napoleon III of France, recently dethroned as the French Emperor, and his son, the Prince Imperial. Soon after in short succession, the Esterházy Prince Nikolaus III, Prince John of Lichtenstein, the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the Prince of Wales, Prince Albert and the young George V all made their way through the doors of the Imperial arriving by carriage, air or docking their yacht on the private moorings.
The Imperial was at the cutting edge of technological innovation in its day; it was one of the first hotels to install electric lighting, keeping the hotel ahead of its rivals, and popular with the European royalty.
However, then began a period between the middle and the end of the twentieth century, that saw the hotel’s original design and character gradually eroded in the name of this same technological innovation, alongside evolving fashion trends. This began with the construction of the Marine Restaurant in 1952, which featured a 12 foot high linear glazed facade facing the sea. By comparison at the time, the existing historic fabric of the building appeared outdated to the managers, who then embarked on a slow process of rendering, painting and removal of the original decorative mouldings.
So extensive and insensitive was this iterative renovation, that the remaining parts of the nineteenth century villa began to look odd and juxtaposed in comparison. The biggest change came between 1965–69 when it was decided that the entire exterior of the existing Imperial Hotel should be updated to ‘fit-in’ with the new Modernist look; any remnants of the original building either painted over, replaced or entirely demolished. Few of the features which made this hotel so unique remain to this day, either physically or by way of reference. Out with the old and in with the… well, generic.
The Imperial is by no means the only hotel in Torquay to have undergone such rapid and striking transformation. Kilmorie Flats were completed in 1962 to replace the Kilmorie Mansion which stood previously in its place. This classical villa was for a time the home of the Drewe family during the construction of Castle Drogo, their family home and the masterpiece of Edwin Lutyens. It too joins the long list of nineteenth century Italianate relics lost to the jaws of Modernism.
The relics of Torquay’s former heyday are not as unwavering on the landscape as we might want to believe, as they are at risk of disappearing entirely in place of a new and emerging threat. Recent foreign investment in Torquay is transforming the face of Hotel-land once again, bringing with it a new stage of architectural evolution. The white rendered banding of the ‘Pseudo-Riviera’ style.
Of all of these glimmering relics of the past, it is perhaps the Palace Hotel that embodies the character of a relic most literally. The Palace Hotel, advertised as ‘the finest hotel on the English coast,’ was built by George W Hands in 1921. Hands was an industrialist who was attracted down from Birmingham, just like all the moths of the past, to the glamour of the bay and its historic reputation. Typically, the new development extended and almost entirely demolished the Classical villa named Bishopstowe which existed on the site previously. Bishopstowe was originally conceived as the private home of Henry Philpotts, then Bishop of Exeter Cathedral.
What is not typical however, is the architectural language chosen for the building which was to replace the villa. Rather than conforming to Torquay’s propensity towards contextless, Modernist blocks, the Palace was built in an indistinct Classical style, due in part to its construction before the Second World War. Whilst apparently insensitive at the time to its predecessor in size and form, when viewed now, its Classical architectural language seems strangely in keeping with Bishopstowe and the Classical origins of Torquay’s hotel scene, in the most admiringly ignorant way.
White corner pilasters and a token arched window on the protruding rear bay, at the top of a terraced garden subtly hint that Bishopstowe is in some way still alive within the unwieldy beast. Its cylindrical first floor bay windows paying a beautifully unintentional tribute to the fantasy and optimism of Villa Syracusa. These many small details, though not particularly unique at a national or regional level, hold great meaning in the context of the site on Torquay’s coastline.
In the mid twentieth century, the Palace acquired fame for its immense size and number of activities on offer, complete with an 18 hole golf course, gym, indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, squash courts, cinema, restaurants, bars and bowling greens.
The numerous advertisements printed for the hotel throughout the twentieth century paint a picture of the character of the hotel at the time. A cocktail of parties, fame and activity. Its frequent gala nights, coffered ceilings and classical interiors portray a time as if concocted from the mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the Great Gatsby himself.
It is interesting to see that despite operating during a challenging economic period for the bay, the hotel outwardly portrayed itself as if still embodying the legacy of this golden age in some way. As far as the Palace was concerned, within the seclusion of its 25 acres of manicured gardens, the golden age still thundered on.
The Palace today is, for all intents and purposes, a ruin. Its soaring dance hall empty and dark timber panelled bars stocked as if in the small hours of a Saturday morning in the roaring twenties — that is to say that all of the alcohol is well and truly ravaged. All that remains of the luxurious interiors are the double height salmon pink curtains, the fabric lined patterned paneled walls, and the cream coloured, floral carpets to match. Only mice now stroll its lofty hallways since the hotel’s doors closed in July 2017.
The Palace is in limbo, as a planning process rages on to determine its future. The current proposal by the Singaporean based Fragrance Group, who purchased the Palace in 2017, is for the demolition of the hotel in its entirety and replacement with a 248 room hotel with 38 additional dwellings.
This is not the only hotel to be bought by Fragrance Group however, as a similar fate has befallen three other Devon hotels, including the Corbyn Head in Torquay, which last year received planning approval for its complete demolition and replacement with a hotel three times the size.
Whilst the development of large, inward facing hotel complexes is consistent with the development of Torbay’s Hotel-land, these new developments also draw parallels with the darker side of this history; the destruction of what seems at first glace to be outdated and old, as we saw with the Imperial.
With the sale of the Palace, many of the hotels in Torquay now lie not in the hands of private ownership, often residents of the bay, but with multinational hotel chains who require a global consistency in building aesthetics. This can often come at the detriment of sites that do not have institutional protection, such as a heritage listing, or a powerful and well organised local opposition, but do have an aesthetic value in the local surroundings which cannot be quantified in a business plan.
Discovering that the beach directly adjacent to the Palace is incorrectly named on Fragrance Group’s own website portfolio, does not invoke a sense of confidence in a contextually aware future development for the site.
The replacement of the Palace with something entirely new erases from the rolling headlands of the coastline, over a millennia of both Torquay’s historic civic identity and the story of its unconventional efforts to retain it. The tangible presence of Torquay’s unique tapestry of development and history may be eroded from its architecture with each committee meeting discussing its equally vibrant future. It would be a tremendous shame if the latter were allowed to entirely extinguish the former.
 — Torquay And Paignton: The Makings Of A Modern Resort, Henry James Lethbridge, Pg 63
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