London landmarks transformed into high-end hotels, from BT Tower to County Hall

As a rule, London has never seemed to be especially precious about its heritage. The general view is that monuments to the past should be safeguarded where possible, but they should never stand in the way of progress. Perhaps this goes to explain why so many of the city’s landmarks are being turned into high-end hotels.

Recent years have seen a spate of government offices, banks, courthouses and other historic buildings being snapped up by international brands and turned into gleaming five-star properties. The latest of these is the BT Tower, which has loomed over Fitzrovia like a giant sonic screwdriver since the Sixties. It has been sold for £275m to MCR Hotels, a US company best known for two New York properties: The High Line Hotel in Manhattan and the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport.

1971 street view from an alleyway of the Post Office Tower, now the BT Tower, located in Fitzrovia, central London. The Post Office Tower is currently the tallest building in the United Kingdom. (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
A 1971 street view of the Post Office Tower, now the BT Tower (Photo: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty)

It’s not always the quickest or cheapest way to create a hotel, but with building space at a premium in the UK capital, many companies see it as the best way to take a slice of London’s increasingly lucrative tourist trade, with several hotels in the West End now charging in excess of £1,000 a night.

It’s also safe to say that history sells, and visitors to the city would generally choose to stay in a building with a backstory over a steel-and-glass tower block thrown up in the last decade.

In fairness, most hotel brands are keen to preserve as much heritage as possible, even if they only do so in the interests of marketing. The Ned City of London, sitting in the Lutyens-designed headquarters of the former Midland Bank, has kept the old underground vault (it’s now a bar), complete with 20-tonne security door and 3,000 safety deposit boxes; Raffles, upon acquiring the Old War Office Building in Whitehall, went to great pains to preserve the historic detailing in the rooms and corridors where Churchill once worked.

While it’s easy to feel alarmed at this commercialisation of the city’s history, many of these buildings have always been off limits to the general public, and are subsequently more accessible to Londoners now than ever before. Perhaps, in years to come, MCR will reopen the BT Tower’s old revolving restaurant, which has been closed since 1981.

A landmark building in London, Admiralty Arch incorporates a road and pedestrian access to The Mall. It is a Grade I listed building.
Admiralty Arch is set to become London’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel (Photo: Julian Elliott/Getty)

In the meantime, we have yet to see what lies in store for the Admiralty Arch, which is set to become London’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel next year (although it would be a surprise if the architects were anything but deferential to the history of the grand old building at the foot of the Mall).

Other prospective conversions include the former Whiteleys shopping centre in Bayswater, which will reopen as a Six Senses hotel later this year, and the old US Embassy in Mayfair, which is set to become The Chancery Rosewood.

Could more landmark buildings go the same way? Naturally, it’s hard to say, although should they be refused permission to demolish their flagship store on Oxford Street, it’s easy to see Marks & Spencer selling their Art Deco home of almost 90 years. Hoteliers would be first in queue for that piece of real estate. The same could be said for Channel 4’s Victoria offices, with the broadcaster looking to downsize to smaller premises.

Five London landmarks that are now luxury hotels

Café Royal

The Hotel Caf?? Royal, a hotel and restaurant at 68 Regent Street, Piccadilly, London, circa 1966. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Café Royal in Regent Street in the 60s (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Before it was converted into a hotel in 2008, this venerable establishment on Regent Street was a gathering point for London’s most notable luminaries. It was established in 1865 by Daniel Nicholas Thévenon, a Parisian wine merchant who was on the run from his creditors in France. Over the years, it hosted everyone from Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolfe to Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali and Diana, Princess of Wales. Hotel Café Royal has doubles from £716 per night.

Bow Street Magistrates’ Court

2nd May 1913: Suffragettes and their supporters selling their newspaper outside Bow Street Magistrates Court in London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Suffragettes and their supporters selling their newspaper outside Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in 1913 (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Keeping with the Oscar Wilde theme, this Covent Garden hotel used to be the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and Police Station, where the playwright was tried for gross indecency in 1895. Other famous figures to have faced the justice system here include the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, the Kray Twins, and Chilean dictator General Pinochet. The court was closed in 2006, and only reopened as a hotel in 2021, sharing a site with the Bow Street Police Museum. NoMad London has doubles from £332 per night.

County Hall

London, England. The London Eye, former County Hall and The Thames at sunset.
The former County Hall, an elegant neo-Baroque building, became a hotel in 1998 (Photo: Jeremy Walker/Getty)

Before operations were moved to a lopsided glass egg near Tower Bridge, London was governed for 64 years from the groundbreaking (at the time) open-plan offices of County Hall, situated on South Bank directly opposite the Palace of Westminster. When the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986, the elegant neo-Baroque building fell into limbo for several years, before part of it was reopened as a Marriott hotel in 1998. Other sections now house the London Aquarium and the Shrek’s Adventure attraction. London Marriott Hotel County Hall has rooms from £338.

The Old War Office

An exterior view of the Raffles London at the OWO (Old War Office) on Whitehall, on 23rd November 2023, in London, England. The former Old War Office Building is now a 1,000-room hotel. It was designed by William Young and completed during 1906. It was used by Churchill as the War Office headquarters during World War II but was sold by the government in 2016 for more than ??350 million, on a 250-year lease, to the Hinduja Group. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)
The Old War Office Building is now a 1,000-room hotel (Photo: Richard Baker/Getty)

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Britain’s military campaigns were conducted from the draughty offices and boardrooms of the Old War Office Building on Horse Guards Avenue. After the War Office was replaced in 1964 by the MOD, which moved to larger quarters across the road, the building became increasingly surplus to the requirements, and was eventually sold in 2016. It reopened as the UK’s first Raffles hotel in September 2023 with 120 rooms, including a suite in Winston Churchill’s Second World War office. Raffles London at The OWO has doubles from around £860 per night.

10 Trinity Square

10 Trinity Square, London, England, December 1967. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
10 Trinity Square in 1967 (Photo: Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty)

It’s easy to forget that London was once the busiest port in the world: a nexus for goods shipped in from all corners of the British Empire and beyond. At the centre of this commercial hubbub was 10 Trinity Square, where the Port of London Authority had its HQ, and where merchants would come to pay the duties on their imports. The PLA has long since departed, and the building is now an outpost of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, with 100 rooms and a two-star Michelin restaurant. Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square has doubles from £760 a night.