This Norwich city centre Georgian hotel and events venue contrasts its grand architecture with contemporary luxury, says Rosalind Mullen
Rave reviews heralded the February unveiling of 11 new "contemporary Georgian" bedrooms at the Grade I-listed Assembly House in Norwich. Sophie Butler in The Daily Telegraph gave the rooms nine out of 10 and described them as being decorated with "huge flair and skill" by interior designer Annabel Grey.
The £1.5m project was largely funded by Assembly House Trust, which owns the building. It is managed by hospitality entrepreneurs Iain Wilson and Richard Hughes, who is a double Catey winner, carrying off the 1994 Menu of the Year award for Number Twenty Four in Wymondham and the 2006 Best Independent Marketing Campaign for Lavender House in Brundall. They have leased the building from the trust since 2007.
The Assembly House was designed by architect Sir Thomas Ivory in 1754, and it is one of the largest historic venues in the city centre, hosting weddings, conferences and arts events in grand rooms such as the Noverre Ballroom and Music Room. The bedrooms are intended to drive more business.
"It's not the usual type of hotel," says general manager Georgina Postlethwaite. "We don't do room service."
The bedrooms, which have a separate entrance and are in a wing previously used as staff accommodation, have taken four years to come to fruition. The project involved discussions with English Heritage as well as the city council and the Norwich Heritage, Economic and Regeneration Trust. Once the plans were approved, builder Draper & Nicholls completed the works in 13 months.
Separate works, completed 18 months ago, saw the refurbishment of the restaurant, and a new-build kitchen, where Hughes is chef-director, was installed six years ago.
The design inspiration
The Georgian building itself has defined and inspired the bedroom designs. Architect Purcell, for instance, kept a vaulted ceiling in room seven, ornate plasterwork, wooden panelling and marble fireplaces throughout.
Each of the bedrooms has a different design, but all have benefited from Grey's love of strong patterned fabrics, rich colours and subtle Farrow & Ball paint. She has also linked the house to its past and present by juxtaposing antique pieces with modern soft furnishings.
The Grand Hall
"I tried to keep one foot in the 18th century and respect the building and its history, but in a contemporary and friendly way," explains Grey. "I like to mix things up and to use pattern, colour and objects and layer things and have a gentle clash."
Contemporary comforts are provided by kingsize beds with Vispring mattresses, Egyptian cotton duvet covers and sheets, and duck feather and down duvets. There are also anglepoise lamps, velvet and leather sofas and the ubiquitous TVs; in this case, Samsungs with family, lifestyle and sport channels, and a Bluetooth connection to the bathrooms.
Room 1 is the House Suite or Bridal Suite, and it comprises a large bedroom and airy sitting room with French doors onto a private patio and garden, plus a generous bathroom.
Grey has used the colour of the walls and the architecture of each room as the starting point for a design 'story'. The sitting room is painted in Farrow & Ball's Print Room Yellow and she has hung prints of both traditional and modern images in striking black frames.
The curtains are printed velvet by Colefax and Fowler, and the leather sofa and sofabed are from Acorn Antiques in Dulverton.
She continues to mix modern and antique, with an OKA console and a Georgian writing table. The 1960s coffee table was brought from France by local antique dealer Matthew Higham. Julia Headland, who has painted furniture throughout to recreate the Georgian trend, created the black bohemian sideboard.
Moving through to the beautiful panelled bedroom, the wall colour changes to Shaded White. There is a half tester bed and the curtains are Jane Churchill embroidered fabric with bobble trims.
Room 2 continues Grey's distinctive style, and the chairs in this room come from Acorn Antiques in a Colefax & Fowler velvet and the bed is Lucca from Simon Horn. There is also a Russian cupboard from Matthew Higham.
In Room 6 the walls sport Nina Campbell wallpaper, which gently clashes with the embroidered Colefax and Fowler blinds and the sofa, made by Acorn Antiques and covered in rich Ipanema Velvet by Jane Churchill.
This room is known as 'Dogs', because Grey has placed china Staffordshire dogs in an alcove to echo a print of similar dogs by artist Vanessa Burroughes nearby. As with many of the leather chairs, these have been reupholstered and hand-coloured by Cranswick & Wilkin of Norwich to tone with the colour schemes, and the big black Mayfair four-poster bed from Simon Horn echoes the black beams.
The bathrooms come in different shapes and sizes, with a particularly roomy one in the House Suite. Historic details such as marble fireplaces have been kept, although all facilities are cutting-edge. Tiling throughout is in a pale Italian marble, similar to Carrera, with slip-proof and waterproof woven vinyl flooring from the Unnatural Flooring Company. Some rooms offer free-standing baths, others walk-in drench showers with chrome fittings. Dimmer switches allow guests to alter the mood and underfloor heating adds extra luxury.
The rooms, which opened in February, are hovering at 35% occupancy, but it is early days. "We are not unhappy and are growing new business," says Postlethwaite. "We do a lot of weddings and conferences, so guests can now stay. We are next door to the Theatre Royal and their customers stay with us, too. It adds a new dimension to the business."
Annual turnover to June 2015 was £1.6m, but director Richard Hughes reckons that annual turnover this year, with the addition of the 11 rooms, will be close to £2m. As for the future, the next project will be the crypt, but there are no concrete plans in place as yet.
Contact and details
Assembly House, Theatre Street, Norwich, Norfolk NR2 1RQ
Annual turnover to June 2015 £1.6m
Targeted annual turnover this year with the addition of the 11 rooms Close to £2m
Cost of bedroom development £1.5m
Chef-director Richard Hughes (also chef-proprietor of the Lavender House at Brundall and chef-owner of Richard Hughes Cookery School)
Director Iain Wilson (an entrepreneur who also owns and operates Byford at Holt and Kings Head at Holt; the Pigs pub Edgefield; the Dial House at Reepham; and Sponge, an online cake business)
General managers Georgina Postlethwaite, Sam Matthews
Ownership Directors Richard Hughes and Iain Wilson
No of staff 50
Restaurant 110 covers
Starting room rate £130, including parking
Other facilities Two function rooms for 220 and 140 people respectively, plus a number of smaller rooms
Additional facilities Pay and display car park, undercroft, art gallery, retail outlet
Matthew Higham Antiques, Jane Cave and Caroline Combe at the Old Stables at Bayfield Hall in Holt
The Braided Rug Company
Fabrics for curtains and blinds
Colefax and Fowler
Rapture and Wright
Farrow & Ball
The Gallery Norfolk
Noverre Gallery at the Assembly House
Bircham Gallery, Holt
Artists include Vanessa Burroughes, Carol Robertson
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