Interiors: Suite dream
Just try not to worry about traipsing mud all over the pile, as you follow the wooden banister, silently as a cat, up to one of the first-floor suites.
The refurbishment of the 75 rooms and suites in this four-storey early 19th- century building was contracted out by Fraser Suites' owners, Frasers Hospitality (a global provider of serviced apartments), to architecture company Holmes Partnership and interiors business Rowan and Boden.
The project took more than a year to complete, with paying guests only recently being allowed through the doors of this place, which is tucked behind the sunflower yellow fronted St Giles Caf (formerly Caf Florentine). The design brief, according to Heather Gilchrist, regional manager of Frasers Hospitality, was to create the first "boutique" self-catering property in Europe, while preserving the original features of this historic building, which dates from 1871. They also wanted the overall style to have a "contemporary French" vibe which, in many of the finished rooms (all individually designed), is so subtle as to be almost undetectable.
The exception is provided by the Princes Suite. Gilchrist says: "It's so regal, just like a chateau." This space boasts dcor in a pale mint green, which is set off by swagged curtains made from Designers Guild fabrics, ivory carpets and a wide bed that's almost obscured by numerous plump pillows and pastel cushions – some of which have glass beads stitched along their edges.
It's certainly not everyone's bag, but you'd imagine that someone like Elton John would adore it. He could recline on that huge springy bed all day – although, he'd have to remember to draw the curtains, as this room has four huge sash and case windows along its length, which offer a view across to the City Chambers and down to the Scott Monument and Princes Street.
As most of these rooms are self-catering, this suite also features a seating space, kitchenette and bathroom. However, the latter two amenities feel very separate, as they're contained in box-like structures, lower than ceiling height. These areas, which Bianca Rossman, an architect who worked on the building, aptly calls "pods", make this space vaguely reminiscent of a television studio. They may seem slightly unusual, but Holmes Partnership decided on this approach as the building's B-listed status and council regulations meant that they weren't allowed to touch the corniced ceilings or panelled walls of four of the rooms (the main suites).
As Gilchrist puts it: "Refurbishing such an old building has its challenges."
When it then came to furnishing this property, other spatial problems also reared their heads.
"There were wardrobes that had to be built inside the rooms, because the doorways are so low," Gilchrist explains. "And some sofa beds had to be taken to pieces, so that we could get them into some of the spaces on the upper floors."
In fact, most of the furniture had to be made to Fraser Suites' specifications in China, then shipped over here to be upholstered. This might have resulted in a uniform look throughout the property but, thanks to a canny use of colour and variations in styles, each piece of furniture looks individual. For example, the seating in the 750-per-night Observatory Suite (boasting a balcony with views out to Calton Hill) is especially memorable, with pink velvet chairs that have sea coral-shaped embroidery across their backs.
Meanwhile the masculine Courant Suite, with a monochrome design that could very well be inspired by newsprint, features a plush two-seater dove-grey sofa, with striking black cord piping along its edges.
Other touches that have prevented this project from becoming too corporate include the idiosyncratic artworks, which flatter each boudoir's colour schemes.
"We commissioned third-year painting and drawing students from Edinburgh College of Art to produce the paintings and prints throughout the hotel," explains Gilchrist. "The only guidelines we gave them were that the works should have a landscape or nature-inspired theme."
So, the orange and cream-hued Observatory Suite features a number of abstract, autumnal-looking oil paintings and the Courant Suite has a set of four black and white photographs in its living area. In one of the standard rooms, which has a view out to the railway tracks of Waverley Station, there's a triptych of paintings with daubs of jewel-coloured tones on grey. All these make for a considered finish to what could have been quite a faceless project.
"When I saw the completed apartments, I was quite awestruck," says Gilchrist. "It's quite a leap, from being in the middle of a building site, with a hardhat on and lots of dust everywhere, to seeing the final product."
This article was first published in The Scotsman on December 5, 2009