In the decade since the Turner Contemporary Gallery opened its shiny white doors on the Kent seafront in 2011, Margate has developed a thriving art scene, attracting many a Hackney creative to up sticks to the coast.
The Fort Road Hotel, which opened its doors just behind the Turner Gallery on September 1, is Margate’s first really trendy boutique hotel, and in many ways its arrival signals a coming-of-age for the seaside town.
“We opened a hotel by accident,” jokes Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover, who teamed up with developer Gabriel Chipperfield and artist Tom Gidley to purchase the building at auction four years ago. The decision to become hoteliers was one taken quickly over a coffee in Soho. “Separately all three of us had thought about bidding on it,” continues Slotover. “We bumped into each other the week before the auction and had no idea the other was about to bid. So we thought, let’s do it together.”
All three had Margate connections. Artist and writer Tom Gidley, who co-founded Frieze magazine with Slotover in 1991, had moved to neighbouring Ramsgate in 2019 and long-admired the derelict building. While architect Gabriel Chipperfield, whose father David designed the Turner Gallery, had been working in Margate to build Tracey Emin’s new free art school.
With the help of Fleet Architects, the trio has sensitively rebuilt and reimagined the property, which had been a hotel since 1820 before it sat derelict for 30 years, adding an extra floor and a guests-only roof terrace.
They are adamant it’s not a “Frieze hotel”, despite the locals referring to it as such. “Frieze is a big part of my history and Matthews even more so but there are three of us. It’s not a Frieze project,” states Gidley on our four-way Zoom call. Instead, the mission to restore the crumbling edifice to its former glory was about “bringing something back to life.”
They were invested in the idea of preserving the building’s history. “We foolishly thought the value was in those four walls so we retained that at great expense,” says Gidley. The Fort Road Hotel sign that’s painted across the façade for example is almost a direct copy of the lettering that existed prior. “It was about preserving its identity as an inn,” says Chipperfield, who explains how they looked at a lot of archive photographs to understand the way it once looked and functioned as a hotel. “We thought that for it to be a success it should look like it always did.”
“It was such a great building with a great name, great lettering,” agrees Slotover. “I think the character of a lot of the rooms and the restaurant and the bar, you would only get that with something old. We wanted to just do something really personal and small, not corporate basically.”
Unsurprisingly, art abounds. The common areas on the ground floor are smattered with pieces from contemporary artists with connections to Margate: work by local artists Lindsey Mendick and Hannah Lees hang in the ground floor restaurant, a specially commissioned colourful mural by Sophie Von Hellermann fills a stairway and one of Tracey Emin’s neon signs hangs above a cosy nook in the subterranean bar, where Emin herself (Margate’s most famous resident) is already a thrice-weekly regular.
The 14 rooms, which come in gentle pastels with linen curtains, Hay kettles and mid-century furniture, are host to an edit of 20th century abstract and oil paintings, gouaches, watercolours and prints sourced by Gidley from across the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and the US. “We were playing with that idea of a boarding house owner just putting up art that they liked from wherever they find it,” says Gidley, who happened mostly to choose works from previously unknown mid-century female artists – “a really nice coincidence,” he explains.
“There are not many hotels that do art properly,” says Slotover, “using original works that are good basically.”
In addition to the aforementioned bar, which is already a hit with locals and was thronging from dusk till close on both nights of my stay earlier this month, the hotel has a 35-cover restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner helmed by Head Chef Daisy Cecil, who came from a three-year stint at the River Cafe.
It’s a popular addition to Margate’s booming food scene, which had noticeably improved in the four years since my last visit. The arrival of excellent eateries is, says Chipperfield, an important factor in the Margate explosion spearheaded by their new hotel. “Nobody can live off art alone, and when the artists were first making their homes down there the big question was where can you eat? Where can you socialise? And indeed where can you stay?” A London exodus of restauranteurs in Covid was Margate’s gain, as many moved to open joints on the more affordable coast.
“There are suddenly a whole handful of restaurants that have really serious owners,” continues Chipperfield. “You can now do four or five days down there and eat in a really great restaurant for every lunch and dinner.” From the Michelin-starred Italian Bottega Caruso and excellent vegetarian pizzeria Ralph’s to chic seafood joints Angela’s and Dory’s and Sargasso, the seaside sister of Shoreditch favourite Brawn, it’s certainly possible to eat as well in Margate as you would in East London.
“It’s pretty astounding what’s happened,” agrees Slotover, who belives Margate to be the third art centre in the UK after London and Glasgow. After the Turner Gallery there’s the Carl Friedman, and then of course the Tracey Emin effect. “It’s got one of the most beautiful skies in Europe according to Turner, and its cheap, so it does feel like just the beginning of something.”
Is this the first of many Frieze, ahem, Fort Road, hotels I wonder? “Next stop Fort Road Ibiza!” quips Slotover. “I’d be up for doing more,” says Gidley, “but perhaps the next one doesn’t have to be a completely derelict building. One of those feels like plenty for one lifetime!”