The hotel quickly became one of the leading coaching inns in the city, and was once visited by Admiral Nelson in 1801. It was renamed as the Royal Clarence Hotel after a visit by Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence in 1827. Other notable visitors included author Beatrix Potter in 1892, author Thomas Hardy in 1915, actors Clark Gable and Gary Cooper during WWII.
On Friday 28 October 2016 at around 5am, a fire started in a nearby building that was in the process of being converted into luxury flats. Devon and Somerset Fire Service received the first emergency call at 5.11am and around 30 minutes later the fire was declared as a major incident.
It took some 50 hours to get the fire under control, and the blaze was described as the largest in the city since the Second World War. The fire was exacerbated by a gas main rupturing from the heat inside the ground floor of the hotel, causing the fire to burn for a longer period. The secondary fire was left to burn out on its own due to safety concerns.
— Devon&Somerset Fire (@DSFireUpdates) October 28, 2016
A section of the fire service’s report said that the fire spread through “voids and spaces” created by the “age and proximity” of the buildings as well as the materials used in the construction of the “old, complex and timber-built buildings involved”.
Fortunately no casualties were reported as a result of the blaze, but the secondary gas main fire left the hotel in tatters, leaving Brownsword Hotels with no other alternative but to demolish the hotel, and rebuild on the site.
Demolition and reconstruction
Demolition experts Wring were brought in on 31 October to begin knocking down the unstable walls and remaining façade of the hotel, the demolition took place over the week with works finishing on 10 November. Local business leaders tallied up the cost of the fire to around £25m.
Brownsword appointed architecture firm Buttress Architects to draw up proposals for a redesign, which was later revealed for public comment in July 2017. The plans were approved by the Exeter City Council on 4 December that year.
Work undertaken since the fire has included initial demolition of damaged structures, followed by excavation and archaeological work to save as many historic features of the Grade II listed building as possible.
The company also revealed “extensive” ground works have been completed to strengthen the foundations of the site in order to maintain and restore the remaining historic fabric. Above ground masonry and structural repairs have also been completed to surviving historic fabric allowing for integration in the reconstruction of the building.
Andrew Brownsword announced earlier this month, that the company is seeking a new owner for site after months of “extensive investment” and “exploring every avenue” to rebuild the hotel.
He said: “It was always my vision to deliver a new hotel at the level of luxury and quality as others within our group, however, the financial and resource investment made in the demolition, historic restoration and enabling works have been significant and this has meant that it is regrettably unviable for us to develop the level of hotel that we had envisaged.
“This has been a heart-breaking decision for us to take, but, alongside the residents of Exeter, we want to see this corner of Cathedral Yard resorted to its former glory.”
The hotel is in the process of appointing an agent, who will be announced shortly.