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Travelogue G21

January 21, 2016

My decision to leave Russell Square met with a short twofold delay, common enough in my wanderings, which I experienced as an odd mix of fatigue and curiosity. Working from the garden’s north to south, I thought for a moment to rest my feet, which had known no repose since leaving St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Luckily, I found an unoccupied bench to my liking at the square’s center where children galloped through a fountain. Parents and the occasional onlooker were content to leave them to their games. As one might suppose, they already sought to reduce their movements to a minimum in the morning’s growing heat; after a short glance, they inevitably returned to books, mobiles or regarding their neighbors. Without distraction, save my notes, I turned my attention to the play of the water before me. Fountain rose and fountain fell, but the sights and sounds filled me with no particular feeling, other than perhaps one of relief for my weary feet.

Fatigue passed, and curiosity took its place. So, I deemed it worthwhile to make a tour of the square before seeing what I might find at Bloomsbury. The houses lining Russell Square to the south and the west caught my eye due to the contrast between the whitewashed base and the upper levels in a drab brick. A black iron railing, topped by points, fronted the houses, among which, as I was able to learn later from online sources, there figured a number of the original 19th century constructions. One such house, on the square’s western edge, held my attention for more than a moment, as a blue plaque outside revealed it to be the former workplace of one Thomas Stearns Eliot, then-editor in a publishing house and having at one time called my natal plains home.

From there I passed to the east side where the Hotel Russell presides. Perhaps more in keeping with aristocratic appearances, we might say that the four-star establishment lords over the surrounds and had the splendor to match. Though, looking at it from across the way, I had the distinct impression that the upper half would surely crush the lower beneath their immense weight. For the ground level’s pilasters and arches and the first floor’s colonnaded balcony and coats of arms gave way, at least in the imagination, before the higher floors’ solid bulk. To the question of solidity was then joined that of style, for I had difficulty in isolating a singular school to which the hotel might belong.

Erected in 1898, its materials seemed out of keeping with the area: not drab brick and whitewash as elsewhere in London, but red brick and milk-tea colored terra cotta trim. Several chimney mounts sprouted behind six facades, which broke away from the peaked roof and the shape of which could be described as pyramids to which the architect had lent a softer, flowing outline. At best, it could be said to approximate other turn-of-the-century work I had seen in certain German cities. To some slight disappointment, I later read that the hotel drew its inspiration from a Paris hotel not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

At that time, I decided to press on, but the aforementioned reading brought my attention to another fact which made me somewhat regret not having solicited the porter for entry. It seemed that the building company had counted among its employees a certain Charles Fitzroy Doll, tasked with the hotel’s overall design. This same Doll later found employment with the shipbuilders responsible for the RMS Titanic and for whom the architect designed a number of spaces. Of these, the most memorable proved the ship’s dining room, which, so the story went, closely followed the plans used for the Russell Hotel’s own dining area.

If the Russell dining room had found a twin, that room had, with its twin’s passing, joined it in a spectral existence, for who knew how many visitors stayed simply for the knowledge that, in visiting one room, they received a glimpse of sorts into something that might have been else. Still, no outward sign gave any hint of this doubled life; no morbidly curious circled the square or crowded the entry for a chance at doubled vision. So, I moved on.

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