Euston Arch

Posted by admin | September 23, 2009 0

According to the London Evening Standard a nightclub and banqueting hall are to be built inside a reconstructed Victorian monument at Euston station under plans announced today. The Euston Arch stood in front of the station from 1838 until it was demolished by modernist town planners in 1962.

Built at Euston Grove, the station was for many years the only north-bound railway exit from London. Designed in the classical style, the most notable feature was the massive Doric Arch entrance. Euston Station was one of the glories of British railway architecture it served as the terminus for travellers to London from Birmingham and the North West. Its architecture, based on Greek temples, was deemed a fitting gateway to the capital and an introduction to the engineering marvels of the railway beyond.

Euston Station was the first mainline terminus station opened in a capital city anywhere in the world. It was opened on July 20, 1837, as the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway constructed by Robert Stephenson. The architect was Philip Hardwick who worked with structural engineer Charles Fox. The station first had only two platforms, one for departures and one for arrivals.

It was also Hardwick who designed the Euston Arch, a 70 feet 6 inches high Doric propylaeum, the largest ever built and which formed the entrance to the station. The grit stone structure complemented the Ionic entrance to the Curzon Street Station in Birmingham (which still exists) which was the other end of the London and Birmingham Railway’s mainline.

Euston Station, 1851

Its demolition, with the rest of Euston Station was regarded as one of the greatest acts of Post-War architectural vandalism in Britain, the campaign to save it lead to the foundation of the Victorian Society and involved the indomitable Sir John Betjeman.

However British Rail’s cultural vandalism was worse than was realised even at the time. To block off any campaign to rebuild the Arch and despite an offer from the contractor to store the stonework British Rail demanded that it was all dumped and it has transpired the stones were thrown into a tributary of the river Lee in east London. This has now come to light as British Waterways has dredged the channel to salvage the discarded rock on behalf of the Euston Arch Trust as it carries out repair work to the waterways around the 2012 Olympic site. The stones are being lifted from the Prescott Channel, where they were used to fill a hole in the riverbed. Campaigners want to reconstruct the arch using as much of the original stone as possible.

Demolition was speedy and brutal – as recorded in various newsreel documentaries – with the stones being broken and much damaged as the arch was speedily cleared away. The new station was opened in 1968. Designed in the International Modern style, its somewhat bleak style has been variously described as “hideous”, “a dingy, grey, horizontal nothingness”, “an ugly desecration of a formerly impressive building”, a reflection of “the tawdry glamour of its time” entirely lacking of “the sense of occasion, of adventure, that the great Victorian termini gave to the traveller”, and “the worst of the Central London terminuses, both ugly and unfriendly to use”. Writing in The Times, Richard Morrison stated that “even by the bleak standards of Sixties architecture, Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; and a blight on surrounding streets. The design should never have left the drawing-board – if, indeed, it was ever on a drawing-board. It gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight”.

Euston Station Today

The passenger friendly concourse?

Today’s Euston Station is a forgettable exercise in 1960’s functionalism except for the small matter that it doesn’t function very well on a number of levels. The windswept prairie in front of the station was the ostensible reason for the knocking down the Great Hall and Euston Arch to enhance the commercial value of the development. It contains two nondescript office blocks. One, 40 Melton Street, was the HQ of the much unlamented Railtrack which was the infrastructure company created at rail privatisation in April 1994. The other office block, conveniently, contains the office of a firm of accountants who wound them up when Railtrack went into administration in October 2001. They have now been succeeded by Network rail who are in the same offices.

Now walk across the windswept prairie into Euston and judge for yourself this “functional” station. You will see an expanse of cold, black stone flooring and everywhere you will see passengers camped out on this cold surface for there are hardly any seats for the thousands who must wait here. Whatever coherence the concourse had has been lost by the mish mash of tacky kiosks and retail outlets as Network Rail ”adds value” by increasing rental returns at the expense of passenger convenience. Go into the food court and you will see a place overflowing with passengers looking for seats whilst they enjoy the fast food delights on offer. Pay to use the toilets which reflect the municipal toilet ethos of the rest of the station. Disabled? Well, don’t bother trying to access the Virgin executive lounge or the Britannia Bar on the first floor as Network Rail ignores here (as elsewhere) its legal obligations since October 2004 under phase 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act.

One of the remaining gatehouses with the destinations inscribed on the quoins

Far better to leave now before you become too depressed and at the front onto Euston Road you will find all that remains of the Great Terminus which once stood here. In the centre is the war memorial and on either side are two decorative gatehouses with the destinations served carved into their quoin stones. These framed the Doric Arch and the only evidence of this is on the sign of the pub on the forecourt, ironic indeed as this was also part of the “commercial development” which required it to be demolished. Here too you will find the statue of the engineer for the lines into Euston, Robert Stephenson, known as the Father of the Railways. There is no history of weeping statues in front of train stations but as he surveys the mediocre morass for which history was swept away we could allow Robert a few tears.

Euston Arch stonework being recovered from the River Lee, East London

Now the trust has unveiled a £10 million design to rebuild the 70ft arch on the original site with a nightclub in the foundations and lifts rising up the pillars to the banqueting hall, seating 80. Buses and taxis will be able to drive through it.

“The Euston Arch was a powerful symbol of the optimistic spirit of the Victorian railway. Its demolition in the 1960’s confirmed that blandness and lack of imagination had replaced the heroic vision of the past. Since then, the enormous popularity of the restored St. Pancras, soon to be followed by a restored King’s Cross, has shown that celebration of the past and potential for the future is not mutually exclusive. The restoration of Euston Arch would restore to London’s oldest mainline terminus some of the character and dignity of its great neighbours.”

Michael Palin, Patron of the Euston Arch Trust

The Euston Arch Trust has as its patron Michael Palin who I met once and whilst he is famous as a world traveller as well as a member of the famous Monty Python comedy team he broke into a smile when I mentioned that I had a copy of his first every travel documentary “From Euston to the Kyle of Lochalsh.” For Michael is at heart a Sheffield lad from a railway family so his commitment to trains and public transport goes back some time. As the Euston Arch Trust says on its site;

“Network Rail and British Land have announced that they will redevelop Euston Station in a £1 billion project. This is a golden opportunity to rebuild the arch and return to Euston, the local community, London and Britain a building of major importance that should never have been demolished.

Great Hall

Platform in Euston Station before redevelopment

The redevelopment of St Pancras station has already shown how a world class station can combine the old and new. Euston can do the same. The Euston Arch would be a wonderful gateway to the new Euston. “

See; St Pancras Reborn

Historian Dan Cruickshank, who has led a 15-year campaign to reconstruct the monument, described it as “the first great building of the railway age”. In 1994 Cruickshank discovered an estimated 60% of the 4,000 plus tons of the arch buried in the bed of the Prescott Channel at its junction with the Channelsea River that runs into the River Lea in the East End of London. A section of one of the columns was recovered from the river. The location of the rubble, for which he had been searching for 15 years, had been revealed by Bob Cotton, a British Waterways engineer, who stated that the rubble had been purchased in 1962 to fill a chasm in the bed of the Prescott Channel.

Curzon Street Station, Birmingham

The possible rebuilding of the Euston Arch should throw light on another of the threatened glories of railway history because the Arch was one of two “bookends” the other being the complementary Ionic Arch at the other end of the line in Birmingham. For in the Curzon Street Station you have arguably the oldest mainline rail terminus building in the world. It was here on 17th September 1838 that the first London to Birmingham train arrived at the very birth of railways. Built to the designs of Sir Philip Hardwick the architect of Euston Station, London, it echoed his magnificent design there which was so crassly demolished in 1962. It was designed in the style of a triumphant Roman Arch to echo his Euston Arch and provided two dramatic visual bookends to the first railway route between London and a major city. This Grade 1 listed building is currently unoccupied and at risk.

See; Birmingham – The Centre of England

The London to Birmingham Railway was the first rail service between two major cities and the muscular classical architecture was deliberately designed to give an impression of solidity and continuity to a public distrustful of this new fangled technology. They were visual propaganda for the technology which changed the world and made modern life possible and the propaganda was never more confident than Philip Hardwick’s two magnificent emphatic statements of Victorian confidence announcing the new world to the citizens of London and Birmingham. Let us rebuild the Euston Arch and save Curzon Street station as two interlinked and priceless pieces of this great Industrial Heritage. Maybe when this is done a smile may cross the face of the “Father of the Railways” Robert Stephenson whose statue in front of Euston Station has surveyed with a stern frown the architectural detritus which replaced the great triumphal entrance which met travellers to London.

Robert Stephenson, Father of the Railways

See also;

The Great Circle Line Journey

Euston Arch Trust

Euston Arch 1938

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