Monday, 17 June 2013

The Euston Arch - Shall It Rise Again?

The Imposing Euston Arch, built in 1837 as the
Grand Entrance to Euston Railway Station London 

A recent Blog by 'Melbourneblogger' on the historic London Bridge of 1831, which had been taken down stone by stone and rebuilt at Lake Havasu City Arizona in 1971, reminded me of another iconic London structure which has now largely been forgotten - The Euston Railway Arch. Sadly, the latter was not to enjoy an honoured 'retirement', being ruthlessly demolished amidst huge opposition in 1961-62. However, a recent interesting discovery may mean that this woeful act of architectural vandalism can now be remedied.

But first, what was this Arch, where was it built, and why was it famous?

A period drawing of the Euston Arch under construction, 1837-38

The 'Euston Arch', in the form of a Doric 'Propylaeum', the largest in Britain, had been built in 1838 as the grand front entrance portico to the 'London and Birmingham Railway' Station on Euston Road, London :

"The Entrance to the London Passenger Station opening immediately upon what will necessarily become the Grand Avenue for travelling between the Metropolis and the midland and northern parts of the Kingdom, the Directors thought that it should receive some architectural embellishment. They adopted accordingly a design of Mr. [Philip] Hardwick's for a grand but simple portico, which they considered well adapted to the national character of the undertaking." [L&B Railway Report, 1837]

Euston Railway Arch and flanking pavilions, as built, 1838

This structure was the first great monument to the Railway Age and for close to 135 years served as the 'gateway' from London to the north. Standing an impressive 72 feet high (22 metres) and 44 feet deep (13 metres), the diameter of each of the columns were an equally impressive 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 metres). This "simple portico" still cost the then large sum of £35,000 On each side of the Arch were two 'lodges' or pavilions in the classical style, being separated by decorative and imposing cast iron gates.

A circa 1910 view of Euston Arch facing Drummond Street

But not everyone viewed the Arch positively. As early as 1851 one guide viewed it as "gigantic and very absurd". A later station owner, the 'London and North Western Railway', had the lettering "EUSTON" proudly incised on the pediment in 1870.

The red arrow marks the location of the Arch fronting Drummond
Street and the Euston Hotel. The 1968 rebuilding removed part of
Drummond Street and Euston Street to make way for the new
Railway Station and approach.
[From a 1908 map in my possession]

Unfortunately redevelopment in 1881 removed the westernmost pier and lodge of the Arch to make way for offices, and soon afterwards a hotel extension blocked the clear view from Euston Road. This spoilt the original classical design and symmetry of the whole structure. But the Arch itself still stood proud, although by now somewhat hemmed in and encrusted with grime.

A 1936 aerial view of Euston Station showing the original
location of the Arch fronting Drummond Street with the
Euston Hotel in foreground. Post 1881 Victorian buildings
have encroached on the original grand station frontage.  

But even by 1938 the fate of the Arch had been in the balance. A plan by the then owners, the 'London, Midland and Scottish Railway' [LMS] envisaged removing the Arch to facilitate the building of an imposing new railway terminus in the "stripped classical style" based on an American inspired design. But to his credit, a Georgian Conservation lobby group managed to persuade Lord Stamp, the President of the LMS Railway, that removal and rebuilding of the Arch on Euston Road was entirely possible if not desirable. But sadly, the Second World War halted all further progress and by 1948 the mighty LMS Railway itself had even ceased to exist, having now become part of the newly nationalised "British Railways". A whole decade would pass before the fate of the Euston Arch and of the old and congested but 'atmospheric' L&NW Railway Station would again come to the fore.

A 1960 colour slide of Euston Arch with
the name highlighted in gold paint

The axe finally fell in January 1960 when the British Transport Commission notified its intention of demolishing the 'inconvenient and outdated' old L&NWR Euston Station - including the iconic Euston Arch. Alas the 1849 "Great Hall", with its wonderful coffered ceiling adjoining the station, would also be demolished. While the suggestion was again put forward that the Arch could simply be re-sited, no one was willing to fund the estimated £180,000 cost. A myriad of last minute lobbying ultimately proved fruitless.

Demolition in Progress, 1961-62

The entirely unsympathetic Conservative Party Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who had the power to veto the demolition, "stated that he had decided against adopting the suggested preservation strategy, and explained that "every possible way" of preserving the arch had been investigated by the British Transport Commission, but the lack of available land, the operational requirements of the station and the removal costs entailed made the project unfeasible."  

Demolition in Progress, 1961-62
Note the stone stacked up on the ground

The 'Euston Arch' had acted as the grand entrance to this major London Railway Terminus for almost a century and a quarter, becoming a well-known and iconic landmark to generations of travellers. But it would now, despite "massive opposition", be ruthlessly demolished to create a convenient but clinical and soul-less flow-through station and precinct befitting the 'modern' image which British Railways now wished to project. The quite striking late 1930's combined LMS Station, Hotel and Offices would have been wholly preferable. But this was but one example of the "desecration" of our heritage then endemic in post World War Two Britain. It is interesting, if not ironic, that the wave of opposition to this demolition, although ultimately unsuccessful, effectively strengthened the successful and coordinated campaigns to save other iconic railway structures and architecturally significant buildings. The now restored and venerated St Pancras Hotel in London is cited as being one significant example.

Demolition in Progress, 1961-62

A short but fascinating seven minute UTube video detailing the actual demolition, which began in December 1961, may be viewed Here. Jack-hammers roughly prised apart the stonework with no thought of preservation. The demolition contractor, Frank Valori, stated that he had undertaken the demolition "without pleasure". His offer to store the stones at his own expense for a future rebuilding was turned down, no doubt because it would have increased the demolition costs as extra care would have been required. Two side 'lodges', which must have formed part of the original Railway Station, were however rebuilt facing Euston Road with an entranceway to the new Station in between. And there ended the story of the Euston Arch - until 1994 that is.

The two small side 'lodges' rebuilt on Euston Road, as I viewed
them in 1986. The long building in the centre is offices built in
front of the new 1968 station building.
[From my own collection]

In that year, the Architectural Historian and TV presenter Dan Cruickshank, and after a 15 year search, discovered that some surviving stonework had been used in the demolition contractor's own garden, partially as a garden terrace, as foundation material, and for a pond. This then led to the discovery that Valori had sold around 60% (about 4,000 tons!) of Euston Arch stone to British Waterways to fill a chasm in the Prescott Channel of the River Lea in East London. Cruickshank arranged for a section of one fluted column to be raised up from the river bed to show that the hard stone, which had come from a quarry in Yorkshire, had weathered little. Further stones were raised by British Waterways in 2012 in connection with other work associated with waterways serving the Olympic Park.

Dan Cruickshank supervising the recovery of a pediment stone
from the River Lea. Damage to the stone is clearly evident.

In 1996, Dan Cruickshank launched the "Euston Arch Trust" which aims to raise public awareness, to raise the necessary funds to rebuild the Arch, and also to attempt to restore the early nineteenth century Euston Square which had also fallen victim to the re-development of Euston Station. To date progress by the Trust has been slow but steady.

Dan Cruickshank with a section of one of the fluted Doric
columns. The original light coloured stone under the grimy
exterior is just visible around the damaged edges 

The current station owners, "Railtrack", support the idea of rebuilding the Arch but as at 2009 the expected combined recovery and rebuilding costs stood at £10 million. Sub-letting space in and under the Arch has been suggested as a means of generating some revenue to recover costs, including a 'banqueting hall' at the top of the Arch and a 'night-club' in the basement. Steel would replace the original brick shell of the Arch to increase space. The well-known comedian, actor, writer and television presenter, Michael Palin, has now also joined the campaign to rebuild "the first great building of the railway age" writing;

"The enormous popularity of the restored St Pancras has shown that celebration of the past and potential of the future are not mutually exclusive. The restoration of [the] Euston Arch would restore to London's oldest mainline terminus some of the character and dignity of its great neighbours."

The L&B Railway Curzon Street Station Booking Hall,
Refreshment Room and Offices, Birmingham.
Now standing in total isolation but secure.

It is interesting that the 'orphaned' but still extant 1838 Grade One listed grand booking hall, refreshment room and offices of the same 'London and Birmingham Railway' at the other end of the original line in Birmingham will be incorporated into the overall design of the new High Speed 2 ('HS2') Rail terminus. Now we respect and honour the past instead of tearing it down. Euston Station is planned as the London terminus for 'HS2'.

How the rebuilt Arch would appear on Euston Road
placed between the two existing pavilions.

It was announced in April 2013 that while Euston Station would still be developed as the London terminus for 'HS2' it would be in a scaled back format using existing facilities rather than outright demolition and rebuilding of the current 1968 station. Although new plans are yet to be released these should not affect the Euston Arch rebuilding proposals. The Arch originally stood back from Euston Road about where the buffer stops are in the current station so rebuilding at the original site would in any case be impossible. The universally agreed ideal position for a rebuilt Arch is fronting Euston Road between the two rebuilt 'lodges', thus somewhat restoring the context of how it originally appeared, but still fronting the present Euston Station site. That the Arch would again serve as the grand railway "Gateway to the North" is highly appropriate. But the continued presence of what I consider to be an ugly four story modern office block on pillars, with an entirely open ground level enabling vehicular and pedestrian access through to the 1968 station, is unfortunate. Continued convenient access to an even busier "HS2" railway station will now be the main consideration, besides finding the necessary funding to rebuild the Arch. 

An early Victorian engraving of the Euston Arch and
flanking pavilions, as drawn for the "British Gazetteer". 

There now appears to be plenty of original stone to work with and the consensus of opinion is that it would be reprehensible not to attempt to use it. Obviously, even when the necessary funds are forthcoming, the state of the damaged stonework will provide many challenges as much of it will need to be heavily repaired or re-carved from new stone. Reconstructed buildings in Germany show that this is, with care, entirely possibly and that a mix of original and new elements matching the original does not necessarily detract from the original historic authenticity of a structure. When rebuilt, the Arch would undoubtedly be Grade One listed, the maximum protection a building or structure can be given. That this Arch has somewhat slipped from the public radar is primarily due simply to the fact that it has not been visible for the past fifty-one years, almost a whole generation. The original and highly decorative cast iron gates, which had been manufactured in the foundry of the Engineer and Locksmith, John Joseph Bramah in 1838, are now on public display in the National Railway Museum at York.

The original Euston Arch Gates, now in the
National Railway Museum at York
[Photo credit : S Carroll]

A close up of the gates showing the
London and Birmingham Railway Coat of Arms
[Photo credit : S Carroll]

As Dan Cruickshank wrote, "Its destruction was an act of barbarism. Now a great cultural wrong can be put right."  We wait and hope that this grand Arch and monument to the great Victorian Railway Age can again be restored to its proper place in London.  

Bibliography :

- Various Internet Resources
- The Euston Arch Trust
- The Euston Arch Campaign [UTube Video]
- Unless otherwise stated all images are from Internet sources and are in the public domain.

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