England's Most Elegant Railway Station
Monkwearmouth Railway Station in Sunderland is perhaps the most elegant railway station in England. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner so admired the building he wrote: ‘If one does not mind a railway station looking exactly like a Literary and Scientific Institution or a provincial Athenaeum, then Monkwearmouth is one of the most handsome early stations in existence’.
Monkwearmouth Station is a coherent statement of pure classicism, yet one in which the ancient classical orders have been admirably well adapted to an entirely modern building type. The building is symmetrical about an imposing portico, its sober triangular pediment borne on four Ionic columns which stand forward of the main block. Jointed to the centre are low wings which recede from the road in quadrant curves. Each is articulated with tall rectangular windows and paired pilasters. An impression of strength is contributed by the rounded entablatures which are supported on fluted Doric columns in antis. Raised on an elevated site, the building achieves a sedate elegance that entirely belies its industrial purpose. As if to efface this, the track itself is politely concealed behind a screen of round arches and pilasters.
The station owes its dignified grandeur to the wealth of the local industrialist George Hudson, ‘Railway King’ and later MP for Sunderland whose dubious business enterprises allowed him to finance the expensive building as part of his election campaign. Hudson acquired the services of the town’s most respected architect, Thomas Moore (1794-1869), a local man who began practice as a joiner, builder and surveyor before working his way up to become ‘the father of his profession’ in Sunderland. Moore had designed numerous highly individual mansion houses for private clients and his sophisticated grasp of contemporary tastes culminated in his design for the station, an assured interpretation of the classical Greek style fashionable with the major architects and patrons of the day. Eschewing the severity of much Greek Revival architecture, the design retains an emphasis on well-balanced volumes and exacting proportions. Though it is undeniably the showpiece of the enterprising Hudson, it is a testament to the skill and cultivation of the architect.
Monkwearmouth Station was the Sunderland terminus of the Brandling Junction, which united the town with South Shields and Gateshead. Its predecessor was a temporary wooden shed near the site of the present Wheatsheaf public house. The replacement was built much closer to the bridge for the convenience of passengers, which along with the stately design indicates that the station was intended primarily for passenger rather than goods traffic. The building is now a museum encapsulating an early twentieth-century interior. All other furnishings have been removed, but the internal volumes make the original layout comprehensible. The central block housed the ticket office and accommodation for the station master. A first class waiting room with moulded plaster ceiling occupied the southern wing. The second class waiting room in the north wing was smaller and less elaborate, to reflect its lowlier status. From the central block, sliding doors lead to the platform, which is roofed over with a canopy of iron and glass manufactured by the local glass maker James Hartley.
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