‘However charming the gate or imposing the porch, it is the entrance door which captures the eye of the visitor as he waits to be admitted’ (Robin Guild, The Victorian House Book). Impress your visitors with a replica Georgian or Victorian timber door made by GBS Joinery, whose details are now available on our Links page under the Victorian House Decoration section. They offer a bespoke service, making and fitting doors and windows for residential and commercial properties.
Archive for July, 2011
On this day in 1870, the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France. Although he wrote numerous works of history and biography, he is best remembered for his macabre humorous verse, such as ‘Matilda’. To find an equally naughty Matilda, go to When Grandmama Fell Off The Boat.
The great days of railway luxury are returning. Today Top Table have a special offer on the St Pancras Grand, ‘a stylish, romantic destination restaurant’. When was the last time a railway dining room was connected with romance? Brief Encounter? Early next year, the restored King’s Cross station will be unveiled, offering more 19th-century splendour. For a snapshot of the work in progress, see our Blog.
Last Thursday, as a member of the Railway Heritage Trust Advisory Panel, I toured the works at King’s Cross, where Lewis Cubitt’s 1852 terminus is being restored and a new concourse added.
Up on the roof, as we walked along the valley gutter between the twin trainshed arches, we saw new plate-glass and solar-voltaic panels being installed. From the parapet of the station façade we could survey the entire battlefield of 19th-century railway rivalry, the plain engineering style of the Great Northern at King’s Cross facing the Gothic upstart of the Midland’s St Pancras across the road. Further west, now converted into a concrete hulk, lies the terminus of the North Western at Euston, on which the statue of Britannia atop St Pancras turns her back.
The Project Director for King’s Cross, Ian Fry, has all the ebullience of a railway engineer who knows he is creating the future. We have come a long way from the two original Departures and Arrivals platforms at King’s Cross, with sidings in between. Passenger numbers are now higher than they were in the 1920s, and are expected to continue rising, so a large new concourse is essential. It is being built in the space between King’s Cross and the Great Northern Hotel. As the last of the scaffolding is dismantled, the sweep of the honeycomb roof can be appreciated. ‘Jaw-dropping’ is what most visitors tell Fry, and it is. As a new railway building, it’s as good as you get, and Fry is justly proud of his achievement. Maybe his name will rank alongside Cubitt’s a hundred years from now.
As we toured the station, I was ready to embrace the undeniable feats of engineering which have created underground service tunnels, sweeping passenger interchanges and concrete underpinning good enough to last a thousand years. The reglazed trainshed roofs will look stunning when all the gantries and covers have been removed. Part of the western range of buildings which was destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War is finally being rebuilt. The original booking office will be re-opened and the largest railway pub in Britain created further up the platform. Where necessary, panelled sash windows are being reinstated and the original station master’s office will once again become operational.
What I was uneasy about, when I saw the first drawings, I am still uneasy about. The new honeycomb-roofed concourse is a soaring success in its own right, but it is, as Ian Fry proclaimed, a new railway building, and as such it upstages Cubitt’s original design. Like a flying saucer, it has come to rest between two 19th-century developments, the western range of King’s Cross station and the back of the Great Northern Hotel, to which it is attached. It has nothing in common with either. Its steel girders cascade down in front of Cubitt’s western frontage, partly obscuring it. The mellow brick and sash windows of the original station are now seen through a glass screen. Two different idioms are jammed together, and inevitably they conflict. Cubitt’s idiom is Victorian domestic in brick, stone and wood, allied with engineering prowess in wrought iron and glass. Fry’s idiom is steel and concrete, and at the base of the new flying saucer you can see massive reinforced steel joists and concrete footings. Fine it may be, but it has nothing to do with the listed buildings it is supposed to complement.
The language of today’s engineer is steel and concrete, loads and functions. I do not doubt Fry’s satisfaction in the work he has undertaken to restore and reinstate so much of Cubitt’s station. He is to be congratulated for his enthusiasm and evident commitment. My concern is broader. Steel and concrete bring structural strength, and with strength comes superiority. It is only too easy for today’s engineers to assume that new is better. You can see the march of this belief in cities all over the world. Right here, there is an example of thoughtless modernism in the extension to St Pancras station, a glass box which bears no relation to the Barlow trainshed or the rich polychrome brickwork of the main station. The same is true of the Underground tunnels and concourses which are supposed to be part of the scheme.
Engineers and planners think it’s okay to jam a utilitarian box up against a soaring piece of architecture, but they are wrong. It will take decades more before this mistake is recognized for what it is, and by then our cities will be that much uglier than they have already become since the end of the Second World War. The extension of St Pancras is in everyday use, and I use it. The new concourse of King’s Cross will be opened early next year, and I will use that, too. But I will be hoping that, in a new age of enlightenment still to commence, architects and engineers will once again take a Grand Tour of the styles, master the subtleties of idiom and refrain from cramming unadorned steel and concrete down our throats.
There will be another test of architectural awareness when the 1970s concourse in front of King’s Cross is cleared away and an open plaza created. Two ventilation shafts from the Underground will remain. How should they be clothed and camouflaged? Here is an opportunity. Planners, engineers, architects and designers should ask themselves, what is the prevailing idiom of King’s Cross? What are the prevailing materials?
In designing a sign for the station entrance, they should ask the same questions. A quick look at the entrance to the re-opened St Pancras Hotel might provide a clue.
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent Railway Heritage Trust policy. To see pictures of the King’s Cross Regeneration Project, please visit our Facebook page (below) and click on Photos.
The Victorians placed great importance on the fireplace as ‘the cornerstone of domestic comfort’ (Robin Guild, The Victorian House Book). If you would like to bring some authentic Victorian character into your home, Nostalgia UK Ltd supplies antique fireplaces in wood, stone, slate, cast iron and marble. We have just given them a link on our Links page under the category of ‘Victorian House Decoration’. They have a stock of more than 2,500 fireplaces, including classical, Gothic, Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau designs. Visitors to their web-site can take a virtual tour of their showrooms and warehouses.
The Victorian House Book is now available at the Browsers Bookshop and Café, in the picturesque town of Woodbridge in Suffolk. This is an environment where visitors can browse at their leisure, with tea, coffee and cakes available if the mood takes them. Recipes for all the cakes can be found in the cookery books on the shelves. There is a children’s branch of Browsers further down the road.
Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect who designed the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens and the soaring hotel at St Pancras station. The hotel re-opened on 5th May, with many of its original features restored.
As publishers of The Victorian House Book and The Railway Heritage of Britain, we are instantly alert to any good-news story about Victorian architecture, still the butt of modernist derision 30 years after the death of Sir John Betjeman, and few stories can have had such a positive slant as the re-opening of the St Pancras Hotel. Formerly called the Midland Grand Hotel, to reflect the aspirations of the Midland Railway, one of the last to reach London, it was the grandest of grand termini. Its architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), designed everything, right down to the chandeliers and the door handles. Abandoned by British Rail in 1985, it stood empty for 20 years. On 5th May 2011 it reopened as a luxury hotel. Excitingly, the decorators discovered the original wallpaper in what is now the Sir Gilbert Scott Suite, and it has been faithfully reprinted and reinstated, along with many other original details all over the building. The 1873 restaurant has been brought back to life as The Gilbert Scott. As the hotel historian Royden Stock has said, it is amazing that they have got it this right.
My own connection to the St Pancras Hotel goes back to 1983 when we published The Railway Heritage of Britain in association with the British Railways Board. The project was the brainchild of Bernard Kaukas, Director – Environment at British Rail; he was the only contributor permitted to comment on the embarrassingly poor state of Britain’s railway architecture. In his piece on The Splendours and Miseries of British Rail’s Architectural Heritage, we showed a picture of the western tower of the St Pancras Hotel, freshly washed on his orders. The rest of the façade was left dirty. As the caption explained, it would cost at least another £1 million to finish cleaning the brickwork, and at the time it seemed a faint hope that even the exterior would be done, let alone the interior. As we prepared the book for publication, we spread out scores of 8 x 10 in. black and white prints from the hotel’s 19th-century heyday and gawped at the magnificence of Scott’s reception rooms, with antimacassars on the armchairs and chandeliers ablaze. We never imagined we would see this lavish magnificence faithfully recreated.
Shortly after the publication of the book, the Railway Heritage Trust was founded with financial support from British Rail, under the chairmanship of Sir William McAlpine. Luminaries from the worlds of railways and architecture became members of the Advisory Panel, and I was honoured to be invited to join them. In 1995 the annual meeting of the Advisory Panel was held in the dilapidated grandeur of the St Pancras Hotel, interrupted by a prolonged power cut. In the gloom of an October afternoon, we toured miles of silent corridors, peering into empty bedrooms where the soot spilled out of abandoned fireplaces. Encouragingly, we were shown that beneath each floor there was a cavernous crawl space through which, in principle, modern wiring and plumbing could be routed. The question was, could any investors be found to take on such a daunting and extravagant project?
Now we have the answer. The hotel is once again open, and next week, following a hard-hat inspection of the engineering works in progress at King’s Cross, I will once again ascend the grand staircase and tour the St Pancras Hotel, this time occupied by guests and refulgent in all its Gothic splendour. I doff my hat to Sir John Betjeman, who sounded the call to honour and preserve our Victorian heritage. Thanks to him, we can still celebrate and enjoy some of our greatest 19th-century architectural achievements, including this one on the bicentenary of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s birth.
There is a very good BBC news report, including a clip of Sir John Betjeman touring the St Pancras Hotel, and you can see it by clicking here. It is also well worth watching Tim Hayward’s review of Marcus Wareing’s new restaurant at St Pancras, The Gilbert Scott. If you are up for some bureaucrat bashing, read Simon Jenkins in The Guardian.
Scott of St Pancras
Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, re-opened this year and featured today as a Google Doodle.
Sir George Gilbert Scott is perhaps best known as the architect of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station. The hotel re-opened on 5th May 2011, with many of its original features restored. This is an achievement we could only dream of when we featured the hotel in The Railway Heritage of Britain in 1983. If anyone is still unconvinced of Scott’s standing as an architect, may we suggest a walk up his grand staircase at St Pancras. There is more on this subject in our Blog, and you can see an album of 21 photographs on our Facebook page.
When so many people are doing loft conversions or digging out their basements, there is a frequent need for new flights of stairs. To ensure a seamless connection between old and new, you need to be able to copy your existing staircase accurately. This is just the sort of job that E. A. Higginson can do. Their contact details are now available on our Victorian House Decoration page.
In Japan, frogs were thought to bring good fortune, allowing money to return to a person (the Japanese word for ‘frog’ is the same as ‘to return’). This little frog certainly looks as if he might have special powers, as he gazes up at the starry sky. This is our favourite design by The London Stained Glass Company. You can see more designs by visiting their web-site, which can be reached from Victorian House Decoration in Links.
There can be no denying the importance the Victorians placed on first impressions, and with grandeur in mind they turned the front entrances of their houses into showcases of architectural detail and decorative art, in which stained glass was ever-present. If yours is missing, and you want to commission a new design, have a look at Judi Stark’s portfolio, now available on our Victorian House Decoration page.