Magazine article The Spectator

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Magazine article The Spectator

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Article excerpt

I recently revisited the National Railway Museum at York. It is always a pleasure to see the huge steam engines, the beautifully furnished timber carriages and all the other historic artefacts of the railway in the flesh. But I had a particular objective connected with research I have been doing on British railway architecture in the first half of the last century (not an inspiring subject, other than Frank Pick's achievement on the London Underground) for a book of essays to be published by the Paul Mellon Centre: I wanted to see the unexecuted design for the new Euston Station proposed by Sir Percy Thomas for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway in 1938.

The story is an instructive one. Notwithstanding the sublime Doric grandeur of that greatest monument of the Railway Age, Philip Hardwick's so-called Euston 'Arch', the old station was a confused muddle, ripe for rational rebuilding. But the LMS - like the other companies, inhibited by government and struggling with competition from unregulated road transport could not afford to do so. Only at the end of the 1930s, with the promise of a government loan, could the LMS wheel in a serious architect in the shape of Percy Thomas (he had done Swansea Civic Centre and was busy with the Temple of Peace in Cardiff) and, after a tour of modern stations in the United States, he came up with a colossal stripped-Classical block with wings, combining station, hotel and offices.

Unfortunately, this required the removal of the Arch, sited, as it was, some way north of the remains of Euston Square. So the newly founded Georgian Group weighed in and protested. Thomas, just like an architect, insisted that the stone propylaeum could not possibly be moved, but Albert Richardson and Lord Gerald Wellesley on behalf of the Group persuaded the LMS that it jolly well could be resited on the Euston Road and the chairman (my great-uncle) acquiesced. And that was the situation when the outbreak of war killed the project, leaving that cynical, philistine war-criminal, Harold Macmillan, to do the dirty deed two decades later destroying both the Arch and the Great Hall and replacing Euston with a much, much inferior new station to what the LMS might have given us.

Percy Thomas's design for the New Euston was not published or exhibited at the time, but it is now at York, safely in store: a handsome perspective rendered by the architect's favourite artist, William Walcot. But there is much more there to do with Euston which the curator, Beverley Cole, was kind enough to show me. There are perspectives by Hardwick made a century earlier to show the directors of the London & Birmingham Railway what his propylaeum and the flanking hotel blocks would look like. …

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