Thursday, October 2, 2008

St. Pancras Station

Built between 1863 and 1865 for the Midland Railway, St. Pancras Station has been described as the epitome of the railroad buildings that evolved following advances in iron technology in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was one of a number of London stations, including Victoria and Charing Cross, erected during the 1860s railroad boom, when national and international travel was becoming more popular. St. Pancras established Midland’s footing in the capital; coming as it did after other companies had erected their London terminals, it was deliberately intended to impress by its scale and architectural style. Its substantial train shed, designed by company engineer William Henry Barlow (1812–1902) with R. M. Ordish, achieved the widest single-arch span then built. This daring engineering accomplishment was unrivaled. Several years later, a grand Victorian Gothic, Revival hotel and terminus building was added to the front of the shed. Named the Midland Grand, it was designed by the eminent Gothic Revival architect George Gilbert Scott (1811–1878) and constructed between 1868 and 1876.

St. Pancras was built next to King’s Cross Station (1851–1852), the Great Northern Railway’s terminus designed by architect Lewis Cubitt. The dissimilar approach to the design of each station reveals a dilemma of the age—the functional station building was celebrated as an engineering triumph and a demonstration of technological and structural progress but was not popularly, or professionally, accepted as “real” architecture. King’s Cross exposed its function—a yellow brick facade with two arched windows flanking a central clock tower was effectively integrated with the sheds behind. The elaborate Midland Grand Hotel hid St. Pancras Station as if to suggest that only the former was acceptable for public display. The station proper was a mere shed, an industrial structure symbolic of a building type that did not fit neatly into the accepted definition of architecture. That divide between architecture and engineering would persist for several decades.

The St. Pancras train shed was an immense 700 feet (213 meters) in length. The roof, framed of wrought-iron trussed-lattice arches at 30-foot (9-meter) intervals, spanned 243 feet (74 meters), rising to a height of 100 feet (30 meters). The side walls were masonry, supported on masonry piers. Three-inch-diameter (76-millimeter) tension rods tied the feet of the arches below platform level. Iron and glass clad the roof frame. The train platform was at second-floor level, and the floor below was designed to store beer barrels, the length of the barrels determining the spacing of the columns that supported the platform.

The uninterrupted roof arch created a spacious and dramatic interior, but being tied at its feet, it did not have freedom of rotation at that point, making the structure statically indeterminate. This dilemma was overcome after the development of the hinged arch, employed with spectacular effect in the Galerie des Machines at the Paris Exposition of 1889.

In the heyday of railroad travel, the Midland Grand Hotel was amongst the most luxurious in London. Scott designed it at the peak of an illustrious career; two of his other works were then in progress—the Albert Memorial (1863–1875), Kensington Gardens, and the Foreign Office (1868–1873), Whitehall. There were over 300 lavishly decorated and amply furnished rooms opening off broad corridors. Hydraulic lifts were provided. One of the hotel’s features was a spiral staircase supported on exposed iron beams. The hotel at St. Pancras was a landmark for the picturesque composition of its various Gothic elements—tracery windows, turrets, gables, pinnacles—and for the clock tower in the style of Big Ben. Its curved facade suited the site and the materials selected by Scott—red Nottingham bricks, red and gray granite, and beige stone—added to its distinctiveness. This colorful building stood out against the city’s smoky pall and was a refreshing addition to the rather dull surroundings. The total cost of the shed and hotel was about £1 million.

In 1935, when the cost of refurbishing the hotel proved too high, it was closed and soon, renamed St. Pancras Chambers, converted to the Midland Railway Company’s offices. Many of its original features were removed or concealed. Threatened with demolition in the 1960s, it was saved as a significant example of Victorian Gothic architecture and assigned Grade 1 listed status by English Heritage. However, it was vacated in the 1980s due to inadequate fire standards. London and Continental Stations and Property, the current owner of the building (2001), has undertaken extensive structural and external and internal restoration works. These have revealed original decoration such as mosaics, ornamental ceiling panels, and stenciling. The railroad shed survives intact and remains a bustling London terminus.

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