A Doric Tragedy: Demolishing the Euston Arch

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Drivers crawling along the Euston Road in the north of Central London will be familiar with the uninspiring, bland and brutal space that surrounds Euston Station. The three high-rise office blocks in particular seem to have been lifted from some mediocre midwestern city in the United States (Minneapolis? Cleveland?) and plonked down in Britain’s capital, as if outposts of a regional insurance firm or bank. Train passengers too will know the unpleasant warren of passageways and concrete steps that cluster around these blocks, leading from the station onto a dirty apron of grass, which itself appears custom-made for discarded free-sheets, beer cans and syringes.

Euston_station_main_entrance

The current Euston Station was opened by the Queen in 1968, but, like so many modern buildings, has never really lived up to the artist's impression.

The current Euston Station was opened by the Queen in 1968, but, like so many modern buildings, it has never really lived up to the artist’s impression.

It was not always thus. Until 1961, Euston Station was separated from the Euston Road by several smaller streets and the massive and magnificent Euston Arch. That arch, built in 1837 at the dawn of the railway age, was a physical and metaphorical gateway to the Midlands of England and – quite self-consciously – a symbol of progress: an ‘architectural embellishment’, as the management of the London and Birmingham Railway described it at the time, ‘a grand but simple portico […] well adapted to the national character of the undertaking’.

The Euston Arch was designed by Philip Hardwick, who had been inspired by a visit to Italy. It is modelled on an ancient propylaea, the first of which stood in front of the acropolis in Athens.

The Euston Arch was designed by Philip Hardwick, who had been inspired by a visit to Italy. It is modelled on an ancient propylaea, the first of which stood in front of the acropolis in Athens.

During the early 1960s, the British Transport Commission decided to sweep away the old Euston Station entirely and replace it with the current edifice, reconfiguring the street plan to create space for larger passenger facilities, a parcel-sorting depot and better bus, taxi and tube connections. The new design had no place for the arch and, although it was already over 120 years old, planners did not hesitate to recommend its destruction.

The arch had been an iconic part of the British railways for over a century by the time it was destroyed, as this children's primer shows.

The arch had been an iconic part of the British railways for over a century when it was destroyed, as this children’s primer from the 1850s shows.

It has often been said since that the Euston Arch was demolished thoughtlessly, but nothing could be further from the truth. To proceed with its plan, the commission had to secure approval from the London County Council and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, both of which instantly became targets for vociferous lobbying from concerned architects, architectural historians and preservationists. Over the course of some 22 months, between January 1960 and October 1961, the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Georgian Society, the Victorian Society (whose vice-chairman was Sir John Betjeman), the editor of the Architectural Review, and numerous backbench MPs called for the arch to be saved, making suggestions about where it could be moved to, and offering to raise money to pay for such a move.

At times, it really did look as if the designers might reconsider, but on each occasion they ended up arguing that the cost of keeping the arch was too great – either in terms of paying for its preservation themselves or because it would take too long for others to gather the funds. In intellectual circles at least, there was no doubt that the argument about the arch’s artistic merits had been won, but this in itself was insufficient to rescue it.

In the end, the controversy went all the way to the Cabinet, which discussed “Euston Station: Doric Arch” at two meetings on 17 and 26 October 1961. These discussions were precipitated in part by a protest at the arch itself, where a group of young architects had occupied the scaffolding one lunchtime and unfurled a banner bearing the words “Save the Arch”. Fascinatingly, when it was asked about it for the first time, the Cabinet decided to approve demolition, only for the Prime Minister to return nine days later and ask it to consider the issue all over again. Apparently the elderly Macmillan had become worried after a meeting with “influential” campaigners. (They had clearly had more effect on him than they thought: one – J. M. Richards – recorded that the prime minister appeared to be asleep throughout the exchange!)

The arch swathed in scaffolding awaits dismantling in the autumn of 1961.

The arch swathed in scaffolding awaits dismantling in the autumn of 1961.

Macmillan warned the Cabinet that ‘strong criticism’ awaited them if they pressed ahead with destruction. But, on 26 October, that was what they decided to do, reaffirming their “earlier decision that the demolition of the Doric Arch […] should not be delayed”. Demolition began a few weeks later and was completed by the end of the year. Below are the formal minutes of the two Cabinet discussions in full.

Men stand on top of one of the giant pillars during the demolition.

Men stand on top of one of the giant pillars during the demolition.

To conclude, it is worth noting that attempts to rebuild the Euston Arch have been more or less constant since it was lost. They continue today through the Euston Arch Trust, whose website contains many beautiful pictures of the original. The trust welcomes supporters and donations. The historian Dan Cruikshank, who is involved with the continuing campaign, has located many original pieces of the arch – at least 60% of it, he says – in the bed of the Prescott Channel of the River Lea in East London. These could be salvaged and used in any new construction. However, unlike the original, a new arch would be located right alongside the Euston Road – arguably making it even more of a landmark – in between the two lodges (built in 1870) which are now the only significant survivors of the original nineteenth-century station. Why not contemplate the arch’s return over a pint at the pub that nestles inside one of these lodges?

This image shows the arch in relation to the two lodges that survive. Modern attempts to reinstate an arch would locate it between the lodges, at the edge of Euston Road.

This image shows the arch in relation to the two lodges that survive. Modern attempts to reinstate an arch would locate it between them, at the edge of Euston Road.

CABINET CONCLUSIONS – 17th OCTOBER 1961

7. Euston Station: Doric Arch. The Minister of Transport recalled that the Home Affairs Committee, at their meeting on 30th June, had decided that in the forthcoming reconstruction of Euston Station it would be unnecessary to preserve the Doric Arch. The cost of removing and re-erecting it elsewhere had then been estimated at £190,000. Though this decision had been announced early in July, it had not occasioned any public protest until late in September, when the scaffolding for the removal of the Arch began to be erected. The Royal Fine Art Commission had then pronounced against the decision: a scheme for removing it on rollers at a cost of only £90,000 had been put forward; and an attempt was being made to raise a fund for this purpose from private sources. The Minister said that he was doubtful whether this sum would be raised; nor was he satisfied that it would be technically feasible to remove the Arch by this means for re-erection elsewhere. Meanwhile, the contract for the work at Euston Station had been let and the British Transport Commission would suffer inconvenience and financial loss if the removal of the Arch were delayed.

The Minister of Works said that the Arch was of some historical interest and should not perhaps be destroyed if it could be preserved without expense to public funds. 

In discussion there was some support for the view that the Government should not prevent the preservation of the Arch if those concerned to preserve it were willing to raise the money for its removal and re-erection elsewhere. On the other hand it was recognised that, if the Government indicated any readiness to modify their earlier decision, there would be a substantial delay before a practical plan was devised for re-erecting the Arch on another site by public subscription. Indeed, it was likely that the Exchequer would be called upon to defray some part, at any rate, of the cost. It was the general feeling of the Cabinet that such advantages as there might be in allowing the Arch to be preserved would be outweighed by the consequent delay, and increased cost, of the reconstruction of Euston Station.

The Cabinet – Confirmed the decision that the Doric Arch at Euston Station should be demolished.

CABINET CONCLUSIONS – 26th OCTOBER 1961

9. Euston Station: Doric Arch. The Prime Minister said that, since the Cabinet’s discussion on 17th October, he had received an influential deputation, led by the President of the Royal Academy, which had urged that the demolition of the Doric Arch at Euston Station should be postponed so that further consideration might be given to the possibility of re-erecting it on another site. It was evident that, if the Cabinet adhered to their earlier decision to demolish this Arch, they would encounter strong criticism from persons interested in the preservation of buildings of historical or architectural interest. 

Discussion showed that, despite this development, it remained the view of the Cabinet that the balance of public advantage lay on the side of proceeding with the demolition of this Arch.

The Cabinet – Reaffirmed their earlier decision that the demolition of the Doric Arch at Euston Station should not be delayed.

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