Wearside Echoes: All buildings great and small

DONNISTON SCHOOL 1944
DONNISTON SCHOOL 1944
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SUNDERLAND’S greatest architectural successes – from churches to mansions and shops – are to come under the spotlight in a special talk.

Local historian and university professor Dr Michael Johnson is to examine the buildings as part of a Heritage Open Days event next month.

“I will be giving a talk on the historic buildings of Sunderland, which I believe deserve to be more appreciated,” he said.

“But, as well as celebrating our architectural highlights, my talk will examine local curiosities, un-built schemes and important buildings already lost to developers.”

Among the buildings to be discussed will be Holy Trinity Church, which was built in 1719 – the year the historic parish of Sunderland was established – to serve the East End.

“It is a superb example of a Georgian church and boasts a splendid interior. The vast, brightly-lit space is divided by elegant columns and culminates in a stunning Baroque arch,” said Michael. “In contrast to the medieval churches in the town, Holy Trinity was a bright, modern church for a new age of prosperity and progress.”

It was the building of Wearmouth Bridge in 1796, however, which finally signalled Sunderland’s ambitions as a forward-thinking industrial centre.

“This was only the second cast iron bridge in the world, vaulting the river in a single span of 236ft,” said Michael, a director of Sunderland Heritage Quarter.

“Wearmouth Bridge joined Sunderland parish with Monkwearmouth north of the river. From this point on, Sunderland was increasingly recognised as a single town.”

The 19th century saw Sunderland’s local architecture grow in sophistication, with one of the finest buildings of that era being Monkwearmouth Station.

“It was a supremely elegant design by the talented local architect Thomas Moore, who was known as ‘the father of his profession’ in Sunderland,” said Michael.

“We may take the building for granted, but its authenticity and harmonious proportions make it one of the most elegant buildings of its kind in the country.”

Fawcett Street was also transformed into Sunderland’s major commercial thoroughfare during this period, with its architecture described as “extremely rich and varied” by the professor.

“The most exotic building in Fawcett Street is the Elephant Tea House, designed by the eccentric architect Frank Caws, who described the style as ‘Hindu-Gothic’,” said Michael.

“Less well known is that Caws devised a fantastical scheme to develop Fawcett Street in the same style. He designed a Middle-Eastern-style bazaar extending from High Street to St Thomas Street.

“Unfortunately, the site never became available. Had it been built, this scheme would have given Sunderland the most extraordinary town centre in the country.”

Other architectural gems to feature in the talk will include shops, local businesses, pubs and places of worship.

“The city has many fine churches, their soaring spires forming dramatic elements in the town scape,” said Michael, a former Sunderland lecturer who now works at Newcastle University.

“One of the best is St John’s Wesleyan Methodist Church, built in 1888, which stands like a cathedral amid the leafy avenues of Ashbrooke.

“Constructed at a cost of £17,000, it was the most expensive church ever built in Sunderland. The soaring proportions are enhanced by a tall, piercing spire.

“But the crowning achievement of Sunderland architecture is St Andrew’s Church in Roker, which was built by the local shipbuilder Sir John Priestman as a memorial to his mother between 1904-7. Designed by the ‘rogue architect’ Edward Prior, it is built of reinforced concrete, but clad in local stone. This produces a bold, almost primitive, building of incredibly expressive power.”

Housing in Sunderland will also be highlighted in Michael’s talk – from the luxurious mansions of Victorian industrialists to the humble dwellings of the town’s workforce.

“Langham Tower is a Tudor-Gothic mansion built by one of the wealthiest citizens between 1886 and 1891,” he said.

“Meanwhile, workers lived in single-storey terraces known as Sunderland cottages. This type of housing is unique to Sunderland and represents the backbone of working class communities.”

Built originally for the skilled workers of Wearside’s shipyards, the cottages were designed by some of the town’s most eminent architects – including William and Thomas Milburn.

“The brothers were the architects of the Empire Theatre, but also designed the ABC streets in High Barnes, as well as Kitchener Street, Nora Street and Queen’s Crescent,” said Michael. “Joseph Potts and Son, the firm which rebuilt the Hutchinson Buildings in 1898 following the Great Fire of Sunderland, also designed the ‘Scottish streets’ of cottages in Fulwell.”

The Milburns turned their hands to pub design as well, as Michael will discuss, with the Hylton Road-based Mountain Daisy – built in 1900 – noted as having one of the best interiors in Britain.

Elsewhere, the Milburn-designed Dun Cow pub (1901-2) was an Edwardian gin palace designed to lure customers in with its interiors of sparkling glass and lustrous wood.

“The Sunderland we know today is largely a product of the 18th and 19th centuries, when mining and shipbuilding fuelled rapid expansion and development,” said Michael.

“The elegant buildings of the Georgian era were vital components of the town’s developing infrastructure. The Victorian period imbued Sunderland with new churches and chapels, as well as a diverse range of public and commercial buildings.

“Finally, the exuberant buildings of the Edwardian period represent the pinnacle of Sunderland’s architectural achievement.”

l Find out more about Sunderland’s architectural heritage by attending Michael’s talk, which will be held at 11am on September 7 at Sunderland City Library. Call 0191 553 2000 to book a place.