Great buildings of Sunderland’s past

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SUNDERLAND’S greatest architectural successes of the Edwardian Renaissance – from libraries to theatres and fire stations – are to be spotlighted in a special talk.

Local historian and university professor Dr Michael Johnson will examine a host of well-known Wearside buildings during a Local History Month event this Saturday.

WAITING SCENE: The site of the Empire Theatre before it was built. The Dun Cow pub can just be seen on the right.

WAITING SCENE: The site of the Empire Theatre before it was built. The Dun Cow pub can just be seen on the right.

“Sunderland was at the height of its prosperity in Edwardian times,” he said. “The exuberant buildings of this era represent the pinnacle of its architectural achievement.

“The town’s civic pride was expressed in the building of spectacular public and commercial buildings, many of them designed in the extravagant Baroque style.”

Indeed, Wearsiders welcomed the dawn of the 20th century with a flurry of building activity, including the Police Station and Magistrates’ Court in Gill Bridge Avenue.

Designed by leading local architects W. and T.R. Milburn, the complex featured lavish Baroque fashions combined with classical styles reflecting a ‘need for justice’.

Also built at around the same time, and designed by the same architects, was the Fire Station in High Street. Opening in 1907, it provided a long-needed base for rescuers.

“Reflecting the optimism of the era, the Edwardian years saw Sunderland expand its educational and cultural provision as well,” said Michael, an architectural historian.

“The Corporation used money awarded by the Scottish-born industrialist Sir Andrew Carnegie to build three branch libraries at Hendon, Monkwearmouth and Kayll Road.

“But the most prestigious educational institution was the Technical College in Green Terrace, which provided instruction in science, engineering and naval architecture.

“This still remains an imposing building, encrusted with terracotta ornament, with the lavish entrance porch featuring mermaids and the arms of Sunderland Borough.”

Shipyards, mines and factories employed thousands of Wearsiders in Edwardian times, but other businesses were booming too – sparking the need for office blocks.

The Maritime Buildings and Sunniside Chambers were designed by Henderson and Hall, in a style inspired by Norman Shaw – the esteemed architect of Cragside House.

But H&H’s finest work, according to Michael, was the River Wear Commissioners’ HQ in St Thomas Street – one of the city’s most “sophisticated and dignified” buildings.

“The Commissioners played a vital role in the history of Sunderland by opening the river to international commerce and enabling ship-building to thrive,” he said.

The industrial boom of the Edwardian era brought a boom in population too, as thousands of people from across Britain flocked to Wearside to find work.

Rows of cottages, such as the ABC streets designed by W. and T.R. Milburn, were built for the new workforce, and recreational projects became big business too.

“One expression of this was the building of opulent public houses,” said Michael. “The Dun Cow (1901-2) is the finest example of an Edwardian gin palace in the city.

“Designed by W. and T.R. Milburn, it was built to lure customers with its interiors of sparkling glass and lustrous wood. The Londonderry is another spectacular example.”

W. and T.R. Milburn – William and Thomas – proved to be Sunderland’s most prolific Edwardian era architects, designing dozens of public and commercial buildings.

Pubs, houses, offices and law courts all owed their existence to the brothers, as did the Empire Theatre – which was opened on July 1, 1907, by variety star Vesta Tilley.

“The Empire was, and still is, the pinnacle of Sunderland’s Edwardian Renaissance – a Baroque palace overflowing with sculpture,” said Michael.

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

“The elegant buildings of the Georgian era were vital to the town’s development, while the Victorian period imbued Sunderland with new churches and chapels.

“But the buildings of the Edwardian period represent the pinnacle of our architectural achievement, and are at the core of Sunderland’s architectural legacy.”

l Michael’s talk will be held in the City Library and Arts Centre in Fawcett Street at 1:30pm on May 11. Places are free, but must be booked on 0191 561 1235.