MOUTH OF THE WEAR: Do the right thing with all our buildings - whatever that might be

An interesting debate continues over the fate of the Doxford gatehouse in Pallion, built in 1903

Tuesday, 9th July 2019, 06:00 am
Updated Monday, 8th July 2019, 17:03 pm
Doxford shipyards gatehouse. The council says it is beyond saving.

Sunderland Council says it will preserve the arches and gates, demolish the remainder, saying it is, regrettably, too dilapidated to save.

Pressure group Save Doxford’s West Gateway disagrees, describing the council’s plans as “cultural vandalism”. They are now backed by Richard Doxford, great-grandson of shipping bigwig Sir William Doxford who established the yard as a shipbuilding superpower.

At close inspection of the building you wonder what the fuss is about, rendered with pebbledash and quite unremarkable.

But when you examine old photographs of the gatehouse and realise what lies beneath, you see what we could be losing.

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It should be preserved - if feasible. But as my own civil engineering skills extend about as far as wall mounting a mirror, I am unable to pick a side.

The council are acutely aware of Wearside sensitivity about architecture. It seems it will be forever berated for the fate of the beautiful old town hall, demolished in 1971. While that was obviously a horrendous misjudgement, I have mixed feelings over the resentment of it that still exists.

On one hand, no amount of resentment will rebuild it. Nor can blame for the decision be attached to any councillor today.

On the other hand; those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The absurd decision to level the hall all those years ago is a potent warning to future generations not to make the same horrible mistake. Who wants a legacy like that?

And never let it be said that since 1971, the council has insouciantly levelled Sunderland’s better buildings.

For example, it was pleasing to learn recently that Mackie’s Corner and the Three Crowns Hotel in Pann Lane will be revamped. Opposite Mackie’s, the Elephant Tea Rooms will be safeguarded when the council takes it over.

I’ve always wanted to look inside the Elephant Tea Rooms. What a building.

As a small boy, while out violin shopping with Mater, I would stare fixedly at its façade. No one wasted time by telling me all about the hybrid of Venetian and Hindu gothic designs (which I’ve just Googled).

They didn’t need to talk it up. It had elephants attached to its exterior. What more could anyone want? Gargoyles? It had those too.

People become emotional about buildings. In Sunderland this is exacerbated by the memory of the town hall.

But let’s be honest. The majority of Sunderland structures razed in peacetime got exactly what they deserved. Some delightful buildings remain. So do a few unlamentable ones.

This is confirmed in Fawcett Street. Look at the first floors of the premises there; a peculiar mix-up of the grand, the stylish and the nondescript.

Does anyone miss the old bus station? Erased forever in the early 2000s, it was a massive, hideous concrete cuboid that could have been designed by anyone with a pencil and ruler; mourned only by aficionados of low-level crime and carbon monoxide.

Crowtree Leisure Centre? The Seaburn Fountain? The Old Twenty-Nine? Demolition can be as gratifying as preservation.

We now have the obverse quandaries of Doxford’s gatehouse and the Civic Centre, designed by Basil Spence.

It would be lovely if the right thing can be done with both.