Elephant Tearooms plans approved - historic building to offer window on Sunderland's past

Plans to revamp one of Sunderland’s most historic buildings have been given the green light by city councillors.

Tuesday, 17th December 2019, 4:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 17th December 2019, 4:45 pm

Earlier this year, Sunderland City Council revealed plans for the Grade II-listed Elephant Tea Rooms on the corner of Fawcett Street and High Street West.

The site was most recently used by the Royal Bank of Scotland and has stood empty since the branch closed in 2018.

After buying the site, council bosses have pressed ahead with plans to open a local studies library in the space.

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File picture of the Elephant Tea Rooms

The plans were rubber-stamped by the council’s area development control sub-committee this week.

Deputy leader of Sunderland City Council, Coun Michael Mordey, described it as a “fantastic use for the building.”

Under the proposals, the existing Local Studies centre will relocate from its home in Fawcett Street and will house the largest collection of records and information in Sunderland.

This includes photographs, maps, film, trade directories, parish registers and newspapers chronicling the history of Wearside.

Elephant Tea Rooms, Sunderland city centre

The new space, which will be named Local History Library @ETR, also aims to offer better access for customers, alongside facilities for events and activities.

Proposed opening times include 9am-5pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9am-7pm on Wednesday and 10am-4pm on Saturday.

The Elephant Tea Rooms, constructed in the 19th Century, is known for its eye-catching facade including ornamental elephants.

The building was constructed from 1872 to 1877 for Ronald Grimshaw, a tea merchant, in a blend of the high Victorian Hindu Gothic and Venetian Gothic styles. This was a selling point, as the exotic style and name advertised the exotic origins of the tea sold there.

The vault of the former bank that was located on the site of the Elephant Tea Rooms High Street West, Sunderland. Picture by FRANK REID

Council planners, recommending the scheme for approval at a meeting on Monday December 16, said planned repairs would help “stop the physical decline of the building.”

Any external changes would also be “like-for-like replacements if items are beyond reuse and repair” while internal changes would be “minimal and fully reversible”.

The current local studies library closed earlier this month ahead of the new centre opening on Friday, January 31, 2020.

During the moving period, services can be sourced through the libraries services alongside smaller local history collections in Washington Town Centre and Houghton Library.

Inside of the former Elephant Tea Rooms High Street West, Sunderland. Picture by FRANK REID
Elephants at the then Williams and Glyns Bank, Fawcett Street, in March 1980. Ornamental mason John Edwards inspects a stone elephant before beginning "plastic surgery" on the decoration.