Euston: time to rebuild this colossus
Why is a treasure of the steam age languishing in a canal? Martin Gayford reports
“Railway termini and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century. They are the only real representative buildings we possess.” So wrote Building News in 1875. Many, looking at the refurbished St Pancras, would agree: that is universally agreed to be among the architectural masterpieces of Victorian Britain. It is less well known that an equally imposing monument of the railway age now lies – or most of it does – at the bottom of a canal in east London.
The Euston Arch used to stand a few hundred yards to the west of St Pancras: huge, austere, and magnificent. It was 70 feet high by 44 feet deep. “Between the fluted columns, each eight and a half feet in diameter, which formed the main carriage entrance,” wrote John Betjeman, “might be glimpsed the green hills of Hampstead beyond.” For over a century this was the first sight of London for travellers from the North West. When it was new, crowds flocked by omnibus to see this wonder of the age.
Its destruction in 1961 was one of the first and sharpest battles in the late-20th-century conservation wars. In fact, the outcry that it provoked was an important factor in preventing the destruction – now inconceivable – of St Pancras and King’s Cross. But now there is a chance that the great arch may rise again. This is an opportunity, as Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, says, “to right one of the great wrongs of architectural vandalism to London in the Sixties”.