St Pancras Way in the Borough of Camden certainly isn’t the most picturesque street in London; lined mostly by nondescript industrial and student accommodation buildings, it has little to offer to the architectural and/or historical enthusiast. That is, until you reach no. 7: a two-storey brick structure, which immediately evokes the Victorian era. The ground floor is dominated by a regular row of round arched windows, while the openings on the first floor are slightly narrower and surmounted by straight stone lintels. The building’s original purpose is helpfully spelled out on a sign painted at the northern end of the street façade, reading “South Stables”. What the sign doesn’t tell you, however, is that this relatively small, isolated structure was built in the 1860s as part of the extensive Midland Railway facilities which then covered large parts of the area.
Midland Railway was founded in 1844 from the merger of several local railway companies serving the area around Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby. In the late 1850s, Midland Railway began to expand towards London, and in 1862 decided to build its own terminus there: St Pancras. The station opened in 1868, but one could argue that it was only really completed with the addition of the Midland Grand Hotel, George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, built 1865–1876. If the hotel was, and still is, St Pancras’ ‘public face’, a range of much more modest, utilitarian buildings was tucked away behind the station. Extending over hundreds of metres, there were offices, warehouses, facilities for coal traffic – and large stable complexes. Most of this has been destroyed in the course of the last one and a half century, but the South Stables building remains as a small, if poignant reminder of the Midland Railway’s golden age. And, in a slightly ironic twist, it also reminds us that, even though the Victorian era may have been the golden age of the steam-powered railway, actual horse power was still indispensable in any kind of transportation business at the time.
I recently moved to Archway, in the London Borough of Islington. Perhaps the first piece of architecture to catch my attention in my new neighbourhood was this row of uniform terraced houses, called Hargrave Mansions, on the south side of Hargrave Road.* When I first glimpsed them from the corner of Holloway Road, I was immediately intrigued by the contrast between red brick walls and the white of window frames and parapets. While this combination is rather typical for late Victorian and Edwardian houses, it seemed strangely highlighted here by the clear, simple lines of the facades, culminating in an uninterrupted line of parapets hiding the flat roofs.
There is a stark simplicity to this row of buildings which I find immensely pleasing – and reminiscent both of Modernist and Regency architecture. But, as it turns out, Hargrave Mansions were in fact built in the Edwardian period, i.e. in the first decade of the 20th century. As in other parts of north London, major housing developments in Archway were only undertaken in the second half of the 19th century, and the south side of Hargrave Road was one of the last stretches of land in the area to be developed. I’m not sure in which year exactly the construction of the terraced houses was begun, but it must have been completed by 1910, when they were advertised for rent in The Solicitors’ Journal and Weekly Reporter as “Ten blocks of well-planned Residential Flats, each block containing six self-contained suites.”
The front of each block has three bays, the central bay being slightly recessed, as are the narrow strips of wall joining the blocks together. This gives an interesting three-dimensional quality to the otherwise mostly flat facade – only the door frames, window sills and roof cornices protrude from the unadorned brick walls. Both the window mullions and the pilasters framing the doorways are rendered in a plain neoclassical style which is indeed reminiscent of the Regency era. It would probably not be amiss, therefore, to define Hargrave Mansions as an example of Neo-Georgian architecture – a style enjoying considerable popularity during the first decades of the 20th century, aiming to reproduce the classicist simplicity of the Regency period. But, truth be told, I find it difficult to put a label on this row of houses – or perhaps I’m just unwilling to do so. The thing is, as an art historian, putting a defining label on a piece of art or architecture often gives me a feeling of having solved a puzzle, and this can sometimes tempt me to consider the case closed and move on. But moving on is the last thing I want to do: On the contrary, I have an inkling I’ll at least cast a glance at these buildings from the corner of Holloway Road every single time I walk up to Archway Station…
* Named after the Hargrave family who used to own the land in this area from the 17th century onwards.