Temples of Steam

THE LATTER 70 YEARS of the 19th century are commonly known as the railroad age. But it would perhaps be more apt to call the period the railroad station age. Stations were a highly visible presence for travelers, and the first glimpse of a new place for visitors.

Railroads were a revolutionary intrusion into people’s lives. They introduced a whole new world of speed, noise, and bustle, all rather frightening to people more used to the gentle clip-clop of horse-drawn travel. But the vast majority of travelers were oblivious to the marvels of engineering that had gone into building the lines, the bridges, viaducts, cuttings, and other structures. The station was the passengers’ point of contact with the iron road. Architects had to hit the right note—the stations needed to be solid and reassuring, laying a balm of soothing normality over an unprecedented and therefore alarming experience. Moreover, the buildings had to reflect the importance of the railroad company responsible for the station, and its recognition of the town or society it served.

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It took only a decade after the launch of the railroads in 1830 for a quartet of stations to be built worthy of the term “Temples of Steam.” The progenitors were the two men who pioneered the modern long-distance railroad, Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Stephenson ensured that both terminals of the railroad he built between London and Birmingham would be worthy of his extraordinary engineering achievement. Stephenson’s architect, the eminent Philip Hardwicke, built a noble Grecian-style building at Curzon Street in Birmingham. At Euston in London he constructed a Great Hall of elegant grandeur, with the world’s first boardroom upstairs, but unfortunately the heavy Doric arch in front of the station overshadowed the graceful proportions of the Hall.

Brunel could not be outdone by Stephenson. In the early 1840s, his own design for a terminus at Bristol was unexceptional, but 10 years later he worked with a distinguished architect, Matthew Digby Wyatt, to produce Paddington Station in London. Brunel’s innovative glass-roofed train shed was complemented by Wyatt’s station buildings and 130-room Great Western Hotel, a handsome Renaissance building, and the largest hotel in the country at that time. The hotel and the separation of the station buildings and train shed served as a model for many others — most effectively at St. Pancras in London where the contrasting neogothic hotel and glass-roofed train shed were larger and more dramatic than anywhere else in the world.

Stations were not just the temples of a new railroad age; along with town halls, they showcased the character of a town or city. Railroad companies and their architects continued to emphasize solidity but styles varied wildly as every country reflected its “inner self.” Scots went in for Highland style, Germans chose a heavy, Teutonic look, while Spanish and Portuguese stations recalled their ancient Moorish past. Americans went furthest in providing a variety of styles. As railroad historian Lucius Beebe remarked, with only slight exaggeration: “Passengers were set down in storybook settings, Grecian temples, Moorish arches, French chateaux, the tombs of Egyptian dynasts, Turkish mosques, Palladian porticos, Gothic castles and Italian palazzi.” The beautiful Antwerp Central station in Belgium is thought to reflect so many different architectural styles as to be unclassifiable; conversely, Flemish architectural style can be seen in the early-20th century Dunedin station in New Zealand. Whatever the style, reactionaries hated the new station buildings. The 19th-century British art critic John Ruskin was appalled at their pretensions to architectural beauty since they represented industry, which, for him, was inherently hideous.

The grandiose Temples of Steam formed only a minute proportion of the hundreds of thousands of stations built around the world during the 19th century. The smaller ones were often delightful examples of local architecture, sometimes standardized by the railway company itself, such as the handsome villas spread over much of western France. In Russia, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, there were five classes of station. The highest class were built of brick and had heated waiting rooms, while the lowest were little more than huts to shelter waiting passengers from the elements.

American stations were generally built in the middle of the city. Thousands of small towns owed their very existence to the railroad, which often ran down the main street. Stations were at the heart of the community, full of “retired gentlemen, idlers of all kinds, champion talkers, crackerbarrel philosophers.” Although there was powerful opposition to lines and stations near some city centers, in Europe, historic York allowed its ancient city walls to be breached to admit the iron horse, while in Cologne the station abuts the city’s historic cathedral. However, if a station was not built in the center it simply resulted in the creation of a new, important part of town. The railroad companies also created their own towns, simply by locating the enormous workshops needed to build and maintain the trains there.

The shape and size of stations outside Europe and the United States often reflected the tastes of imperial masters or European immigrants, notably in Canada where there was a remarkable mix of French and Scottish heritage. In India, the station and its associated buildings such as the engine sheds formed part of an elaborate social and industrial complex, planned by the British colonists. The most impressive example of this is the massive Victoria Terminus (now renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) in Mumbai, completed in 1888. In South America, however, architectural roots varied. Argentinian stations, usually built with British money, reflected their financiers’ tastes, but in neighboring Uruguay locals built stations in their own style. Stations could also fall prey to triumphalism: when the Prussians retook Alsace and Lorraine from the French in 1871, they imposed their own design on a new station at Metz in Lorraine, complete with statues of Teutonic warriors.

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Railroad stations provided the stage for poignant scenes of farewell and reunion, especially during wars. The departure to the Western Front of waves of soldiers from Waterloo Station in London and the Gare de l’Est in Paris left a lasting impression. Then, in 1939, millions of children were evacuated from cities across Europe, helped on to trains by their distraught parents. The emotional power of the station was not lost on film producers either, from the tear-jerking family reunion at a small country station in The Railway Children, to the highly charged meetings in a station café of Brief Encounter. The world’s first film, A Train Entering a Station, made by Louis Lumière, depicted a train heading directly toward the camera, causing some of the audience to flee in terror. Artists were inspired by stations, too, such as Claude Monet, who painted a whole series of canvases at the Gare St. Lazare, just below the Parisian café where he and his Impressionist colleagues used to meet.

Stations also created new markets. Two major companies, WH Smith in Britain and Hachette in France, were founded to cater to travelers’ needs for reading matter—and so gave birth to the much despised but highly popular “railway novel.” However, the glory of a major station could be marred by the inadequacy of the catering. In the half-century before the arrival of special dining or buffet cars on trains, passengers had to rely on refreshments or even whole meals snatched at stations. The owners of these establishments naturally exploited their monopoly. However, Europe led the way in station food, especially France. In Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger, James Bond stayed at railway hotels because, “It was better than an even chance that the Buffet de la Gare would be excellent.” Today, the sumptuously decorated Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon in Paris is justly famous, as is the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

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By the end of the 19th century, station architects—and the companies behind them—were confident enough not only to design afresh, but also to use architecture to express a political, social, or national vision. The modernist station with exciting clean lines designed by Eliel Saarinen for Helsinki, Finland, in 1919 announced not only the arrival of the modernist movement but also proclaimed Finland’s newly declared independence from Russia (1917). And after World War I, the French gloried in local Norman and Breton styles in a number of provincial stations, while at Perpignan in French Catalonia they erected a statue of Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalì. Even the new station at Milan, Italy, in 1930 was Mussolini’s statement of fascist grandeur.

World War II destroyed many great stations, but postwar reconstruction programs included the last true Temple of Steam, the Roma Termini in Rome, Italy. As the motorcar usurped the train, however, stations became neglected. The train services in many countries were scaled back, with some routes and stations permanently closed. A few stations were rebuilt but others were demolished—the most tragic victim was Pennsylvania Station in New York. The worst officially sanctioned railroad vandalism occurred when the Belgian railroads carved a cutting through the heart of Brussels to link the stations to the north and south, inflicting a permanent wound on the city. However, some disused stations were converted for other worthy purposes, such as the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, which now houses the Musée d’Orsay, a national art gallery, or Manchester Central Station in Britain, which was transformed into a convention and concert venue. In the US, some great union stations, such as St. Louis, survived without any trains by becoming shopping, hotel, and entertainment complexes.

Today, many of the stations that survived destruction during the motorcar boom of the 1960s are now flourishing, with their architectural heritage preserved. St. Pancras Station in London is a splendid example of the renaissance not just of trains but also of their stations. Until the end of the 20th century, it was best known as a decaying architectural masterpiece, which had been saved from demolition in the 1960s, but housed only a derelict hotel and a grimy set of platforms. Today, thanks to a substantial renovation completed in 2007, it is a world-beater. In Spain, the magnificent Atocha station in Madrid underwent a rather unique rebuild; originally designed in collaboration with French engineer Gustave Eiffel, during the 1990s its striking main hall was converted into a huge botanical garden, complete with turtles. Stations such as St. Pancras, Grand Central Terminal in New York, Kyoto Station in Japan, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof in Germany, and Toronto Union Station in Canada are no longer used simply by travelers passing through, but have become destinations in their own right.

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