River Wear Commissioners Building, Sunderland
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River Wear Commissioners Building, Sunderland

Established in 1717, the River Wear Commissioners played a vital role in SunderlandÂ’s economic development. They transformed the Wear into a navigable river and supplied the infrastructure that allowed ship-building and commerce to thrive. The Commissioners had originally operated from the Exchange Building, but in 1904 they resolved to erect a purpose-built office in the townÂ’s business district.

Established in 1717, the River Wear Commissioners played a vital role in Sunderland’s economic development. They transformed the Wear into a navigable river and supplied the infrastructure that allowed ship-building and commerce to thrive. The Commissioners had originally operated from the Exchange Building, but in 1904 they resolved to erect a purpose-built office in the town’s business district. A site was selected on St. Thomas’s Street and designs were provided by the local architectural firm of Henderson and Hall, who specialised in office design.

The River Wear Commissioners’ building is a little-known gem. Rising from a rock-faced plinth of Scottish red granite, the building is an elegant composition in a free Baroque style. At each corner, the outer bays project under segmental pediments with florid decoration. Banded rustication runs through the ground floor, but in the upper storeys the rich decoration is crisply executed in pristine, blue-tinged stone. The principal windows of the first floor have curved architraves and block-like rustication. This device is known as a ‘Gibbs surround’, after the Baroque architect James Gibbs (1682-1754).

The door is framed with jutting stone blocks pierced by columns. Another curved pediment forms a canopy and supports the delicate oriel window that rises above the entrance.

The building was a monument to the Wear Commissioners and the image of a sextant is emblazoned above the doorway amid decorative mouldings. By opening the town to international commerce, the Commissioners allowed a wide variety of goods to be imported, including building materials. Accordingly, the building uses a range of building stone and exotic wood from around the world. The blue-tinged stone used for the main body was dug locally from Heworth Burn, but no fewer than five separate varieties of marble were employed in the vestibule, including Skyros, Verde Antico and Bleu Belge. As the Sunderland Year Book of 1907 reported, ‘No expense was spared in order to make the building thoroughly worthy of the important body at whose instigation it was erected.’

The building houses one of the best interiors in Sunderland. At the core of the building is a central hall, surmounted by a coffered dome with a glazed oculus that turns the space into a vast well of light. An elegant staircase with slender balusters rises around three sides. From floor to ceiling, the walls are lined with gleaming panels and pilasters of Austrian oak. Additional light is provided by a large window of frosted glass. The floor is lined with black and white tiles that contrast with the dark lustre of the wood.

Originally, the River Wear Commissioners would have met in the board room, a large rectangular chamber bounded at either end by stately fireplaces. Reflecting the room’s high status, the fireplaces are carved from expensive Cuban mahogany and lime-wood. The pilasters are mantled with flowers and exotic fruits suspended from cherubs’ heads. The shallow curve of the ornate plaster ceiling is adorned with garlanded ribs painted in delicate blue and gold.

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Comments (2)

Excellent explanation to the different parts of the building, the materials, and the intricated decorative elements, specifically the one which characterise the main entarnce. Craftsmen of these past periods were very skillful and share the architect the production of these fine detailed elements. Hope we can find some of them today.No way..Thanks Michael

Ranked #10 in Architecture

Amazing how such building endure for centuries and remain standing.

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