Newcastle's Neo-Classical Post Office
Keywords: Newcastle architecture, Neo-Classical, Richard Grainger, General Post Office, St. Nicholas’s Street, Her Majesty’s Office of Works, James Williams, Newcastle Post Office, john Dobson, Central Station, British Architect, The Builder
Newcastle architecture is dominated by the Neo-Classical tradition introduced to the city by the speculative builder Richard Grainger. The General Post Office (1871-4) on St. Nicholas’s Street responds directly to Grainger’s legacy. Built when the Post Office was establishing a national branch network in a series of buildings erected by Her Majesty’s Office of Works, the Newcastle branch was designed by chief architect James Williams. The style of these buildings varied between High Renaissance and Baroque Revival, but the Newcastle Post Office reflected the monumentality of Dobson’s Central Station (1845-50), the supreme Classical statement of Victorian Newcastle. Williams made inventive use of Classical devices, without recourse to established conventions of composition. The entrance is recessed within a vast portal forming a double-height portico in antis that punctures the two lower storeys. The façade is divided horizontally by a subsidiary cornice, but is held in unity by the vertical emphasis of the pilasters. Terminating the composition is a heavy entablature bearing the words ‘Post Office’. The interplay of solid and void is wilfully monumental. The bold use of Classical forms divided opinion, particularly the unusual portico with incised columns: The British Architect objected that ‘the entasis of these columns is painfully evident.’ Looking back on the building in 1898, The Builder was more complementary:
The effect seems to be due to the deep recessing of the middle bay of the two lower storeys, the reduction of the lower entablature to a minimum, thus giving prominence to the crowning one . . . its lesson seems to be that style and detail are second in importance to the way in which they are used.
Ultimately the building was a conscious reinterpretation of the Classicism that lay at the heart of Newcastle. At the same time, Newcastle’s Post Office exemplified the brand of government patronage that used Neo-Classicism to project an image of strength and dignity throughout the provinces and indeed the Empire. Bold Roman Classicism, with its imperial overtones, communicated this ambition clearly. As a node in national and international communication networks the Post Office helped to mitigate Newcastle’s remoteness. The building thus consolidated the city’s modernity even as it invoked its past.
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