Why preserving the city’s icons is vital

As new Sunderland icons rise from the ground, the city skyline is transforming. 

The Northern Spire, piercing Sunderland skies was the start of a programme of change, with The Beam quickly following it – part of the Riverside Sunderland urban quarter – and work on a new City Hall set to resume after lock-down measures are lifted.  Over the road, a new auditorium is also set to emerge and a new hotel will stand overlooking Keel Square.

It’s a city reinventing itself, but for every new building Sunderland will gain, there is an old one that stands in its shadow. 

With a programme of works underway to ensure many of the city’s gems endure, council leader, Graeme Miller explains more about the stunning old buildings that are either being brought back into use or earmarked for future projects.

“The last few years have seen sweeping changes to the Sunderland skyline, and more is to come.  It’s exciting, and the vision we have for the area – that is backed by significant private sector investment - means much of the city centre will be reimagined over the coming years.  But there are buildings that we want to see endure – old city icons that we must preserve and protect.

“Where we can, it is up to us as a council to make sure that the old city icons that we still have are looked after, well-used and remain as fit for purpose now as they were when they were built.

“The scale of new development springing up across the city will complement what we currently have. Everything we’re doing is about protecting our much-loved city icons and bringing them back into use as we regenerate a city that is focused on becoming fit for the future.

“Just look at the Elephant Tea Rooms, which we bought and are restoring to its former glory as a new asset – a Local Studies Library – that our residents will be able to enjoy. 

“Just a stone’s throw away is the River Wear Commissioners Building with its beautiful oak paneling, wood carvings, granite, marble, and sandstone features. This amazing site is part of a multi-million-pound city investment programme designed to attract businesses to Sunderland, having been taken over by a private developer that is expert in restoring old buildings and creating unusual business hubs.

“Likewise, Simpson Street School, which we were lucky not to lose in a fire a few months ago. We are working with developers as they develop a vision to transform this into stunning New York loft-style apartments and an office space that will bring new jobs to Sunderland.  It’s exciting to see these beautiful old buildings coming back to life.”

The council also recently bought the Norfolk Hotel in Sunniside - famous for housing the meeting that formed SAFC – an area earmarked for large-scale regeneration in the near future, as the local authority looks to create more homes, more business space and more opportunity to bring people into the city centre.

“Walk around our city when we’re not abiding by quarantine regulations, and you’ll see The Dun Cow bustling with regulars, the Old Fire Station attracting scores of dancers to its studio, or diners popping to be serving up top quality food at the Engine Room, and the vibrant Minster Quarter surrounded by independent traders, restaurants and bars,” added Graeme. “The historic heart of Sunderland still beats strongly.”

And it’s not just in the city centre that the council is focusing efforts on preserving and promoting its historic buildings.

Ryhope Pumping Station played host to the launch of Sunderland’s City of Culture bid, shining a light on one of the city’s hidden gems. Hylton Castle has been stunningly restored and is now cared for and promoted as one of Sunderland’s most important historical monuments and Washington Old Hall continues to attract families throughout the year.

Executive Director of City Development, Peter McIntyre, said: “Having seen so much of its built history wiped out by conflict, Sunderland rightly treasures the historic buildings it still has. Our aim is to make sure these real city icons are around forever and housing the people and businesses that will drive forward our economy.

“With exciting projects happening across the city, such as the large-scale Riverside Sunderland development and never-before seen attractions like Seaburn STACK, we’re bringing people into the city, to live here, to work here and to have fun here, but we would never do this at the expense of one of our much-loved historical buildings. All of the incredible regeneration you’re seeing happening across Sunderland will not be at the expense of bringing our city icons back to life – if anything, it can only aid their rebirth as something new.”

Fifteen historic Sunderland buildings with a colourful past and bright future

River Wear Commissioner Building

An imposing three-storey building on the corner of John Street and St Thomas Street. Originally built on the site of the old post office, its interior features beautiful oak paneling, ornate wood carvings, granite, marble, and sandstone features. A private business is currently restoring it for use as a quirky new business centre. 

The Norfolk Hotel

A building that plays a huge role in Sunderland history, as the location of the formation of Sunderland AFC. Built in two parts, the first in the late 1800s and other in early 1900s, the Norfolk was initially a popular city-centre hotel, before being converted into a hostel. It had become a magnet for anti-social behaviour. However, Sunderland City Council bought it in 2019 and plans to regenerate the building. 

Simpson Street School

Opened in 1867 as Deptford Yard Church of England School, consisting of boys and infant departments. It was known as The Laing Church of England, later becoming Simpson Street Boys Board School, with a separate Simpson Street Girls Board School, created in 1884 after Sunderland School Board took control of the building.  It was bought by North East architects BDN earlier this year, with plans to convert it into and office and luxury apartments.

The Elephant Tea Rooms

A Grade 2 Listed Building, the Elephant Tea Rooms was built between 1872 and 1877 by Henry Hopper to a design by architect Frank Caws for Ronald Grimshaw, a local tea merchant.  The property blends Victorian Hindu Gothic and Venetian Gothic styles. The building has always attracted attention; its striking style and name advertising the exotic origins of tea sold there.  The council took charge of the building and is transforming it into a Local Studies Library.

Hylton Castle

A distinctive and decorative castle gatehouse-tower built shortly before 1400 by the wealthy Sir William Hylton. The castle originally contained four floors of self-contained family accommodation, its entrance front displays royal family heraldry, including Richard II’s white hart badge. It is set to open soon as a community heritage hub.

Ryhope Pumping Station

This beautiful eye-catching structure was built in 1868 by Thomas Hawksley, said to be “a true real-life hero” for the part he played in saving people from the spread of deadly Cholera. The station is regarded as one of the finest industrial monuments in the North East. It ceased operation in 1967 after 100 years of continuous use, but has been beautifully preserved since.

Roker Pier & Lighthouse

This cast iron lighthouse was designed by Thomas Meik in 1856. Constructed on the south pier of Sunderland’s dock. Roker pier was hailed a triumph of Victorian engineering by Henry Hay Wake, when it first opened in the early 1900s (between 1885-1903). In 2012, extensive restoration of the pier, tunnel and lighthouse began, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Sunderland City Council.  Visitors can now walk beneath the pier to the lighthouse after the tunnel was restored and reopened last year.

The Old Fire Station

A new £11m auditorium, currently being constructed, will stand alongside the original 1907 Fire Station, attracting local, regional, national and international artists, and giving new and emerging artistic talent a platform to shine. Led by the Sunderland Music Arts and Culture Trust, the building also houses restaurant and bar The Engine Room and dance and performance studio space.

Sunderland Minster Quarter

Formerly St Michael and All Angels Bishopwearmouth or Bishopwearmouth Parish Church, the church was built around 900AD but due to alterations little remains of the earlier constructions. In 1998, the church was inaugurated as Sunderland Minster. The Town Park and Sunderland Minster is now getting a £1.9m make-over.

The Dun Cow

The Dun Cow is a Grade 2 Listed Building, originally built as a gin palace in 1901. It has since been regenerated and restored to its former grandeur as part of a new cultural quarter for Sunderland.

Sunderland Winter Gardens

The Winter Gardens is a 21st Century addition to Sunderland Museum. This tropical paradise has over 2,000 plants in the glass rotunda and from the tree top walkway visitors have a bird’s eye view of beautiful Mowbray Park. Originally, established in 1846, in the Athenaeum Building on Fawcett Street, the Winter Gardens Museum was damaged during World War 2 by a parachute mine in 1941 and was later demolished with a 1960s extension taking its place. However, in 2001 a lottery funded refurbishment of the museum created the new Winter Garden extension and improved facilities.

Washington Old Hall

The manor was the ancestral home of the family of George Washington, the first President of the United States. Construction of the old manor house, located in the centre of Washington, began in the 12th century and finished around the 17th century.  It is stunningly maintained today.

Mackie’s Corner

This distinctive Sunderland landmark was built in 1845 on the site of a large house owned by Dr William Clanny, inventor of the miner’s safety lamp. The building’s first tenant was Robert Mackie, a hatter, whose shop attracted passers-by as is workers could be seen through the windows making hats. Planning permission has been  granted for improvement works to the roof and shop fronts- funded through a heritage grant scheme, after a Sunderland family took charge of the building.

JJB Sports building

The iron-cladding hides a beautiful Victorian façade, in keeping with its time of construction. Plans have been mooted to transform the former High Street West sports store into a pub. A ‘change of use’ bid has been lodged A heritage statement submitted to the council, outlines plans to give the building a new lease of life.

The Peacock

One of Sunderland’s oldest pubs, The Peacock was bought in 2017 with a programme of internal improvements transforming the venue. The iconic Edwardian pub is now flanked by scaffolding, as vital work is carried out to restore its roof and brick work.  Though many think the name is ‘new’, between 1770 and 1834 there was an inn called The Peacock - eventually renamed The Londonderry - before being knocked down.  Opened in 1901, the impressive Edwardian building which has stood on the site ever since was named after a local mining magnate, the Marquess of Londonderry, but the current owned renamed it to The Peacock after discovering his family – and many others from the village they lived in – was made homeless by The Marquess, who sent a squad of impolite bailiffs to throw families and their possessions out of properties he owned in Silksworth.