Hudson House, 1968

The Brutal Loss of Railway Heritage

Hudson House, Toft Green, one of York’s few Brutalist style buildings was sadly demolished in 2018. The building’s demise was linked with the closure of the nationalised railways, which traded under the brand name British Rail from January 1963 until 1997, when privatisation of its operating services, reduced the organisation’s office requirements and the demand for headquarters space.1

The railways were nationalised under the Transport Act (1947), as part of the social reforms of the Welfare State social reforms, introduced by the post-war Labour government. However, despite continued investment, the newly formed British Railways continued to make increasing annual losses.2 Richard Beeching, brought in as chairman (1961–1965), was tasked with a performance review, seeking solutions to return the industry to profitability.3 The outcome was The Reshaping of British Railways (1963), known colloquially as ‘The Beeching Report’, which led to the reduction of the railway network. The consequential merger of the North Eastern and Eastern regions in 1967 resulted in the new British Rail Eastern region, that stretched the whole of the eastern half of England ‘from Thames to Tweed’.4

York has been a railway headquarters since George Hudson (1800–1871), the so-called ‘Railway King’, introduced the railway to York in 1841, when he was chairman of the York & North Midlands railway, and in the 1960s, the city was selected once more as the headquarters for the new region. Additional office accommodation was required to house the 2,200 staff and the decision was made to invest in a new headquarters building. The development site selected was a prestigious location, within the city wall, located in the heart of the original railway enclave at Toft Green. This was the goods yard adjacent to the “Old Station”, York’s original railway station (G.T. Andrews, 1841), now occupied by the York City Council and adjacent to the former North Eastern Railway Headquarters (Horace Field and William Bell,1906) dubbed a ‘huge palace of business’ upon opening, and now the five star Grand Hotel.5 Whilst this involved clearing the former goods station, sections of the old train shed and track, ending the railway activity that was still continuing in the goods yard, the building modernised the railway enclave. Naming the building ‘Hudson House’ reinforced its links with its railway heritage.

Winner of the Civic Trust Award, 1969, the office block was designed by the British Rail Regional Architect Sydney Hardy (b. 1923), supported by his in-house team: project architect, David Kellett, and assistant architects, John Pennock and Keith Hilton.6 Hardy, who joined the former North Eastern region from the West Riding Council in 1954, became Regional Architect in 1961 and, with his strong railway architectural background, became London Transport’s Chief Architect in 1974.7

The sensitivity of the site, in close proximity to the city wall, influenced the height and design of the building, which featured a complex of four interconnected blocks: two of four storeys, positioned against the city wall, and two of six storeys towards Toft Green, set around a central courtyard and garden.

Buildings viewed from across car park
Fig. 1: Hudson House, Toft Green, elevation, from Patrick Nuttgens, York (City Buildings Series), 1970. Photo: © Keith Gibson.

The design, providing some 134,000 square feet of space, gave the development strong horizontal lines, with stairwells and a distinct lift shaft varying the skyline, with the tallest tower adding emphasis to the main entrance. Rhythm was achieved by simple means, a recurring mullion motif and splay, a typical Brutalist feature and the depth of the black anodised aluminium windows.8

Building with medieval wall in background
Fig. 2: extract from British Rail brochure, November 1968.

Further variety was provided by the open car parking space, supported on pilotis.

The concrete frame was clad with pre-cast concrete panels, faced with granite chippings, an exposed Shap granite aggregate, providing a textured finish.9

Colour photograph of large building with many windows from grassy bank
Fig. 3: Hudson House: view from city wall looking south-east Hudson House. Finish much darker with weathered concrete panels. Lichfields, from Hudson House Townscape and Visual Impact Assessment, Appendix 6, page 4.

As can be seen in the illustrations, the aggregate used was originally very light, and considered by architect and academic Patrick Nuttgens to have been specially selected to complement the close proximity of the city walls.10 Although the colour deepened over time, gaining a deep, grey/brown patina, the building continued to blend well with the neighbouring offices.

Street and houses with large building in background
Fig. 4: Hudson House in the 1980s. Adjacent, semi-detached Toft Green Chambers designed by G. T. Andrews (1845). Photo: © Nick Hilton.
Building made of concrete and glass with paved courtyard
Fig. 5: Hudson House viewed from Toft Green, indicating impact of lift shaft and stairwells. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2018.

The brochure released at the Hudson House official opening by the chairman of the British Railways Board, Sir Henry Johnson C.B.E, proudly declared that the design had received the approval of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, as well as that of the architect and conservationist, Lord Esher, whose conservation study of the city was published in the same year.11 In fact, although Esher’s report remains silent on Hudson House, the author may have considered that the building, with its sensitive massing, brought new life to the railway enclave, a welcome addition to this section of Toft Green otherwise described in his study as a ‘nondescript service road’.12

Nikolaus Pevsner’s observation of the building is simply descriptive: ‘A new large building of pre-cast concrete parts, four and six storeyed.’13 Otherwise, following its formal opening in November 1968, Hudson House had an early positive reaction and was put forward for the Yorkshire Architect Regional Award 1971, described in the entry report as  presenting ‘a craggy exterior of boldly detailed precast concrete’.14 Nuttgens remarks that the building was ‘wholly straightforward and well designed […]unpretentious and satisfying’.15 Furthermore, the York Bartholomew City Guide (1980) described the building as no less than ‘one of the most successful of York’s new buildings’, observing that whilst the pre-cast concrete was ‘not the most seductive of materials’, the building was ‘disciplined […] making good use of lift shafts to vary the skyline’ (see figures 1 & 5).16 This was later echoed by engineer and railway historian, Bill Fawcett, who praised its ‘thoughtful design, with stair towers breaking the mass and creating a varied outline’.17 

Although it has regained its popularity in recent years, to a certain extent, Brutalism fell out of fashion from the 1970s onwards. It became widely associated with the political ideologies of the Welfare State and Totalitarianism and the style was often considered cold, austere, and ugly. In York, even though some have voiced their regret for the loss of Hudson House, when the development proposals were being debated, the Statement of Community Involvement reported a positive response to its replacement. 18

Although the new owners Palace Capital plc obtained ‘prior approval determination’ for refurbishment of the original building, a conversion to flats, with some office accommodation, they eventually sought consent for the mixed residential/commercial ‘Hudson Quarter’ scheme, arguing that the original proposals were unviable.19 Hudson House was demolished in 2018 and the site was entirely redeveloped.

Building being demolished by construction vehicles
Fig. 6: demolition of Hudson House in action, viewed from the city walls, 2018. Photo: © Pamela Chapman.

Although its replacement follows the courtyard design of the original, it stands two storeys higher than its predecessor and is finished in brick, with pigmented precast concrete panels and an irregular finish on the top floor.20

Like the Old Station and the NER Headquarters before it, Hudson House was a railway headquarters building, which represented a notable era in the history of the railway industry. It was undoubtedly an architectural manifestation of York’s national importance as a centre for transport history, a role that continues to be acknowledged today with the National Railway Museum. Yet this significant element of the city’s industrial archaeology, a fitting modernist progeny of the palatial NER headquarters, is now lost.