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Tea Rooms elephants get their trunks back

The return of delicately crafted terracotta elephants' trunks marks the final chapter of restoration works to transform a historic Sunderland landmark.

Elephant Tea Rooms elephants

17 November 2023


Accurately recrafted trunks have been reinstated on the three elephants that adorn the façade and give the Grade II listed Elephant Tea Rooms its name.

The building is undergoing external repair and enhancement works designed by Mosedale Gillatt Architects Ltd, including striking new shop fronts and the reinstatement of lost decoration and features.

The new trunks, created from moulds of the historic trunks, are the latest addition following specialist restoration work to the building's terracotta features, which has already been carefully undertaken this year by local stone masons Mason and Forster.

Decorative features including dragons and parapet finials have also been repaired or reinstated and demonstrate the unique, high-quality craftsmanship that has gone into the restoration.

A new Georgian style timber shop front has been completed and enabled the Local Studies Service to re-open at the beginning of October for a series of planned events while the remainder of the enhancement works are being completed. This includes the striking new brick shop front to the original Elephant Tea Rooms that features arches of specially made bricks and vaulted corner turret feature with stone column.

Located at the corner of High Street West and Fawcett Street, the building is one of the architectural highlights of Sunderland and the transformation is expected to be completed by the contractor NCS Ltd in December this year.

Constructed at the height of Victorian wealth and investment in Sunderland and opened to the public in 1875 as a grocer's shop and tea warehouse for Grimshaw & Son, the building has a distinctive Hindu Gothic style.

The external restoration project is being supported with a total of £720,000 funded by Sunderland City Council, Historic England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) through the Future High Street Fund and Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) projects.

The Local Studies service currently within the building will be paused at the end of the year as the team prepare to digitise the catalogues and improve access to the growing archive.

Local studies will return in three phases: phase one begins early next year with the launch of a new digital platform, phase two will see a traditional local studies offer delivered from Washington Library when it reopens in Spring 2024, and the final phase will see a digitally reimagined local studies offer open in Culture House during the Summer of 2025.

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: "The Elephant Tea Rooms is one of our city's most iconic buildings, and its restoration will play a key role in reviving this historic area and improving the look and feel of our city centre.

"We have some fantastic heritage buildings in Sunderland, and I'm delighted we're able to protect and maintain them with the traditional craft skills used by local contractors and look forward to seeing the final transformation of the Elephant Tea Rooms when it is complete."

Jules Brown from Historic England, said: "We're delighted to grant aid repairs to this wonderfully unusual Gothic building, handed down to the people of Sunderland by the Victorians as something to bring real joy and enrichment to the city centre. It's great news the elephants and gargoyles are restored, and the spectacular new ground floor frontage will continue what Mackie's Corner opposite began during the Heritage Action Zone - to bring this important city centre spot back to life."

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