A FEW weeks ago it was announced that the brick and stone rail headquarters in Station Rise was up for sale.

This is one of the great monuments to York's railway city status. Just like the station itself, it stands as grand testament to the fulfilled ambitions of our rail pioneers.

The estate agents handling the sale of the building are asking for offers of more than £6.25 million, and it is worth every penny. It continued the tradition of "nothing but the best", according to the late architectural expert Dr Patrick Nuttgens.

More detail about the creation of this sumptuous rail HQ comes in the third volume of Bill Fawcett's remarkable work A History Of North Eastern Railway Architecture.

As thorough and impeccably researched as the first two volumes, the book takes on the story from 1877, when William Bell began his near-40 year reign as architect for the NER, until 1995 when the York railway architect's office closed.

The North Eastern headquarters opened 99 years ago. By then, Mr Fawcett notes, the major railways were Britain's largest private sector business. The NER alone had a payroll of nearly 50,000, almost all of whom were men.

This economic might was not usually reflected in the rail HQs. While the large stations were, to quote Dr Nuttgens again, temples of transport, the offices in which rail clerks and administrators toiled were generally rather dull affairs, with a couple of Scottish exceptions.

"The North Eastern eclipsed all of these with its new headquarters in York, opened in September 1906," reports Mr Fawcett.

Breaking with traditional practice, the company placed the York HQ in the hands of a private architect Horace Field.

Before 1906 the head office was in York's old station and hotel in Toft Green. Directors still met in the boardroom created for "railway king" George Hudson and his fellow York & North Midland Railway directors. But by the end of the 19th century the offices were full to overflowing.

The NER bought the declining Scawin's Hotel near the former station and it was proposed to place a new building on the site.

"Bell was despatched to prepare detailed plans and estimates, but at some point the new building assumed a more prestigious role in the eyes of the board, and Horace Field was called in, his design generally approved in March 1898," writes Bill.

Field was paid £1,500 for his work, and the building was built for £100,000. It was a fine addition to York's architectural heritage, as the author's analysis confirms.

"The load-bearing external walls are faced with hand-made bricks from Sudbury, in Suffolk, together with details in Portland and Ancaster stone; the basement is faced with Huddlestone stone, while the attractive colour contrasts are completed by a roof of green Westmorland slate."

The most prestigious offices were at the west end. Double glazed windows designed to keep out the noise of the tramcars now block the worst racket from modern traffic.

The boardroom is highly traditional: "it is panelled in a late 17th-century fashion, with pedimented doorways and some rather fine carved swags."

Much other railway architecture is featured in Mr Fawcett's lavishly illustrated book. The expansion and ultimate demise of the York Carriageworks is explored, as is the changing face of York Station.

William Bell's railway architecture office was a hive of activity. He had 55 staff, a third of whom were draughtsmen. They were responsible for planning everything from worker's houses to major stations across the North East.

In the same year as the York HQ was built, the station acquired a wooden tea room, again designed by Bell. Its bow windows and stained glass reminded Bill of "a seaside pavilion".

"Although city tea rooms, like Miss Cranston's famous Glasgow ones, were often meeting places for businessmen, those the NER embarked on in the early years of the century were perhaps envisaged as a genteel refreshment stop for lady passengers," he wrote.

At the Royal York Hotel, Bell was also responsible for adding the Klondyke Wing, a basement billiard room which became Tiles Bar, and ground floor lavatories which are "still functioning in all their original elegance".

u A History Of North Eastern Railway Architecture Volume 3: Bell And Beyond by Bill Fawcett is published by the North Eastern Railway Association, at £23.95. It is available from the Barbican Bookshop, Fossgate, York, and the National Railway Museum. It is also available by post: send a cheque for £28.95 (including p&p) made payable to NERA to The Sales Officer, Nera, 31 Moreton Avenue, Stretford, Manchester M32 8BP.

Updated: 09:48 Monday, June 20, 2005