An architectural historian and his wife found their match in Alexander Thomson’s house, reports Rhiannon Batten in The Sunday Times (5 March 2006).
SCOTLAND: IT’S NEARLY ALL GREEK
Step off the train at Glasgow’s Queens Park station and the landscape you are confronted with is so typically down-at-heel urban that it might as well have come from central casting’s location department. Wind-blown crisp packets smack against run-down curry houses. So it comes as a shock to turn into Moray Place and find yourself looking at an exquisite terrace designed by the prolific 19th-century Glasgow architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson.
This neat collection of 10 diminutive two-storey houses was designed by Thomson in the late 1850s, apparently to take advantage of the railway that had recently been built on the other side of the street. Constructed in his trademark Grecian style, what makes the row special is that Thomson himself lived at No 1 from 1861 until his death in 1875, which meant there was more interest than usual when the house was put on the market in late 2004.
“We were living just around the corner at the time and it was big news in the area,” says the property’s owner, Charlotte Wright, a professor of child health at Glasgow University. “Everyone was talking about it. I said to my husband, ‘Don’t even think about it. We’re not moving there’, but we also knew that we were never going to have the opportunity to restore a category A-listed house in Strathbungo again.”
In the end, the fact that her husband, Andrew Greg, is an architectural historian was what clinched the deal. “The estate agent said it would help if I put in a CV along with the offer,” he admits. “We know we weren’t the highest bidders.”
The couple paid £380,000 for the property, which may sound surprisingly reasonable for such a prime slice of architectural pie,but there was a reason for the bargain price. “When we inherited the house it had plaster peeling off the walls, rotten doors and, before the roof was replaced, we’d heard stories about water literally running down the walls,” says Wright. “You can still see a lot of the damage it caused,” she adds, pointing out ribbon-like streaks running down from Thomson’s elaborate skylight. More damage had been done in the 1980s, when No 1 Moray Place was taken over by a buyer keen on trying to renovate it.
There had been hopes that the building’s most recent owner, Gavin Stamp, a Thomson expert, would save the architect’s legacy, but the wholesale restoration the building needed never materialised.
“Professor Stamp rescued the house by putting a new roof on but he couldn’t afford to do much more. Fortunately, we can now provide the dream team,” says Wright.
Her salary is largely financing the current renovation, while Greg offers the expertise.
Not that it has been a fast process. “Our main emphasis has been undoing the 1980s alterations and putting the fabric back,” says Greg. Organising damp-proofing, putting doors back in their original positions, replastering and decorating the main bedroom, adding a bathroom at the rear of the property and replacing the kitchen have made the house habitable. Next comes cleaning the wood and plasterwork and refurbishing the windows.
That the building is worth the effort isn’t in question. Thomson did not stop at the building’s external structure. Behind the peeling plaster lie original Greek key stencils. Beneath layers of paint are Thomson’s purpose-designed cornices, door panels, shutters, fireplaces and banisters. “People expect it to be very fussy, but that’s late Victorian,” explains Wright. “Thomson’s style is actually very geometric.”
What is also a surprise is that, despite an elaborate, temple-fronted bay, the house is pretty small-much less grand, for example than Holmwood House in Cathcart, which Thomson designed and which is now in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland. “I suspect Thomson didn’t plan to live here,” says Greg, “but then he wasn’t a particularly rich person. It certainly isn’t different in design from the other houses in the terrace.”
Thomson and his wife, Jane, lived in the property along with seven children, a cook and a nursemaid. Not that the property stayed quite so compact for long. In 1900, a new wing, sympathetic in style to the original, was added by John Binnie Wilson, another architect. “It had been sold to a Dr Forrester, who built the extension to provide a waiting room, surgery and an additional bedroom,” says Greg, leading the way into a nicely-panelled surgery (now his study). After Dr Forrester came a long period of neglect. Then came the 1980s and a period of architectural vandalism.
During the process of putting No 1 Moray Place back together there have been moments of great excitement. “I remember one day when I came home and Andrew was running around saying, ‘I’ve found the most exciting thing ever’. I thought he’d found treasure or something but actually he’d been in a cupboard in the hall and found some original decoration,” says Wright.
Likewise, when the couple moved the doors back upstairs, they discovered original paint and stencil plaster on the landing, part of the original 1860 decorative scheme that Thomson put in his house. “In terms of architectural history it is quite important,” says Greg. “We haven’t decided what we should do with it yet. Ideally one should recreate it but it’s probably not salvageable in its original form.
“You have these interesting conservation issues about ‘restoring’. Do you restore it to how it was in Thomson’s time, thereby destroying some interesting features that were added later? If not, how far do you take the process? “It’s got to be a compromise, but you want to make best use of the character of the building.”
There is also the question of expense. With windows costing £1,000 each to refurbish and five in the dining room alone, even medical professors can’t foot the entire bill. The couple have applied for a grant from Historic Scotland. The organisation tends not to give grants for work on private buildings, because of adding value to house prices, but there are things such as restoring plasterwork that do not affect commercial value.
“We want to look after the house to conservation standards and we can’t afford to do that on our own,” says Greg.
Not that No 1 Moray Place is in danger of becoming a museum piece. “We wouldn’t want it to be all immaculate and shiny,” chips in Wright. “One of its charms is that it’s a bit dishevelled.”
How to get a “Greek”
Born in Balfron, Stirlingshire, in 1817, the Glasgow-based architect Alexander Thomson made a name for himself by creating some of the most original buildings of the Victorian era. Despite never having travelled abroad, his trademark “Grecian” style incorporated a mythical sensibility and geometric pattern into the prevailing neo-classical design.
Although Thomson designed buildings exist as far away as Australia (where a copy of Holmwood was built from his drawings of the original after his death), the most famous surviving works include the Egyptian Halls and the St Vincent Street church, both in Glasgow. Surviving residential properties designed by Thomson include No 1-11 Great Western Terrace, Darnley Street and Eton Terrace.
While the Glasgow Solicitors’ Property Centre reports no “Greek” Thomson properties currently on its books, they come up fairly regularly and range from tenement flats to (less commonly) large villas.
On Doors Open Day in September, Greg will be leading a Thomson tour of Glasgow. See Doors Open Days for details.