The Architect

St Andrews House

"The design is simple and sculptoresque rather than decorative but carried out with that strength and refinement expressive of present-day sentiments and also so essential to a building which forms an addition to probably the most beautiful city in the world."

Thomas Tait, 1934

The Controversy

Evening News cartoon

A major new public building in Edinburgh? Inevitably there had to be a huge public outcry and years of squabbling.

Decades in the case of St Andrew's House. Proposals were first mooted in 1912 with the new Aberdeen Post Office as a potential model.

The following year William Wedgwood Benn (father of Tony and grandfather of Hilary) announced in the Commons that there would be an open competition to select a scheme.

War stopped any progress. But it helped fill up Calton Jail with pacifist prisoners like future Secretary of State Arthur Woodburn, James Maxton and other Red Clydesiders.

Benn was able to watch the drama unfold more closely as MP for Leith until 1927. The underlying disagreement was between architects in private practice and their government counterparts in the Office of Works about what constituted a fitting design.

Birth pains

New buildings at Stormont Castle outside Belfast set an expensive standard. Other projects vied for attention in Edinburgh - a new Sheriff Court and the National Library of Scotland.

Giving birth to the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion proved a different nightmare. It took 16 years of discussion before it finally opened in April 1939 - minus some of the promised original features.

An additional spanner in the works was deciding what departments - then housed in 18 separate buildings across the city - might be in the new building.

In 1929 Edinburgh Town Council approved a scheme likened by one critic as a 'cross between the Lamassary in Lhassa and a Kirkcaldy linoleum factory.'

Final selection

More rival proposals and more infighting… novelist John Buchan called for an 'outward and visible sign of Scottish nationhood.' An exasperated Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald thought the controversy was 'unique in its recklessness.'

Even the King and Queen felt obliged to pitch in. By 1934 the decision was made and the brief fell to Thomas Tait.

His firm - Burnet, Tait and Lorne - was brimful of international talent who left their mark on every continent. It had taken 20 years to get this far, but Tait had less than five months to draw up his design.

Delivery

It was widely acclaimed as a superb hybrid - a classical frontage to the north blending in with Calton's Greek-inspired monuments and gracious modernism on the south following the hill's contours.

Demands for extra space were met by blasting the rock to get another floor in the east wing. The Governor's House - the last relic of Calton Jail - was first earmarked for demolition then reprieved. And roof gardens were planned but never materialised.

Architectural historian David Walker ranks St Andrew's House among the greatest public buildings of its era: 'It is not in Britain but rather among the great North American capitols and other major public buildings of the inter-war years that its peers are to be found.'

More info:

Thomas Tait biography at Dictionary of Scottish Architects site

Picture gallery of Tait's work for Empire Exhibition at the Mitchell Library site

St Andrew's House, An Edinburgh Controversy 1912-1939 by David M Walker (Historic Buildings and Monuments, Scottish Development Department, Edinburgh 1989) pdf version on Historic Scotland's site