Former Royal Exchange (now Gallery of Modern Art) – 1906

Photo (C1202): Sourced from Virtual Mitchell and reproduced with the kind permission of Glasgow City Archives.

The former Royal Exchange looks stunning against a blue winter sky as it rises majestically over the surrounding square. Back in 1906 Baron Carlo Marochetti’s equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington hadn’t yet acquired his familiar headgear. It’s a building on a monumental scale that almost fills Royal Exchange Square. But this wasn’t always the case. It’s now familiar to Glaswegians as the Gallery of Modern Art, but it started off as a tobacco merchant’s mansion when it was built between 1778 and 1780. William Cunninghame of Lainshaw was already a wealthy man before he made an even greater fortune by stockpiling cheap tobacco shortly before the American War of Independence. He speculated that a long war in the colonies would disrupt supply chains, resulting in a tobacco shortage. He was proved right and, having bought at 3 pence per pound, sold his stock for 3 shillings and sixpence per pound. Little comfort for the slaves who picked his crop and gave their lives in the process.

His original house of 1780 is in the middle section of the Royal Exchange, between David Hamilton’s later additions to the front and rear. Once you see that the building is really in three distinct sections you won’t be able to unsee it. Cunninghame died in 1799 and in 1817 the house was acquired by the Royal Bank of Scotland to become their first branch outside of Edinburgh. In 1827 the Royal Bank sold the building to the city so that it could be converted into a new mercantile exchange. This work was completed in 1829 to plans by David Hamilton. Hamilton encased the original house on both sides, with its two stories and attic articulated by giant pilasters. To the front he added a double depth portico of fluted Corinthian columns topped by a circular tempietto. To the rear he added a newsroom, considered to be Glasgow’s most magnificent early c19th interior. This addition was always lower than the original house, although the pilasters continue. However, the ground floor windows are arched while the first floor is half a storey with square ones. The exterior is completed by a free-standing colonnade of fluted columns on either side. The Royal Bank of Scotland built new premises facing their former home in 1834, a building that now houses Zizzi restaurant at the front, and All Saints facing onto Buchanan Street.

Glasgow’s first telephone exchange opened here in 1880 and, ironically, it was the increasing use of telephones and other long distance communication methods that made a physical exchange increasingly unnecessary. In 1949 the Royal Exchange was acquired by Glasgow Corporation and in 1954 Stirling’s Library was relocated here from Miller Street. The library moved back to Miller Street in 1994 so the building could be converted to house the city’s modern art collection. Stirling’s Library finally returned to the Gallery of Modern Art and is now The Library at GoMA.

42 Miller Street – The Tobacco Merchant’s House – 1909

Photo (C1761): Sourced from Virtual Mitchell and reproduced with the kind permission of Glasgow City Archives.

This 18th century tobacco merchant’s villa had recently had that ugly mansard roof added when this photograph was taken in 1909. Built by wright John Craig in 1775, it formed one of a row of free-standing villas at the south end of Miller Street. It was sold in 1782 to tobacco importer Robert Findlay of Easterhill. The house is a modest Palladian mansion which echos the much larger homes built by the city’s tobacco lords around the Merchant City. There are hints to Glasgow’s shameful colonial past dotted around the city. Jamaica and Virginia Streets are named after the territories where wealthy men monopolised the tobacco and sugar trades, often with brutal consequences for the slaves pressed into hard labour. Treasured buildings such as the Gallery of Modern Art started life as the private mansions of tobacco lords who were also, by extension, slave owners.

By the early 1990s, 42 Miller Street was in a sorry state: derelict and well on its way to becoming yet another city treasure lost to the bulldozer. It would almost certainly have ended that way had the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust not undertaken a complete restoration in 1994. They spent £500,000 stripping paint from the masonry and removing the late 19th century addition to the roof, and in the process they saved this historically important building from certain ruin.

68-74 Buchanan Street – 1938

Photo (C5620): Sourced from Virtual Mitchell and reproduced with the kind permission of Glasgow City Archives.

With something as substantial as a building you’d think there will always be plenty of evidence as to its history. My attempts to pin down the origins of this unfussy deco mash up on Buchanan Street prove that this isn’t always the case. The fantastic suggests it’s originally c1830 with significant alterations at street and first floor level being added around 1950. The Royal Institute of British Architects holds a photograph of the building c1920 with the deco frontage already in place. They also list the architect as Percy James Westwood, another fact I can’t corroborate. My best stab would be that the original building was indeed of 1830 with the modern frontage added, perhaps by Westwood, around 1920.

Whatever its history, it at least retains something akin to its original purpose. Rowan & Co. were established around 1846 as a merchant tailor and boys outfitters. They became outfitters to many boarding schools around Scotland, including Clifton Bank, St Andrews; Kelvingrove House, Bridge of Allan; Merchiston Castle, Edinburgh and Morrison’s Academy, Crieff. They also produced sports attire for tennis, golf, cricket and boating and became outfitters to the Glasgow University Athletic Club.

1-7 Blythswood Square – c1860s

Photo (C1804): Sourced from Virtual Mitchell and reproduced with the kind permission of Glasgow City Archives.

The cobbles are gone and cars now line the streets, but the north side of Blythswood Square is little changed from this c1860 view. Blythswood Square was the hub of Blythswood New Town, one of several planned developments that helped transform the city from its medieval origins. Blythswood New Town was laid out on the former Blythswood Estate of Colin Campbell and stretched from Argyle Street to Garnethill, and from West Nile Street to Pitt Street. It was initiated in 1821 by William Hamilton Garden who bankrupted himself promoting it. The square was laid out between 1823 and 1829 after William Harley took over. John Brash executed the facades, probably from a design by William Burn.

More interesting than the buildings themselves is the scandal that erupted here in 1857. No 7 (closest to us in the photo) was home to Madeleine Smith, a young Glasgow socialite and daughter of wealthy architect James Smith. In 1855, and at odds with Victorian social convention, she entered into an affair with apprentice nurseryman Pierre Emile L’Angelier. When her father found a suitable fiancé for her to marry, she tried to end the relationship only for L’Angelier to attempt blackmail. He threatened to use the letters Madeleine had sent to force her to marry him. She was seen ordering arsenic in the druggist’s office soon after. On the 23rd March 1857 L’Angelier succumbed to arsenic poisoning and is buried in the Ramshorn Cemetery on West Nile Street.

Despite the clear circumstantial evidence, the jury returned a “not proven” verdict. Madeleine fled Scotland soon after, first to England where she married artist George Wardle in 1861. They had a daughter Mary (known as “Kitten” b. 1863) and a son Thomas (b. 1864). Madeleine and George separated in 1889 and she then moved to New York City. In 1916, at the age of 81, she married a second time to William A. Sheehy. This lasted until his death in 1926. Madeleine Smith died in 1928 aged 93 and was buried as Lena Wardle Sheehy.


Commercial Bank of Scotland, Bothwell Street – 1935

Photo (C5513): Sourced from Virtual Mitchell and reproduced with the kind permission of Glasgow City Archives.
A solitary policeman directs non-existent traffic in this c1935 view of James Miller’s 1934 Commercial Bank of Scotland. These days the building is still home to brass, but in the form of German oompah bands that keep the Bavaria Brauhaus punters entertained. The building is modern classical with a portland stone and polished granite plinth, forming a stylobate (the base on which the columns rest). Two storey giant order fluted Corinthian columns dominate the Bothwell Street entrance. The entrance doors are bronze, as are the panels between ground and first floor. Between the windows on the 3rd floor are relief sculpted frieze by Gilbert Hayes representing Industry, Commerce, Justice, Wisdom, Contentment and Providence. Not so long ago the building housed Madness nightclub and before that it was an Italian restaurant after the Royal Bank of Scotland moved out in the 1990s.