The sad tale of the decline of Glasgow’s Egyptian Halls, a city centre listed building designed by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.
The Egyptian Halls is a category A listed building located in central Glasgow. It was built between 1870–72 and designed by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, a talented Scottish architect regarded as a pioneer in sustainable building.
During his lifetime Thomson was mostly ignored outside of Scotland but his reputation was established in the 1950s and his influence more understood, especially on central Europe architecture and on American architects such Frank Lloyd Wright. He is known for his highly eclectic style developed from Greek, Egyptian and Levantine sources. Despite its name the Egyptian Halls is mostly modelled on Greek classical architecture.
It is considered a ground-breaking building but fell into disrepair and has been deteriorating from the second half of the 20th century. It was saved from demolition in 2011 but its beautiful exterior is lost behind scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Everyone wants to save it: from the local council and Scottish authorities to Historic Scotland and world heritage organisations. So why is it in the last chance saloon?
As we were shown round the building by one of the current owners, Dundee businessman Derek Souter, the troubled case of the the Egyptian Halls reminded me of Jarndyce v Jarndyce. In Dicken’s novel, Bleak House, Jarndyce v Jarndyce is a large inheritance case that has dragged on for many generations, sucking in and devouring protagonists, nourishing disagreements and feuds, providing jobs and money for lawyers whose interest is to spin it out a much as possible. When it is finally resolved it is discovered that the legal costs have devoured the whole estate.
Substitute a building for a fortune and it is similar tale. Since the 1980s there have been repair orders, compulsory purchase orders, missed opportunities, fractious meetings, proposals and byzantine legal wrangles. Entire Caledonian forests have disappeared to fund reports and documents. Innumerable officers and experts have been appointed into the job, appointed out of the job and then retired. Money has been spent, salaries have been sustained and interests have been vested to no avail. When the process is finally resolved many people will still be paid for achieving nothing as the Egyptian Halls may well be a pile of debris.
Souter and his long term co investors/directors Kelvin Kerr and Duncan Souter appear to be the building’s last hope yet there are still funding and other issues. Bits of the building are falling off and after decades of neglect time is not on its side. Private Eye’s architecture correspondent – ‘Piloti’ has commented on the story several times describing the building as ‘an urban architectural wonder’ – and is one of many backing Souter’s development plan for a luxury hotel.
It is unbelievable that a key historical building in the centre of Glasgow has been reduced to this state. Yet despite exploiting its architectural heritage for boastful tourist marketing Scotland and Glasgow’s authorities have always displayed a talent for losing valuable buildings to neglect, development, vandalism and fire. Some believe they would only be too pleased to see a problem building gone. They point to golden opportunities for effective collaboration and lay the blame squarely at the myopic complacency of the public authorities. Had there been will and investment the building and Union Street itself would be thriving far more than its current state of decline.
Souter is passionate about seeing the building saved and believes that it can be the centrepiece for a rejuvenated Union Street. Maybe the curse of this abandoned building will finally be lifted when the first guests check into Glasgow’s newest hotel.
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Private Eye: issues 947, 950, 1011 and 1271