[This article was originally written for, and published in, the magazine of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, in 2008. I bring the story up to date at the end…]
The Botanic Gardens Garage is the oldest motor garage surviving in Glasgow, and quite possibly anywhere in the UK. Built in Vinicombe Street, Hillhead in several stages from 1906 – 1912, it was designed by David V. Wyllie, and has a distinctive façade of green and white glazed terracotta tiles. In December 2007, Historic Scotland upgraded it from a Category B to a Category A listed building. So what is it about this particular garage that makes it so unique?
‘Industrial Archaeology of Glasgow’ points out that since “motor vehicles were relatively rare before 1914, so were garages.” The idea of a pre-World War One communal parking garage, distinct from a petrol station or repairs garage, seems extraordinarily rare. Presumably these were only necessary in places with the combination of high-density tenement living (so no space for individual garages), in an affluent, wealthy area where people could afford the expense of a car. The fact this particular garage had multiple levels – basement, ground and first floor – makes it even more unusual. Could it be the world’s first multi-storey car park?
Until recently, the building was in full-time use by owners Arnold Clark, who submitted a planning application in June 2007 to entirely demolish the building and build flats on the site. The initial planning application and press coverage was very dismissive of its importance, suggesting it had been converted from a stables, rather than being purpose-built as a parking garage. The application also claimed that the building “is not by a known architect”, and that “a literature review concluded there are no details regarding the importance of significance of the building, apart from a brief mention in the Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow”. An argument for demolition was also made on structural grounds, based on a visual inspection of the property. Furthermore, the planning statement asserted that it would be impossible to repair or retain the faience facade. No evidence that the building had been offered on the open market to a restoring purchaser was provided.
A group – Save the Botanic Gardens Garage – was set up by local historian Sam Maddra to co-ordinate opposition to the plans and to properly research the history of the building. A public meeting to discuss the plans and present the initial research results was attended by over 100 people.
Going back to the original plans in Glasgow City Archives, the site comprises three main different sections, all designed by David Valentine Wyllie for Mrs Annie K Kennedy (nee Wilson) between 1896 and 1911. David Valentine Wyllie was a prolific architect who designed both industrial and domestic buildings all over Glasgow, including a number of others in the West End, including terraced villas on Lilybank Gardens in 1892/93, and a tenement on Wilton Street in 1895.
The first part of what was to become the Botanic Garage building complex, built c.1896, was a 2-storey construction, described as a warehouse / store at the end of Vinicombe Lane, behind what was then Hillhead Academy.
In 1902 a Mrs Ivory of Laverockdale House, Edinburgh, purchased the first motor car in Scotland.
In 1903 Wyllie designed and built a 5-storey tenement on Vinicombe Street for Annie Kennedy, followed by another tenement, with retail units on the ground floor in 1905. In 1906 Kennedy applied for an ‘Extension to Motor Garage/warehouse…’ – this is the second phase of the building, which backs onto their recently completed tenement, and comprises a two-storey building with a basement and ground floor.
This is the first reference to the fact that this phase of the building is purpose built as a Motor Garage – ‘The Botanic Motor Garage’ – as early as 1906. Interestingly, the same year saw the Royal Automobile Club move its headquarters to Glasgow.
An entry in the Glasgow Post Office Directory for 1908-09 reads: “Botanic Gardens Garage (Alex. Kennedy, proprietor), private stance to each car owner, repairs and all accessories; agent for Scotland, “Opel” cars..”
The third part of the existing garage, the section with the terracotta tiled frontage, was designed in 1911. Tiled frontages are themselves quite rare in Scotland, and this is a a good example for the period of a faience-clad commercial frontage. The façade is featured in the Tile Gazetteer which describes it as a ‘arched vanilla and pistachio striped faience frontage‘. This phase of the building also featured “unusual steel roof trusses springing from slender V-shape supports”.
In addition, the plans show that at least the upper parts of the side walls were constructed in ferroconcrete, using the Hennebique method – the same technologically innovative technique used to construct the Category A listed Lion Chambers in Hope Street, Glasgow in 1905. Interestingly, directly opposite the Botanic Gardens Garage lies the former Hillhead Salon Picture House of 1913, which was also largely constructed of Hennebique ferroconcrete.
While the real expansion in services for motorists came after the war in 1918, 1912 was clearly a significant time in Glasgow’s motoring history as the Great Scottish Motor Show was held in the Industrial Hall, Kelvingrove in January of that year.
As on-street parking was prohibited, motor garages were springing up to provide storage space for cars. Archive photographs also show that the Botanic Gardens Motor Garage was used at least in part for the storage of cars, with individual lockable steel cages. Access to the basement was down the sloping Vinicombe Lane, whereas access to the upper level was through a ramp inserted into the pend of the adjacent tenement. Could this make the Botanic Gardens Garage the earliest multi-level car park?
The earliest known multi-story car park in the US was built for the Hotel La Salle in Chicago, IL., in 1918 and was designed by Holabird and Roche. Sadly it was demolished in 2005. In England, the Rothbury Motor Garage dates from 1913, but is only a single storey. A 1998 report on transport buildings for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England states that “Many multi-storey car parks were built on the Continent and in America before they were adopted in England. With the Exception of Central London, they were simply not needed until the aftermath of the Second World War”. Clearly, they didn’t know about the Botanic Garage!
Nigel Kennedy, the grandson of the original owner, talked about the building and how it was used in a recent interview:
“Its primary purpose undoubtedly was parking, and repairs probably developed as an adjunct to it. But at that time almost all the customers were professional drivers, chauffeurs. I suppose anybody who had enough money for a motorcar had a chauffeur as well. I am sure he was the one who got his hands dirty. They had cages for the cars… So you rented your own lock up space really. That is my recollection that you rented your property on a long-term contract. Your lock up – so the car was under your own lock and key. When they built the garage my grandfather – who I said was a tough cookie – asked my father what he thought about access to the top floor. My father thought about it and he came back and said to my grandfather: “I think we should just use a simple ramp.” And of course as you will know the ramp [up to the first floor] is fairly steep, [while] the ramp down to the lower floor is gentle, and my grandfather, according to my father, said: “Well I think that is a stupid idea, but we will just do it that way and you will see.” And it became a plus feature because we are talking 1911/1912, and although it may have been difficult to climb, it was a smasher for starting your car in the morning, once they had managed to chuff their way or manhandle the car to the top of the ramp, and it became the sought after floor. And of course when they came back in the evening warm, there was no problem about getting up the ramp.
In the sort of the 1940s/50s/60s perhaps, my father used to be annoyed at the amount cars that were parked on the street. Thought they should have been in his garage you see.”
In summary, this is an exceptionally rare, socially and architecturally important survivor from the earliest days of commercial automobile architecture. It combines an imaginative, stylish design with the utilisation of historically significant engineering techniques and materials. The Buildings of Scotland describes it as “a boldy arched green and white tiled front and an unusual steel-trussed roof and extensively glazed rear wall”, and highlights the “refined iron framed interior” of this “remarkable survivor”.
The proposed demolition plans met with strong opposition from local residents, the AHSS, the 20th Century Society and the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, amongst many others – over 150 formal objections were lodged with Glasgow City Council.
“Clearly, the building is in need of repair, but this does not justify demolition. As a first step, the building should be offered for sale to a restoring purchaser for conversion at a price reflecting its condition”
– Historic Scotland, comment on application
“The design for the building was very progressive for its time – as is indicated by the fact that the green and white glazed faience on the front pre-dates the emergence of Art Deco as an architectural form. This faience is generally in good condition and certainly any damage can be repaired or replaced as needed”
– Tiles & Architectural Ceramics Society, comment on application
“The two structural reports provided […] are visual surveys only, and do not in themselves prove the building is beyond repair. At the very least, a detailed structural investigation should be submitted. Faience can be repaired and replaced, as mentioned in the entry of the Bluebird Garage in the Prince’s Regeneration Trust: Best Practice for Regeneration”
– Twentieth Century Society, comment on application
“Given the age […] the reinforced concrete walls may be a very early example of this type of construction in Scotland, and therefore of historic interest.”
– Montgomery Smith Associates, Consulting Structural Engineers, Oct 2006, submitted as part of the planning application
In light of all of this, the application for demolition was finally withdrawn in October 2007. With the subsequent raising of the category to A, and with a clear argument for the building’s importance made, owners Arnold Clark are now looking at other options for the site that do not involve complete demolition. Glasgow City Council has recently performed their own survey of the building, which showed that although in need of repair and maintenance, that the building is basically structurally sound.
The Botanic Gardens Garage is a good example of a case where the true importance of the building did not come to light until it was under threat; it was not until the planning application was lodged that the history of the building was properly researched, and it became clear that there was something special here. The threat led to the research, which led to Historic Scotland looking again at the building and re-grading it as Category A. It is to be hoped that this will in turn help to obtain a more positive outcome for future of the building.
Perhaps an ideal solution for the site would be to see it return to its original use – that of a parking garage. As anyone that’s driven in the west end of Glasgow knows, in 2008 as much as in 1906, the area does not exactly have a surfeit of parking spaces…
It’s now been three years since Historic Scotland made this building a Category A listed building. So where are we now?
In August 2009, Arnold Clark did indeed submit revised plans for the building, which would involve just partial, rather than total demolition. The front portion of the building facing Vinicombe Street would be retained, with a new block of flats behind it, and some of the other fabric would also be retained. Crucially, however, there had still been no effort on the part of the owners to investigate options that didn’t involve substantial demolition, and as per Historic Scotland’s original comments above, still no marketing of the building to potential other owners had taken place.
Despite renewed campaigning efforts from the Friends of Glasgow West, who commissioned an independent Engineering Appraisal into the fabric of the building, the planning committee of Glasgow City Council controversially passed the plans in February 2010, by a narrow margin of 8 votes to 7.
But the story doesn’t end there – in May 2010, Historic Scotland announced that the planning application was being ‘called in’ for consideration by the Scottish Ministers. This call-in process is rare, and only happens a handful of times a year – generally only in cases where it is thought that procedures may have been followed incorrectly, or that a decision clearly goes against published national planning guidelines.
“Scottish Ministers have come to the view that the case for substantial demolition of the listed building had not been adequately made in support of the application and have therefore called in the application for their own decision.
The case will now be considered by a Reporter […] who will carefully consider the case and provide a recommendation for Ministers.”
The report has now been compiled, and passed to the Scottish Ministers (once published, it will be available on-line here).
We now await whatever decision the Scottish Ministers make, based on the report’s recommendations.
References & Links
More information on the garage and its history can be found here:
Along Great Western Road, Urquhart, Stenlake, 2000
Industrial Archaeology of Glasgow, Hume, Blackie, 1974
Tile Gazetteer: A Guide to British Tile and Architectural Ceramic Locations, Lynn Pearson, 2005
Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow, Williamson, Riches, Higgs, Yale, 1990.
Historic Scotland Listed Building Description #32935
Scottish Civic Trust Buildings At Risk Register #3076
Dictionary of Scottish Architects entry M003092
Glasgow City Council Archives, references GCA 1/9732, GCA 2/635, GCA 2/1526
Many thanks to Sam Maddra and Eva Branscome for their detailed researches into motoring architectural history, and for Nigel Kennedy for agreeing to be interviewed about his family history.
Hi Gordon, I served my motor mechanic apprenticeship in this building in the late 80’s and your article brings back some great memories…
I’ve ran up and down that ramp a million times, and used to sit on the fence at the upstairs windows to stare out when the foreman and charge-hand weren’t watching. Maybe sneak a fly roll up too 🙂
A Renault 9 I worked on also caught fire, during the night, on the back ramp (to the right of the Sandringham Lane fire door) sometime around 87/88, hence the black soot all over the walls. One of your pictures (2nd down) shows the wall semi-cleaned behind the grey oil heater, and that shoddy workmanship was me lol… Basically it was as high as I could reach with a rag and the 6 foot ladder they gave me, then it never got finished when the garage got busy again. Amazing that no one seems to have finished the job in all the years it was open since I left, and the bit I cleaned is dirty again 🙂
Anyhoo; thoroughly enjoyed the article and seeing inside it again. I’ve not been in it since I left around 1990, and it was a beautiful old building inside… Ideal for and indoor market or garden centre if you ask me.
As a note, it genuinely was believed to be a converted stable, at least thats what everyone that worked there believed. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t investigate anything properly if it suited their agenda.
Great read, hope they keep the building as is 🙂