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The Ravelston Flats, Edinburgh

Ravelston Garden, Edinburgh EH4

One of the three blocks at Ravelston Garden

Ravelston Garden flats feature three distinct blocks of curved white buildings with garage wings, balconies and roof gardens set in their own gardens. The flats were designed by the architects Robert Hurd and Andrew Neil though the consensus of opinion appears to be that it was solely down to the latter. They were built in 1935 and are purpose built apartments with a communal entrance, sweeping staircases and lifts. The sales material focussed on the layout of the flats which allowed guest and resident entrances to be far away from the service entrance and bin chutes.

The lobby of one of the blocks showing the lift and staircases

In the book, “Above Edinburgh and South East Scotland” by Angus and Patricia Mc Donald the flats are described as, “…proving that Edinburgh was in touch with the very latest architectural ideas in the 1930’s, these flats…were among the first buildings to bring the International Style to the city”.

Illustrating the “butterfly plan” design

Historic Environment Scotland (https://www.historicenvironment.scot/) officially gave the flats Category A status in 1991 writing the following,

“…3 white-harled international style blocks of flats. 4 storey, butterfly plan with paired long balconies, small paned metal framed glazing (some flats re-glazed retaining original pattern) and roof gardens. Low oblong wings to each side with small paned metal framed glazing bands. 1930s detailing to interiors; curved double flighted main stairs with streamlined metal baulstrades, doors with port hole openings; also lifts. Service and servants access between wings at sides and away from main entrances”.

Roof terrace

The main windows in the blocks of apartments were originally green crittal. Replacement windows over the years now see white as the common colour though the garage windows maintain the original green.

The garage doors have been replaced with up and over doors that have been designed to match the originals.

I give the last word to Charles McKean who says, in his book The Scottish Thirties (1987);

“Neil and Hurd’s Ravelston Garden 1935, (and thereafter known as the Jenners Flats in tribute to the managing agents) is the most self-conscious mansion flat design in Scotland. As is evidence from the original perspective, the architect saw these flats as one of a piece with cloche hats, roof gardens, limousines and sun terraces. The three large blocks, each linked to the single-storey curving garage wings are designed on a butterfly plan. The servant entrances, service access and rubbish are disposed centrally in the building, invisible to residents and their guests”.

Porthole interior doors and original fire surround

St Andrew's House

St Andrew’s House, Regent Road, Carlton Hill, Edinburgh Thomas Tait of Burnet, Tait & Lorne 1935-39

View from Carlton Hill

St Andrew’s House is placed at the foot of Carlton Hill, a focal point in the city of Edinburgh, and at one end of the main shopping street, Princes Street. It sits in a key and central location therefore. The building is a government one and has always been. It was commissioned by the Office of Works in the 1930’s, to be built on the site of a former prison. Thomas Tait was appointed in 1934 after a series of rejected proposals.

The building has been described as, “…one of the finest thirties buildings in Scotland” (The Scottish Thirties)

Built smack bang in the Art Deco period the complex features the square central building. The wings are set back from this central hub and these are certainly inspired by the American Classicism style of architecture as are the columns and large figures.

The large front doors at the centre of the building

The stair towers have a moment in Art Deco architectural styles, inspired by German modernistic styles of the early part of the century and certainly evidence in the architecture in Berlin.

Wing set back from central block with stair towers between

The lightning pylons towards the front of the building echo the work that Tait did at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938. These were changed to flat poles in 1939.

Lighting feature

A number of sources, (The Scottish Thirties and ScotStyle) cite that Frank Lloyd Wright inspired the flat overhanging roofs of the stair towers. Tait had spent time studying in America where he had met Lloyd Wright.

Window details and flat roof design – from Carlton Hill Cemetery

My favourite description of the building, and one I whole-heartedly endorse was given by Charles McKean in his book, Edinburgh, An Illustrated Architectural Guide.

“…brooding, authoritarian characteristics of the secure headquarters of an occupying power”.

I absolutely concur. The gates, the stone, the stair towers, the huge doors made me feel like the building was the workplace of Winston in George Orwell’s 1984.

The occupying power headquarters

This is a beautiful building in an amazingly accessible part of the city and therefore the country. Sadly as it is a government building there is no public access. I am hopeful that one day I will get in there and see those stair cases and partitions between the rooms that sink into the floors to create bigger rooms.

Other buildings designed by Tait:-

Royal Masonic Hospital in Hammersmith

Hawkshead hospital in Paisley

Adelaide House, King William Street, City of London

Peterborough House (Daily Telegraph) Fleet Street, London

Why Scotland…

In November 2019 we upped sticks and moved from the SE corner of England all the way up to Scotland to have an adventure in Edinburgh. During the course of 2019 Chris, my husband, had returned from a 6 month secondment in Boston, USA. We both wanted to give city living a try but couldn’t move to America because of all our pets and we couldn’t afford London. Over the course of the preceeding decade most of Chris’ direct family had moved North and we were very fortunate to be offered a room with Chris’ parents until we could find our own place. This was a relief because our house sale had not progressed smoothly, our first sale had fallen through after 6 months when our buyers buyer pulled out. We had previously found a house in the south to buy as well but after three months of waiting patiently to exchange were mortified to find out that the house had subsidence. House selling and house buying had not been kind to us. All of this pain though allowed us the time to make the decision to move North and gave Chris the opportunity to find a new job.

Our plan was city living and we appreciated that our budget only allowed us a small apartment in one of our chosen areas. We had been recommended to try Morningside and Stockbridge. As, clearly, had everyone else! These are popular areas. One Saturday morning, just before Christmas, we were wandering around Morningside as we were a bit early for a viewing, when Chris saw a flat advertised in the window of one of the local estate agents. He had seen it before and shown it to be before but I had said no because it didn’t have a bath and I wanted a bath. Chris was adamant that he wanted to see it though as it was in an Art Deco building. I’ll be honest and say I had not picked up on that at all. I don’t think the selling point was the Art Deco building and the photos really didn’t pick up on that. We made a viewing appointment for that afternoon. I still wasn’t wholly on board.

We came out of the Morningside viewing very confused. It was in the perfect location, Morningside, an area we loved. It had three bedrooms which was unusual in the budget we had. So what was not to like. And also if we couldn’t like that then it was clear we weren’t going to like anything in the area and to live there would probably be a huge unhappy compromise. We were disappointed.

Everything turned on its head that afternoon when we arrived at Ravelston Garden and were met by the vendor’s son. As he showed us into the flat he stopped in the hallway and started showing us the period features. The housekeepers door to keep the social areas separate from the sleeping and cooking. The butlers cupboard in the fireplace where the “staff” were able to put your drink in the cupboard from the hallway so that you could access the drink in the lounge without the need for contact with each other. The beautiful sliding doors between the dining room and lounge. The service entrance with bin chutes. The garage. At every turn I expected to see Poirot! I was beside myself with excitement. The flat had been on the market since July which I could not believe. How had it not been snapped up? I had never seen anything like it and whilst I had looked longingly at Art Deco houses in areas like Brighton I never imagined that it would be possible that I could live in a place like that.

On the following Monday we put in an offer for the flat based on our discussion with the vendor’s son. The Scottish system is a bit different to the English system so we already had a full home survey in our hands and knew of any of the issues. The offer was made through our, already appointed solicitor, to the vendor’s solicitor. By the end of the day our offer had been accepted in writing and a completion date of the 14th February had been set.

So, that’s why. Scotland and Art Deco. I am a huge fan of beautiful buildings and seem drawn to taking photos of them usually rather than people. As I sat researching the flats I found lots of examples of Art Deco buildings scattered around Scotland. The blog idea was born.

I am no expert in architecture. My background has no link at all to it. So please don’t come here for technical terms or understanding. Just come here to share the joy. Me, I’m Rebecca. I’m in my 40’s. I went to Cardiff University where I studied Law. On finishing I returned to my home county of Kent where I continued to live until we moved here. Last year I started researching my family history and discovered the my parents families both came from Kent and went back 100’s of years. Apart from my mum’s mum who was born in Glasgow. So Scotland is home too. Professionally I spent 17 years in the police, 10 of which were as a Murder squad detective sergeant. I left the police after a breakdown at 40 and became a full time vintage dealer, something I had been dabbling with for a few year prior to that, my bit of pretty I used to call it. The year after I left the police I was diagnosed as autistic, which totally explained the breakdown and who I am I married Chris in 2000, we met at a police disco in 1996, two years before I joined the police and whilst I was working as a legal rep. Chris was a police officer and ended up being medically retired in 2014. He wasn’t even 40 at this point and so retrained to be an accountant. This has allowed us the amazing opportunity to up sticks and move to another country and buy an Art Deco flat!

Please join me as I explore Scottish Art Deco.

One of the three blocks that make up Ravelston Garden

What is Art Deco?

Further to my introductory post about why I’m concentrating on Scottish Art Deco I think I need to explain to you what I understand Art Deco to mean. Whilst I’m talking about it as an architectural term it really is a general term for interiors as well and covers the inter war period time frame, so the 1920’s and 1930’s, between WWI and WWII.

The focus of the blog will be on Art Deco buildings in Scotland but that doesn’t mean I won’t cover some interiors on occasions as well as the architects themselves, because I think the stories are looking interesting as I am reading through!

In the meantime though, what does Art Deco mean?

What do you think it means? What images come to mind for you?

Is it the white square buildings?

Is it the glamour or the colour?

Whenever I see Art Deco I always also expect to see Hercule Poirot. Which surely means that there is a body somewhere?

Of interest in my reading was that the term Art Deco was not adopted until the 1960’s. In 1966 there was a anniversary exhibition in Paris to celebrate the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes” which had been held in Paris in 1925. That exhibition had covered most of the moments across Europe at the time, Bauhaus, Stijl, Expirit Nouveau etc. The term Art Deco became short hand to instantly describe all of that which was endorsed in a book published after the exhibition called Art Deco of the 20s and 30’s by Hulier.

The term used contemporary to the buildings appears to be “jazz modern”. Which is good too isn’t it?

The countries that seem to be the source of the architectural styles are Holland and Germany and of course America. Many of the UK architects spent time in America and brought because stunning ideas. Scottish Architect Sir John Burnet trained in America and sent his young staff members there including Thomas Tait, who is an important architect in terms of Scottish Art Deco.

As well as being inspired by the architecture of the country there appears to have been a practical need for the changes in style. I was interested to find that the steel windows that are an intergral part of the style, the crittal windows, were marketed well to become popular but actually were needed because of the shortage of wood after WWI.

The immaculate smooth exterior look I associate with Art Deco came about with the progress made in understanding how to use concrete and steel.

I was also really excited to be reminded that King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter. This massively influenced the style.

Howard Carter

The characteristics of Art Deco certainly are about geometry and symmetry with the square, rectangle and curves prominently appearing. The interwar years were a period of prosperity and obviously it was the jazz age. These factors definitely contribute to the glamour and materials used. We see advances in technology that allow improvements and modern twists not seen before. Plastic was new for example.

What words do you associate with Art Deco? What features do you think are utterly mandatory? Why do you know a building is Art Deco? There are definite characteristics and I think in the main an Art Deco building is quite clearly an Art Deco building. For me it’s likely about the white smooth external shell. The square box with steel rectangular windows, the flat roof.

But what else?

Let’s tour Scotland and find the Art Deco buildings and note their characteristics and see if we can understand what the influences were. Let’s meet the architects and find out what inspired them. Given that we are now in the 20’s lets look back at the 20’s.

Leave me a comment with your key art deco terms. And let me know if you have any buildings that I must visit as I tour Scotland.

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