Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Scotland, in a sprawling, gritty city known as Glasgow, there lived an eccentric and brilliant architect named Alexander Thomson.
Today, most people, even those with an interest in architecture, think: Who?
When one thinks of Glasgow, Charles Rennie Mackintosh comes to mind, a world-famous architect who died in 1928. I have been a Mackintosh admirer for forty years now, but only learned about Alexander Thomson a decade ago.
Alexander Thomson, 1817-1875.
Thomson was a generation before Mackintosh, and while the latter architect is revered today, Thomson was eclipsed by time.
But Thomson was as brilliant and creative as Mackintosh, and his work has, since the 1980s, garnered some renewed appreciation.
One of his works was the Caledonia Road Church, built in 1856.
Caledonia Road Church when new. What an extraordinary composition. Courtesy RCAHMS.
The church, 1967. Courtesy RCAHMS.
The church today. A fire destroyed much of the structure in 1965. Urban renewal obliterated the neighborhood.
Detail of portico. Image.
Luscious detailing at front doors. Image.
Originally, the church was nestled in a dense urban neighborhood. Except for the church, almost every building in the image has since been demolished. Looking northwest.
The church is on the south bank of the River Clyde. The city centre is on the north bank.
The church was built on a pie-shaped lot between two busy roads.
This is the Caledonia Road side of the church…
…and Cathcart Road side.
A POST-WWII MADNESS
After WWII, a collective madness ensued across the land, and entire neighborhoods were demolished in the name of Urban Renewal. Dense, low-rise, humane places were replaced with tall tower blocks set within huge grassy plots of land. In short order, these new developments, no matter their location, Glasgow or Detroit, almost immediately proved to be utter failures as places people wanted to live.
The Caledonia Church was built on the south bank of the River Clyde, and in an area which included the Gorbals. By the early 20th-century, the Gorbals had become one of the most notorious slums in the world, as had the surrounding neighborhoods.
However, looking at the archival images shows streetscapes which would today be treasured.
Eglinton Street, Gorbals.
One of the few old structures to survive urban renewal madness was the British Linen Bank, 162-170 Gorbals Street. To the right was one of the notorious Stirlingfauld Flats
The former British Linen Bank, while derelict, would be stunning if restored. Its survival is a miracle, and in 2015 it was awarded £345,000 towards essential repair work.
Fabulous. The former British Linen Bank.
While the former British Linen Bank can, it would appear, look forward to a bright fixture after decades of dereliction, the two adjacent Stirlingfauld Flats towers, built in the early 1970s, were imploded in 2008. They survived less than forty years. The towers were just north of the Caledonia Church, which can be seen upper left. The bank is lower left. This image was taken right before the towers were imploded.
In 2019, the British Linen Bank was stunningly restored, and new low-rise apartments now occupy the site of the Stirlingfauld Flats towers.
Overlooking the Caledonia Church was another pair of inhumane urban renewal towers. These, too, were recently imploded. To the right is the kind of low-rise structures now being built in the area.
New apartments directly east of the church.
Church to right. New low-rise construction to the east. Note how the entire development is focused on the Caledonia Road Church. While a vast improvement over tower blocks, I cannot help but think how much better it all would been, and vastly less expensive, had…
…the 19th-century structures been retained. Courtesy RCAHMS.
While the old structures were shabby and dirty, they could have been rehabilitated and cleaned. Dense, urban neighborhoods just like are all over the UK and Europe and are greatly prized.
INSIDE CALEDONIA ROAD CHURCH
The double entrance doors on the south side of the church led into this vestibule. The skylight was cleverly tucked behind the columns on the portico. Note the extraordinary designs on the pew. While many people will look at such an image and only see dereliction, I see wondrous beauty waiting to be resurrected. Courtesy RCAHMS.
The sanctuary, looking south. The high triple windows are nestled behind the great portico. Courtesy RCAHMS.
Looking inside today, up to the same triple windows. The church hall was to the right; it was pie-shaped.
The sanctuary, looking north, and to the organ. Courtesy RCAHMS.
Detail of organ screen. Courtesy RCAHMS.
Sanctuary. Painted and stenciled ceiling. Courtesy RCAHMS.
Ceiling. Just stunning. Courtesy RCAHMS.
This is a fascinating image. This is the rear of the sanctuary, under the triple windows. The balcony allowed an opening in the ceiling, and windows from behind the portico allowed light to spill in. Brilliant. Fabulous. Courtesy RCAHMS. There are many more archival images here.
RESURRECTING CALEDONIA ROAD CHURCH
During the last fifty years, the neighborhood surrounding the Caledonia Road Church has been through not one, but, incredibly, two almost total renewals. During all this upheaval the church went from being active, to abandoned, to burned, and to a lonely survivor — a silent witness to the madness surrounding it.
There has been debate and plans to relocate the roads surrounding the church, so that it is no longer isolated on an island.
Numerous proposals have been put forth since the 1990s to create a use for the church.
But no proposal suggests what I think should be done: A meticulous rebuild.
I repeat: A meticulous rebuild.
Much of the structure exists.
The lost interior has ample photographic documentation.
Other Thomson-designed structures exist which would be invaluable aids for Thomson details and coloring.
The restored structure could serve as a community meeting house, performing arts center, and, why, even a church on Sundays.
To the north of the church I would like to see the original type apartment blocks recreated.
I know, I know, people will shout: IT CAN’T BE DONE.
But it can be.
A breathtakingly bad idea was proposed in 2010. The church would remain a roofless ruin, but stuck onto it would be a white piece of modernism. Now, I think that juxtaposing modernism with historical buildings can have stunning results, but this is simply a disaster. The most amazing aspect of this bad bad bad concept was that it was to be a museum dedicated to Alexander Thomson! Endorsed by the Alexander Thomson Society! Incredible! So, rather then restore and occupy an actual Thomson-designed building for a Thomson museum, the society thought it better to occupy a new building! Luckily, this idiotic idea never attracted funding.
IT CAN BE DONE
While money was found to buy up vast swaths of the neighborhood surrounding the Caledonia Road Church, and money was found to demolish 95% of the neighborhood, and money was found to build all new housing, and money was found to later demolish much of this housing, and money was found to, yet again, build new housing, people will nonetheless shout: THERE ISN’T THE MONEY TO RESTORE THE CHURCH.
Sorry, I don’t buy it.
The Caledonia Road Church is a great work of art. It can, and should be, fully restored, and returned to active use.
Even more amazing miracles have happened…
For two centuries, the Frauenkirche was a famous and powerful presence in the city of Dresden; an icon of the city. Until February, 1945…
…when Dresden was destroyed in a firestorm by Allied bombing. The church initially survived, but the temperature surrounding, and inside the building, “eventually reached 1,830 °F. The dome finally collapsed at 10 a.m. on 15 February. The pillars glowed bright red and exploded; the outer walls shattered and nearly 6,000 tons of stone plunged to earth.” For five decades the ruins remained. There were people who wanted to rebuild the church, but many others shouted: IT CAN’T BE DONE! Well…
…it could be. It could. And was. The Frauenkirche…reborn. Incredible. Glorious. Wondrous. The work was completed in 2004. The dark stones are original to the 18th-century structure. Image courtesy Computerbild.
Uppark, an exquisite 17th-centuy house in the UK, was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1989. People across the land shouted: IT CAN’T BE REBUILT.
But it was.
And the fire-ravaged interiors of Uppark were meticulously recreated. Most of the furnishings survived the fire. When Windsor Castle was also ravaged by fire, people shouted: IT CAN’T BE REBUILT. But, it, too, along with dozens of others structures thought irretrievably lost, was resurrected. It can be done.
There are legions of people who shout: IT CAN’T BE DONE. Yet over and over they have been proved wrong. Modernist architects, in particular, distain architectural reconstructions. Indeed, they freak out. “Buildings must be of our time”, they shout. Yet, when an icon of early modernism, the extraordinary Barcelona Pavilion, was recreated on its original site, and with not a single original piece, Modernists applauded.
There is a luscious book on Alexander Thomson.
The Saint Vincent Street Church, also by Thomson, is in the city centre of Glasgow, and can be visited. It is incredible.
A house by Thomson, Holmwood, is open to the public. I strongly recommend a visit. This page is a must!!!!!!!
This is a great resource for Alexander Thomson buildings. Make sure to scroll all the way to the bottom where there are eight links. A feast of Thomson!
Saint Vincent Street Church, similar to the Caledonia Road Church.
Saint Vincent Street Church. Image.
Saint Vincent Street Church.
Saint Vincent Street Church. Image.
The Grecian Chambers by Thomson, 336-356 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. Note the third-floor inset. Behind the columns is a contiguous row of glass. This was extraordinary for 1865.