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Alexander Greek Thomson portrait created with graphite and coloured pencils by Gerald Blaikie. Exclusive copyright© G.Blaikie 2011

Alexander Thomson

Alexander Thomson was born at Balfron in Stirlingshire in 1817. He spent his working life as an architect in and around Glasgow until his death in 1875.
In the Victorian era Thomson created some of Scotland's most unique secular and ecclesiastical buildings. His structures are still instantly recognisable, blending archetypical Greek styling with Egyptian and other exotic themes.


Caledonia Road Church

Caledonia Road Church, Gorbals

Caledonia Road Church, Gorbals, was Alexander Thomson's first church in the city, built in 1857. It has an unconventional asymmetric layout which follows the edges of the surrounding roads. It is built in an unusual combination of styles with ancient Greek and provincial Italian elements placed side by side.
The tower of the church is completely original, following no historical precedents. The classical Greek style did not feature towers and it is unlikely that Thomson would have found any examples from antiquity to guide him in his design.
The depopulation of the Gorbals left the church without a congregation by 1962, after which it was purchased by Glasgow Corporation for a mere £3700 in 1963. The church was severely damaged by fire on the night of 30th October 1965. The arson attack took place shortly after consultants had estimated the cost of restoration of the empty building at around £90,000. The shell of the church still survives and is now floodlit at night to become one of Glasgow's architectural attractions.

Tower at Caledonia Road Church

Drawing of tower at Caledonia Road Church

The church & hall were built for a local congregation of the United Presbyterian Church, previously based at Wellington Place Academy, Commercial Road.

The church fronted Caledonia Road, flanked either side by tenements in Cathcart Road and Hospital Street, designed by Thomson as part of a new development beside Southside railway terminus. The banded masonry of the church tower was extended into the adjoining tenement blocks to give an eye catching horizontality to the completed design scheme.

At the very top level, right, the tower features some intricate carvings around the space that was intended for the clock which was never installed.


Aerial view Caledonia Road Church

Thomson's tenements at the rear of the Caledonia Road Church were demolished in the early 1970's, leaving the ruin standing in perfect isolation which persists to the present time with no redevelopment having taken place over a period of over 30 years.
The only other building still standing in the vicinity is the Brazen Head pub, formerly known as the Granite City, which sits alongside the abandonded railway track from St Enoch to Barrhead where it crosses over Cumberland Street and Cathcart Road.



St Vincent Street Church

St Vincent Street Church

St Vincent Street Church, to the west of the city centre, was completed in 1859. The constituent parts display different styles, with a typical Thomson Greek temple placed alongside an exotic clock tower which shows more oriental influences. The windows on the four sides of the tower each feature paired sculptured faces looking in on one another.

At the time when the Caledonia Road Church was destroyed by fire in the 1960's, Glasgow Association of Spiritualists were occupying the St Vincent Street Church, keeping it from falling into dereliction.
Glasgow City Council acquired the building in December 1970 and carried out repairs and maintenance to keep the church as much as possible in its original state.

Tower at St Vincent Street Church

Pulpit at St Vincent Street Church

The Council rented St Vincent Street Church to a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland in October 1971, who still occupy it. There were proposals in the mid-1980's to terminate the lease to the Free Church and use the building as a tourist attraction in a similar way to Thomson's Holmwood House and Rennie Mackintosh's Scotland Street School. This never happened and the building still fulfils its intended function as a place of worship.

In August 2007 a £1.85million renovation project was announced by the church’s owners, Glasgow City Council.
Historic Scotland offered to provide a £350,000 grant to go towards a full restoration of the building.
The refurbishment involved structural consolidation work to the main roof trusses, internal replastering and repairs to the crumbling stonework.

Column at St Vincent Street church

Cast-iron column, crowned with outsized capital decorated with Thomson's trademark motifs, supporting the gallery of St Vincent Street church

Drawing of tower at St Vincent Street Church, Glasgow

The tower of St Vincent Street Church is much more decorative than the tower of Caledonia Road Church. Its extravagant ornamentation appears to be a culmination of all Thomson's mysterious perceptions.


Queens Park UP Church

Queens Park UP Church


Queens Park UP Church

Tower at Queens Park UP Church

Thomson's final Glasgow church was Queens Park United Presbyterian Church in Langside Road which was completed in 1869.
The church was destroyed during the Second World War when it was struck by a German incendiary bomb in March 1943. The lavish interior furnishings and paintwork would only have served as kindling to speed up the destruction of this outstanding landmark.
It was built in Thomson's unique style, combining various elements of antiquity, from the Semitic to the Greek.
 

Extract from Glasgow Herald, 26 March 1943

The Glasgow Herald of 26th March 1943 briefly mentioned the incident but because of wartime reporting restrictions gave no information which would help identify the church which had been attacked. The caption reads "This church was destroyed by incendiaries during yesterday morning's raid on a town in Central Scotland".
If you look closely at the newspaper photograph you can see the flames engulfing the four columns supporting the triangular pediment. Below this you can see the blazing outlines of the three doors of the central entrance as shown in my elevation drawing of the church.


Engraving of Queens Park UP Church

Engraving of Queens Park UP Church


The Knowe, Pollokshields

The Knowe

The Knowe is a large rambling villa situated at the corner of Albert Drive and Shields Road in Pollokshields. It was built in 1853 and extended in 1858.
The Knowe was designed in 1850 while Thomson was in partnership with his brother-in-law John Baird. This was before he had fully developed his now familiar neo-Greek style, which he perfected while working with his brother George from 1856 onwards. The villa's Italianate styling is still very original and when looked at in comparison with some of Thomson's later houses, illustrates the evolution of his idiosyncratic domestic architecture.
Surprisingly, the Knowe features arches in its design, a feature which Thomson would later claim as having "strewn Europe with ruins"!


Maria Villa, Langside

Maria Villa, Langside

Alexander Thomson's double villa in Mansion House Road, Langside was built in 1857. It features a couple of semi-detached houses with a most unusual layout.
The design follows the standard arrangement of houses placed side by side but the back of each house is placed against the front of the other, so that they not only share identical layouts but also identical elevations to the east and west.
It is perhaps surprising that the most innovative of Thomson's house arrangements never became a fashionable style to be copied. The houses look much grander than other houses of similar size which were built to the conventional pattern.


Holmwood, Cathcart

Holmwood House

Holmwood House in Cathcart was built in 1858 for James Couper who, with his brother Robert, owned and operated paper mills by the side of the River Cart.
Holmwood shows a novel adaptation of Classical Greek styling to fit in with mid-19th Century Scottish taste.
The house is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, who are carrying out its restoration. The original stenciled decoration by C.T. Bowie was left intact under layers of wallpaper during the period when the house was used as a primary school by an order of religious sisters.
Holmwood is open to the public on afternoons during the summer months, when the surrounding gardens are also at their best.


No. 1 Moray Place

No. 1 Moray Place

Thomson's own house in Strathbungo was part of a Grecian terrace completed in 1861.
The upper windows of the houses are deeply inset into the façade behind the regular stone mullions which have oriental motifs inscribed into the stonework. The end bays, at No.1 and No.10, have grand pediments which are adorned with exotic carvings.
There were later terraces added to Moray Place, but they are lacking Thomson's design genius.

Drawing of Alexander Thomson's home at Moray Place, Glasgow, by Gerald Blaikie

Drawing of Alexander Thomson's home at Moray Place, Glasgow


Ellisland, Pollokshields

Ellisland, Pollokshields

Ellisland, in Nithsdale Road, Pollokshields, was built in 1871, a decade after Thomson's best known domestic works. This symmetrically fronted villa has much less depth and shadow than his earlier examples. It is a striking design for what is fundamentally a rather simple square house.
The entrance hall led to a central hallway which was designed as a skylit atrium with lots of natural light. An attic studio was later added within the roofspace over this hallway. Efforts have been made over the years to restore the interior closer to the architect's initial design intentions.


Thomson's best known structure in Glasgow's west end is Great Western Terrace, designed in 1869, but not completed until after his death in 1875.
The dwellings are contained within a very long terrace with projecting porches supported by Ionic columns.

Drawing of entrance and porch at Alexander Thomson's Great Western Terrace, Glasgow by Gerald Blaikie

Drawing of entrance and porch at Alexander Thomson's Great Western Terrace, Glasgow


Offices at West Nile Street

The evolution of Thomson's complex commercial buildings began with a small office block at West Nile Street, built in 1858, which is still standing.
The building features the deeply recessed masonry which would become his trademark, with the windows at the top level contained within a typical Thomson colonnade.


Grosvenor Building

Grosvenor Building

The Grosvenor Building in Gordon Street, facing the main entrance to Central Station, was one of Thomson's earliest commercial works, built in 1861 and then hastily rebuilt behind the façade following a fire in 1864.
The view above demonstrates Thomson's original design intentions, with repetitive horizontal layers featuring his now familiar Greek motifs. The top floor is slightly inset to create some additional depth to the frontage. Unfortunately, the visual effect was totally lost some 45 years later when new storeys were placed on top of Thomson's fine composition.

Top of Grosvenor Building

Such was the demand for office space in the city-centre at the turn of the century that an incongruous Baroque extension was allowed to be added to the roof in 1907. No effort was made to match the style of the original building built half a century earlier. This strange structure, like the fancy top layers of a wedding cake, may have been very nice as a free standing building in a different setting, but does nothing to enhance the tiers below. The new levels housed the Grosvenor Restaurant from which the whole block derives its current title.


Grecian Chambers

Grecian Chambers

Grecian Chambers on the north side of Sauchiehall Street, close to Thomson's St Vincent Street Church, was completed in 1865 and has survived the ravages of time particularly well. It is a building of total symmetry with a central entrance leading to the commercial space on the upper floors. At ground level there are 8 retail units with glazed frontages of varying sizes, but the overall symmetry of the block is still maintained.

Drawing of door at Grecian Chambers, Glasgow

Decoration at door of Grecian Chambers

Engraving of Grecian Chambers, Glasgow

Engraving of Grecian Chambers


Egyptian Halls

Egyptian Halls

The design and construction of the Egyptian Halls, on the eastern side of Union Street, kept Thomson busy from 1870 until its completion in 1873. The four-storey warehouse was built around a large central staircase with large open areas of floor space. These floors were supported by a iron framework integrated into the masonry.
The highly original frontage has a row of shops at ground level, which remained in occupation years after the upper floors were abandoned. The upper levels are currently unoccupied, although plans for a major refurbishment are currently being considered. Failing this, this unique innovative structure will have to be demolished.
The place of this building in the fascinating development of Victorian Glasgow's commercial architecture is explored fully in a dedicated page of this site, which looks at the use of new materials and construction methods in 19th century Glasgow.

Because the structural loads were shared by the cast-iron frame, Thomson was able to create continuous highly original designs around the many windows at each level. He was also able to indulge in some heavy stonework in the upper levels of the façade.

Third foor of Egyptian Halls, Glasgow

The third floor windows are deeply inset from the squat Egyptian styled colonnade, seeming to run endlessly along the frontage.


Second foor of Egyptian Halls, Glasgow

Sandwiched between horizontal bands of exotic Thomson motifs, the second floor of Egyptian Halls features a repetitive row of slender double pilasters. The windows at this level are not as deeply recessed as at the top floor, as the ornamental masonry is not as massive.


First foor of Egyptian Halls, Glasgow

Above the shop fascias, the first floor of Egyptian Halls features highly decorative projecting pilasters either side of the windows. The masonry at this level, which can be closely examined from the street, displays typical Thomson stellar and botanical ornamentation.

I obtained access to the upper floors in September 2012 to produce an interesting selection of photographs inside of the Egyptian Halls, showing the current dereliction which has exposed the structural elements for close inspection.


Bath Street Offices

Bath Street Offices

Thomson's final commercial commission, which he never lived to see completed, was situated in Bath Street in Glasgow's office district. This little known block was demolished in 1970, before Thomson's reputation had been revived and his modern following had been established.
The building had more in common with the surrounding office blocks, lacking the originality of the works created earlier in his career. The external detailing, however shows typical touches of the master.
It was was completed in 1876, built on the site of the Thomson designed Scottish Exhibition Rooms of 1855. It has been suggested that parts of the earlier structure where incorporated into the new offices. The Exhibition Rooms were the venue for the Glasgow Architectural Society's first meetings. This organisation survives today as the Glasgow Institute of Architects.
After Thomson's' offices were demolished the site was used for the erection of Hellenic House, which despite the title's Greek associations was a typical concrete panelled multi-storey block of the 1970's.


Drawing of top of Buck's Head Building, Glasgow

Top of Buck's Head Building

Detail at Buck's Head Building

The Buck's Head building at the corner of Argyle Street and Dunlop Street was a bold experiment with the modern materials of its time. The novel design incorporates cast iron both in the internal structure and in the façade, giving it a feel quite unlike Thomson's other commercial works. There is, however, typical Thomson detailing in the stonework on the upper layers which are topped with a sculpture of a buck by John Mossman.
In June 2003 extensive renovation at a cost of £650,000 was completed. Internal non-structural elements were removed to make way for escalators and a new lift in order to provide the type of retail space which modern shoppers require.
The frontage at the upper levels was restored as much as possible to its "as new" 1868 condition. The old paint layers were carefully examined to provide a colour scheme for the ironwork which is a close as possible to the original.

The building derives its name from a hotel and tavern which had previously occupied the site. The hotel had been formed from the mansion-house of George Murdoch who was Provost of Glasgow for two periods in the mid-1700's. It had also been occupied by the Hopkirks of Dalbeth, who had been Glasgow "Tobacco Lords".


Bust of Alexander Thomson by John Mossman

Bust of Alexander Thomson by John Mossman

This memorial bust of Alexander Thomson was completed in 1877, two years after his death. The Glasgow Institute of Architects, of which Thomson was a founder member, commissioned the celebrated sculptor, John Mossman, to produce this lasting memorial. It was presented to Glasgow Corporation and passed on to their various cultural successors.
The bust came out of storage following the refurbishment of the magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery in late 2006 and can now be viewed from the balcony facing the main hall.


Monument over grave of Alexander Thomson at Southern Necropolis, Glasgow

Monument over grave of Alexander Thomson at Southern Necropolis, Glasgow

Also in 2006, a replacement monument for the grave of Alexander Thomson was erected in the Southern Necropolis. This graveyard is entered from Caledonia Road, where the ruins of his 1857 church still stands. As with the church, vandals had wrecked the original gravestone.
The only inscription on the new monument is the single word “Thomson”. This reflects the uncertainty as to which members of the Thomson family were interred in the lair. Precise details of their dates of birth and death were also in doubt.


Alexander Thomson's death notice

The Glasgow Herald of 23rd March 1875 published an intimation of Alexander Thomson's death the previous day, (above).
The same edition published a glowing obituary to the man, mentioning the origins of his "Greek" nickname which survives to today, (below).

Alexander Thomson's death notice


During August and September 2007, I was delighted to have my "Thomson meets Mackintosh" exhibition displayed at the Mitchell Library (below). The exhibition featured my drawings of the best known buildings of Glasgow's two most celebrated architects.

Thomson meets Mackintosh Exhibition _ Mitchell Library


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  Holmwood House

  Thomson's Terraces

  Thomson's Tenements

  Thomson's Churches

Thomson's Warehouses

Inside Egyptian Halls

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All original artwork, photography and text © Gerald Blaikie 2014
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