Restoration frustration at Adam Smith’s Panmure House in Edinburgh

A neglected link in the capital’s history, Adam Smith’s Panmure House, has rotted while squabbles over plans to revive it drag on. Will capitalism’s birthplace ever be reborn, asks Bill Jamieson

It is called “the home of modern economics”. But it is hard to imagine Panmure House, just off Edinburgh’s Canongate, is anything other than the derelict ruin that it is. A torrential downpour on the day of my site visit adds to the sense of abject desolation. I have arrived at the building where the philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. He occupied Panmure House in Edinburgh from 1778 till his death in 1790. He is buried nearby in Canongate Kirkyard.

It is almost four years since the Edinburgh Business School bought the building with a burning £3 million-plus ambition to bring its history alive, establish a fitting and purposeful tribute to Scotland’s greatest economist and make Panmure House a Mecca for academics and historians the world over.

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Initial completion date was 2011. But today Panmure House stands as it did when abandoned years ago. Now another round of consultations lies ahead, likely to take at least a year, pushing the likely completion date to out to 2014. Dr. Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute, says: “I’m not best pleased. I suppose in the great scheme of things that when the house is restored, it will be good for several centuries, so a year or two’s wait isn’t long. But the planning process was already so drawn-out that I am itching to see the project move forward.”

The dedicated followers of Adam Smith at Edinburgh Business School who started this ball rolling in 2008 with their £850,000 purchase must now wonder if they will ever see the restoration of Panmure House in their professional lifetimes. But this is Edinburgh, a city where barely a brick can be laid upon another without a disputatious caravan of planning and heritage vigilantes.

Hugh Garratt, external project manager for the refurbishment, opens the narrow door and switches off the alarm. We push in, soaked by the driving rain and immediately enter a time warp. But which time?

Panmure House is a wreck and a ruin. There is nothing internally that remotely relates to the period when Adam Smith lived. But nothing prepares you for the sense of emptiness and abandonment. The pastel coloured walls are bare and in the main ground floor room parts of the plaster have been removed to probe the stonework beneath.

Ironically it was its previous use as a remand home that enabled its survival. Had it not been converted into a reform school in the 1950s – a scheme championed by the minister of the nearby Canongate Kirk and financed by The Scotsman’s then proprietor Roy Thomson – it would have been demolished: there would have been no Panmure House to rescue.

Today you would need a vault of the imagination to envisage that this was where contemporaries of Adam Smith would meet for Sunday lunch and discourse.

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How unwelcoming is the main entrance; how derelict the main ground floor room; how grudging and awkward the floor plan. The main door is too narrow for a wheelchair. The only internal stairway (not original) is cramped. There is no space for a lift. Thus, even before embarking on a total refit of the public rooms, the initial business of access presents a huge challenge.

Has nothing happened on this project? That’s not quite true. Planning protocols have happened. Procedures have happened. Serial objections from Historic Scotland have happened. A planning appeal has happened. Dismissal of Historic Scotland objections has happened. All this has taken time.

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The project does not lack support. The business school should have no difficulty raising international donations for the refurbishment, particularly from America and Asia. Stunning portrayals of the main rooms and their restoration are doing the rounds of overseas universities.

Locally, the building’s restoration, and with it the ability to attract academics and professional economists from around the world adds another key attraction in the city’s ambitions to develop this area as an international literary centre. It would link with the refurbishment of the Central Library, the National Library and the Poetry and Storytelling Centres to provide a cluster of attractions within walking distance of each other.

So why has it taken so long to obtain approvals – three years to get to this stage and as long again to move from approval to completion?

The chequered history of the building has presented big problems. A rare survival of a late-17th-century town house it may well be. But the interior has undergone many transformations since Smith’s tenancy. It has changed in footprint and elevation, and in usage has been variously an engineering storage shed, a borstal and residential accommodation when not lying idle and rotting. By the 1950s the building, according to a Historic Scotland summary, “was ruinous, vandalised and only stone stubs of the internal stair remained.”

“A long and dirty decline” is how external project manager Hugh Garratt describes it.

From the outset the refurbishment plan envisaged two large rooms – a library downstairs and a lecture room upstairs. To accommodate catering facilities, toilets, storage and caretaker office, much function has to be squeezed into little remaining space. And the refurbishment has to disguise energy-efficient heating (warm piped water from a 200ft borehole) and the latest in sophisticated communications technology as befits a global economics centre – all behind a George III period cladding.

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The architects, EK:JN, initially produced 17 different designs, keeping the two main rooms intact. As Garratt explains, “Something had to go outside. We concluded that the stairs could go outside and that needed an enclosure.

“We produced a design with a stair tower. Historic Scotland immediately objected. We worked up another 17 options, making 34 altogether.” The one adopted is an exciting and imaginative design with an external glass atrium to house the staircase. It maintains the exterior of the building without the removal of a single piece of masonry. It avoids the worst word in the Edinburgh heritage lexicon: pastiche. And the effect is if anything, to enhance the visual appeal of the existing stonework.

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The city council gave planning permission – overwhelmingly supported. However, HS still objected. EBS went for a public inquiry. Was the HS objection on heritage grounds – or aesthetics? At the heart of Historic Scotland is a library of documents comprising Scottish Historic Environment Policy, or SHEP. This enshrines guidance on historic buildings. And one of its protocols is that you cannot alter the front of a listed building.

But, Garratt stresses, not a single stone of the exterior is being altered. There was another troubling problem with the HS objection. Which was the “front” of Panmure House? The front in Adam Smith’s time was round the side. The front today is a 19th-century addition.

The HS objection held up the project by some 18 months while Edinburgh Business School had to meet its own costs of the planning inquiry, including barristers’ fees, even though HS lost its case wholesale.

Now there are plans by EBS director Chris Watkins, ex-Historic Scotland, for improvements to the area around the building. This is all to the good. A refurbished Panmure House would demand a more elegant approach from the Canongate than the current dispiriting passageways with peeling paintwork, refuse bags, wheelie bins and street litter.

The buildings nearby have no common purpose or architectural idiom. There is no vernacular to protect. It is a hotchpotch of building styles. There are some grim 1920s infill tenements, a block of flats designed by Sir Basil Spence, some nearby 1960s office buildings, and towards Calton Road, the sprawling new council offices. But the problem is that improvements to the external environment and approach will require yet another round of protocols and negotiations with planners and heritage bodies. Panmure House lies within the Old Town Conservation Area and Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

One by-product of the plans for external improvement is that they may involve a smaller glass encasement than currently approved, so there is a good chance in Garratt’s view, that HS might agree to the modified scheme. But securing these approvals, he reckons, could take another year. And without them the project would lose impact, elevation – and momentum.

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Refurbish Panmure House? It might have been quicker to rewrite The Wealth of Nations.