Saving Panmure House: Podcast on the rich history, sad decline and remarkable renewal of Adam Smith’s final home

The ten-year renovation of Adam Smith's last surviving residence to create a home for modern debate in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment is recounted in a new podcast

Panmure House in Edinburgh, where the great philosopher and economist lived for 12 years until his death there in 1790, was disused and in danger of dereliction when Edinburgh Business School (part of Heriot Watt University) bought it from the city council in 2008.

After a complex, decade-long renovation project, Adam Smith's Panmure House was opened in 2018 as a centre to debate the biggest challenges of the 21st century in the spirit of Smith and his contemporaries. Five years later, the podcast marks the 300th anniversary of Smith’s birth in 1723 - and the rebirth of his former home.

Panmure House, just off the Royal Mile and close to Canongate Kirk, was built in 1691 and occupied from 1696 by the wealthy Panmure family.

Saving Panmure House: how a "neglected, abandoned and depressing" #Edinburgh building became a project which "exceeded my wildest dreams"Saving Panmure House: how a "neglected, abandoned and depressing" #Edinburgh building became a project which "exceeded my wildest dreams"
Saving Panmure House: how a "neglected, abandoned and depressing" #Edinburgh building became a project which "exceeded my wildest dreams"

The property had passed to a cousin, the Earl of Dalhousie, when Smith rented it in 1778, and lived there with mother Margaret and his cousin and housekeeper, Janet Douglas.

He wrote new volumes of masterworks, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, while living at Panmure House - where he entertained Enlightenment contemporaries including James Hutton and Edmund Burke for suppers, to debate great issues of the day.

Smith ordered a large number of unfinished works to be burned before he died in the house in 1790. Panmure House was reduced in size and was purchased for use as office for a foundry in 1838. Its varied uses included a centre for Canongate Boys' Club after a 1950s renovation, but it had been empty for some years when Edinburgh Business School purchased it in 2008.

An initial plan to create a 'glass box' with a stairwell on the outside of the building was proposed and finally passed after a long planning dispute - but then shelved after Chris Watkins took over as Project Director in 2011.

In the podcast, Mr Watkins, former head of major projects for Historic Scotland, describes the building when he first saw it.

“It was neglected and abandoned,” he says. “It was boarded up, rain had been coming in and pigeons had got in so the modern plasterboard ceiling had collapsed.

“The basement had been beautifully vandalised and had a whole load of spray-painted slogans. It was quite a depressing building.”

After rejecting the ‘glass box’, Mr Watkins selected a scheme that involved digging down into the basement of the building to provide a home for toilets, kitchens, storage and other support facilities - allowing the upper rooms to be recreated in the spirit of Smith.

“It was incredibly hard work in the basement,” says Mr Watkins. “You're basically putting another building underneath the existing one, while making sure the existing one doesn't collapse. They worked away in unpleasant conditions, because the original basement is quite small….and all the material had to be taken out by hand.”

There was also significant work to be done on the interior after the 1950s renovation left no original features. Architect Jon Newey, who worked on the project from 2008-2018, says: “It was quite normal in those days to rip out all of the historic features and replace them with things that were new and modern and fresh. All of the internal finishes had gone - it was woodchip wallpaper, lino on the floors, Formica on the desktops, all very 1950s.”

Interior brick walls also had to be removed, while the exterior of the building had also suffered, with concrete used to repair chimneys and the old stonework in a bad state.

Despite major progress, the project had stalled when Heather McGregor became Executive Dean of Edinburgh Business School in 2016.

In the podcast, she recalls: “In the balance sheet, there was a £3 million ‘work in progress’. I thought ‘Well, what's this?’

“I asked the university and they said this is a house we own in the middle of Edinburgh where we’ve run out of money and run out of work, and don't really know what to do. We think we might sell it. Oh, by the way, it’s where Adam Smith used to live. I couldn’t believe it! I thought if I don't do something with this, it’s gonna sit on my desk and drive me mad.”

Within 45 days, workers broke ground on the project again and Panmure House was opened in 2018 by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Heather McGregor said although funding was a challenge, moving the project forward was more about hearts and minds.

“It was about getting them to realise that if we did finish the project, it would become what it has …. a centre of extraordinary debate about the future challenges of the world.

“It was a unique opportunity for [Heriot-Watt] University - one thing we can do that nobody else can. And the project has exceeded my wildest dreams; it’s probably the highlight of my entire professional career. I hope to have contributed to something that will serve Scotland and the people of Scotland for generations to come.”

Caroline Howitt, Programme Director at Panmure House, says the building is realising its vision to shape debate in the spirit of Adam Smith, especially after the arrival of Professor Adam Dixon as the first Chair on Sustainable Capitalism.

She explains: “The 300th birthday of Adam Smith is a very important year for us, not just from a celebration perspective, but a step change in our project as well. Our hope is that Adam Dixon and his team pick up where Smith left off and produce research here at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in much the same manner as Smith and his contemporaries did at the very dawn of the first industrial revolution.

“London has Chatham House [and now] Edinburgh has Panmure House and we want nothing less than to revive the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment. Within the next five years, no great thinker should come to Scotland, without coming here to speak at Panmure House and get involved with our mission in some way.”

Dr Howitt said the renovation of the building had blended “attention to 18th century detail and the kind of modernity that's required for today's audiences”.

“We have a beautiful pencheck stone staircase, very fitting for the 18th century but we also have a disabled access lift. There's gorgeous tulipwood panelling throughout the house, but behind that panelling you'll find 92-inch television screens"

Dr Howitt added: “This beautiful blend of the historic and the modern is designed to make Adam Smith and his legacy much more accessible to a wider audience here in the 21st century.”

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