It was a birthday party with a difference. Around 200 invited guests had gathered to view the restoration of one of Glasgow’s most celebrated architectural masterpieces on the 150th anniversary of its designer’s birth.
The venue was the original Willow Tea Rooms building at 217 Sauchiehall Street, first opened in 1903, and the architect responsible was of course Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Today was the first time the interior of the restaurant had been seen since a two-year £10m refurbishment project began to restore its Edwardian grandeur, a reminder of a time when Glasgow was considered the second city of the British Empire.
The A-listed art nouveau building is the only surviving example of a tearoom designed in its entirety by Mackintosh, who oversaw the look of everything from windows to teaspoons.
“The intention was always to reopen this iconic masterpiece as a living, breathing museum - not something cast in aspic,” said Celia Sinclair, chairwoman of the Willow Tea Rooms Trust, which oversaw the interior restoration following a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“The aim is not just to preserve one of Mackintosh’s finest buildings, but to inspire the next generation of artists, architects and entrepreneurs and to create civic pride among Glasgow folk.”
She continued: “I’ve always been surprised at how much more popular Mackintosh is abroad than in his native country. For a long time, he was neglected by his fellow Scots. Even at the start of this project, I was amazed by the lack of interest I encountered.
“Mackintosh was a man ahead of his time and Glasgow should be proud of him.”
Among the interiors to be restored is the second floor Salon de Luxe, which was designed as “a fantasy for afternoon tea”. The original Mackintosh-designed doors to the intimate dining room have been insured for £1.5m.
But not everything in the tearoom - which will now be known as Mackintosh at the Willow - is original. More than 250 pieces of new handcrafted furniture, finished with six layers of lacquer and varnish - were ordered to Mackintosh’s original specifications.
Windows have been set-back to their original positions, reversing alterations made in the 1930s, and a neighbouring building has been purchased to become a new visitor centre and shop, which is planned to open at the end of July.
The tearoom will reopen in stages, catering for pre-booked groups throughout June before a public opening from July 2. The official reopening is due to take place in September.