Mall is beautiful: Argyll Arcade returns to golden days

A £750,000, two-year conservation programme has returned the Argyll Arcade in Glasgow, the oldest covered shopping mall in Scotland, to its former glory

FOR almost 200 years it has been a jewel in Scotland's architectural crown and a magnet for shoppers. Today, Argyll Arcade, in the heart of Glasgow, remains almost intact, the oldest covered shopping mall in Scotland, well known for its jewellery shops. Its iconic architecture had slowly been concealed beneath decades of patch-repairs, alterations, dirt and general neglect. However, a 750,000, two-year conservation programme is about to be completed, which will see the mall, built in 1827, returned to its original pomp and splendour.

Gone is its decades-old black-and-white paint scheme, replaced with the arcade's original cream and dark green colours, with the ceiling roses and details picked out in gold, and some of its unique architectural features have been reinstated.

The L-shaped arcade was built in the Parisian style and cut through old tenements, creating a short-cut between Argyle Street and Buchanan Street. Designed by John Baird, who was responsible for a number of significant buildings in Glasgow, it was notable for the novel use of cast iron in its construction. The glass roof, for example, is supported with ornate hammerbeam roof trusses.

One of the earliest examples of covered shopping malls, it predates the Central Arcade in Newcastle-on-Tyne by almost a century, and was created before the first of several built in Cardiff.

Gordon Urquhart, of the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, which gave 200,000 to the restoration, says: "The fact that it was a covered mall was quite revolutionary at the time for Scotland and it's something that later architects tried to pick up on. There were various plans by Alexander 'Greek' Thomson to glaze over different streets in Glasgow.

"It's the oldest surviving indoor shopping precinct – 150 years before you had all these out-of-town shopping precincts, you had this in-town shopping mall."

Beyond its architectural uniqueness, the Argyll Arcade offered Glasgow's shoppers a diverse experience, from dressmakers and milliners to toy makers and jewellers.

To this day, it still contains one of the entrances to Sloan's Bar, one of the city's oldest pubs, dating back to 1797 and has long a favourite place for couples to celebrate having chosen an engagement ring in one of the arcade's jewellers.

Another popular but long-vanished business was the Clyde Model Dockyard that was a magnet for children throughout the 19th and into 20th century, selling high-quality train sets and reproductions of ships.

The Buchanan Street side of the arcade was also home to the grand Wylie Hills department store, which at Easter would often have an incubator full of chicks placed in its toy department.

However, the arcade was also at the centre of a bizarre and controversial case in 1838 that ended in disgraced members of the 15th Hussars cavalry regiment, who were barracked in Glasgow at the time, being banished to a posting in India.

It began when, as part of a wager, one Lieutenant Knox, fully armed with his lance, carbine and sabre, galloped his charger through the arcade, leaving a trail of terrified and stunned shoppers in his wake.

Outraged at this behaviour, the arcade's builder John Robertson Reid, had the officer brought before the local sitting magistrate, who severely censured Knox and fined him 5. The soldier paid on the spot and left the court laughing with his cavalry colleagues. Furious at this outcome, Reid started a newspaper campaign demanding a greater penalty, resulting in a full regimental inquiry, which concluded that Knox and his cronies were guilty and gave them an immediate posting to Madras.

Despite its rich and colourful history, it was not until 1970 that the arcade was finally given category-A listed status, recognising its special architectural and historic national importance. But then decades of lack of care and inappropriate repairs began to take their toll. According to Niall Robertson, associate director of Jones Lang LaSalle, who oversaw the project, serious issues had to be addressed before the interiors could be touched.

"When we took over as property managers in 2008, I was asked to do a building survey and this uncovered some key areas of major concern," he says. "I have to say that I was shocked – there were structural issues; live electricity on the roof – so we had to make sure everything was safe and watertight." A UPVC gutter that had been fitted along the edge of the pitched glass roof had burst, sending water cascading over the loose wiring strung along the length of the roof and into the roof space of the shops.

"It had burst joints everywhere, water pouring in," says Robertson. "A number of shops had water absolutely saturating the place. It was a common sight to see buckets throughout the malls. That was the first thing we had to address, making it watertight."

Once that was done, making good on the existing damage was a pressing issue. "The weather had particularly affected the roof timbers, so there was a degree of decay and also there was a lot of sprung joints to the roof trusses, so left untreated, there was potential for some of them collapsing, so there was a major health and safety issue.

"The other thing is that it's a cast iron structure holding up the roof, and it had been eaten away by the wind and rain, and lack of attention to preservation. It had just been left untreated in parts, so we had to expose and protect it."

Once the fabric repairs were completed the arcade's interior was addressed, but the building's age meant that, beyond some photographs, there was little in the way of archive records to guide the internal restoration, requiring a little detective work by the developers.

"We carried out historic paint sampling on the interior arcade, specialists came and they used a scalpel to lift samples to take away and they discovered there were 15 coats of paint dating back to 1827 when the mall was first constructed," says Robertson, adding that they found at one point that much of the mall had been painted a deep shade of green. Thus the hammerbeam trusses were picked out in their original colour of "leaf green", while the walls were made "light ivory".

It was during the survey that the most surprising discovery of the whole conservation project was made and the one that constitutes perhaps the most significant change: cast-iron "fish scale" panels that sat in a gap between the walls of the arcade and its glazed ceiling were found hidden behind plywood boards.

According to Jones, this striking feature had been obscured by past efforts to keep the Scottish winter out.

"The panels had been concealed for 30 years behind plywood," he says. "I discovered them when I went up on to the roof and saw this beautiful feature was being concealed, rusting away. What they used to do 30 or 40 years ago was take the plywood off during the summer when it was milder, but when winter came, they would put the plywood back up to stop the draughts coming through."

For whatever reason, though, the practice of removing the boards was abandoned and the panels left to corrode unseen.

The plywood has now been cleared, the panels repaired and restored – a concession to 21st-century technology is the insertion of protective clear polycarbonate sheets behind them – effectively restoring the light and ambience that had been part of Baird's original vision for the arcade.

Another key feature of the mall that has been restored is the line of large hanging-globe gaslights that run the length of the mall. The original manufacturer was tracked down and commissioned to create 21st-century versions of the lights, incorporating emergency lighting – something that the arcade had in the past done without – and a halo of twinkling LEDs, a nod to the arcade's historical association with jewellers.

With the finishing touches being added – the ceiling roses are being gilded this week, and the last two of the 33 shop owners need to be persuaded to adopt the "new" colour scheme – the picture- postcard of yesteryear will, hopefully, be evoked.

Certainly, for the Porter family it will in some way feel all too familiar, having held a shop in the arcade since 1887, when James Porter moved his watchmaking shop there.

Simon Porter, 37, is the fifth generation of his family to take on the role of managing James Porter & Son, having worked in the shop since 1991.

He says that the arcade had become increasingly "tired" looking, and feels that its heritage had been overlooked: "I think it is the case that it hasn't been appreciated. It hasn't even appeared on some tourist maps before but really it is so unique that everyone should know it's there.

"I've been going in here since I was a boy, but sometimes I forget that the place is so special because I've grown up with it. You start taking it for granted and it's only when other jewellery suppliers visit the place and they can't believe the place is so beautiful."

For Urquhart and the Trust, the hope is that once again visitors to the arcade will come to look at more than just the countless diamonds that sparkle in its windows: "It's not just important to the trust but to the city as well. It's one of the icons of retailing to Glasgow if not the whole of Scotland.

"We hope that with the fresh paint scheme the panels exposed and everything looking neat and tidy, it will make people stop and stare."