Obituary: Desmond Hodges OBE, architect and director of the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee

Desmond Hodges, new director of the Edinburgh New Town Association in February 1972.
Desmond Hodges, new director of the Edinburgh New Town Association in February 1972.
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Born: 25 September, 1928, in Dublin. Died: 26 November, 2012 in Haddington, aged 84.

A few years before Desmond Hodges arrived in Edinburgh, the capital celebrated the bi-centennial of the New Town with an exhibition, 200 Summers in a City.

But the once-glorious Georgian architecture was by then in such a sad state of disrepair that the architect behind the show warned that, unless the area was protected, there was every prospect that in a century’s time a similar event would be called 100 Winters in a Wasteland.

Call it serendipity, fate or just good luck that brought Hodges to Scotland soon afterwards to take up the role that would make him one of the saviours of such an important architectural gem and lead directly to its World Heritage site status.

Already experienced in Georgian architecture, through his upbringing in Dublin and work in Belfast, in the early 1970s, he found himself in Ulster, at the height of The Troubles, where work was scarce.

And so he applied, though not really expecting to be successful, for the newly created post of director of the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee (ENTCC). The outsider’s charm, vision and enthusiasm won the day and a new era in Edinburgh’s architectural history was about to unfold.

Born in Dublin, he was the son and grandson of clergymen and a descendant of one of the city’s 19th-century Lord Mayors, metalworker William Hodges.

He grew up walking daily through the Georgian streets and, when his father was appointed Bishop of Limerick, was educated as a boarder at St Columba’s, Rathfarnham. He went on, briefly, to study history at Trinity College, Dublin, but left university to take up an apprenticeship at an architectural practice owned by one of his father’s friends. The firm dealt with, among other things, the restoration of 18th-century public buildings.

He qualified as a member of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, moved north to join a firm in Belfast and later set up an office with a fellow architect. Hodges, whose significant works included the churches of the Annunciation and St Dorothea’s, Belfast, also set up home above the office with his wife Margaret after their marriage in 1965.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, concern was growing, among a small number of conservationists, over the deterioration of the New Town, which then was not anything like as highly valued as it is today. Houses around St James’ Square were about to be demolished and the St James shopping centre and New St Andrew’s House built in their place. The so-called “tattered fringe”, of slum tenements in areas such as Stockbridge, was in a bad state of repair and a number of streets and historic buildings were at risk of ­demolition.

But by the early 1970s, attitudes were changing: Sir Robert Matthew was appointed conservation adviser to the secretary of state and he began to drive forward the idea of preserving the New Town. The findings of a condition survey of the area, which stressed the need for regular maintenance, were presented to an international conference in 1970 and by ­December that year the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee, which included Sir Robert, was being established. The venture offered grants to property owners and expert advice on external repairs and Hodges ­became its first full-time director in 1972.

He had previously helped to found the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, where he had already honed his diplomatic skills, using hospitality and charm, to disarm the opposition.

He enthusiastically continued this crucial charm ­offensive in Edinburgh, where the New Town community, who required to be persuaded of his wisdom, encompassed many strata of society – not all of them with the funds required.

In the early days, one impoverished tenant – an artist – funded his contribution to the conservation effort by painting and selling images of the New Town. The first completed project was at 23 Fettes Row and was ­officially unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1975. Hodges oversaw a total of 1,233 repair projects between 1972 and his retiral in 1994. Today, the brown plaques which mark repaired buildings can still be seen throughout the New Town.

One of the biggest successes of the ENTCC was the maintenance manual Care and Conservation of Georgian Houses, which he was instrumental in developing. It quickly became a model for others and today is still regarded as the authority on the detail of Georgian houses. Hodges also established Scotland Yard, an architectural salvage facility which provided examples of original fittings.

The work carried out in the New Town has been formally recognised by the European Community as a valuable part of Europe’s heritage, being awarded the Europa Nostra silver medal in 1988 for an “outstanding example of 
co-ordinated rehabilitation and maintenance management in an area of high architectural values”.

As a direct result of the success of the ENTCC under Hodges’ innovative leadership, the Old and New Towns were awarded World Heritage Site status in 1995. Four years later, the ENTCC and the Old Town Renewal Trust merged to form Edinburgh World Heritage.

Hodges had hoped to live permanently in the New Town but, after an initial stay in Gloucester Place and with house prices rising rapidly, he and his family moved to Shandon where he advised Merchiston Community Council on many projects and got involved in the Canal Society. He was also a member of St John’s Church, served on the vestry, was in charge of the fabric and instituted the guardians or welcomers.

An Irishman with a twinkle and a certain unorthodoxy of approach, he also had a modesty that would no doubt have precluded him from agreeing that, along with a handful of others, he was one of the saviours of the New Town. That it looks as it does today – a splendid, thriving and desirable place – is his legacy.

He is survived his wife Margaret, daughters Penelope and Lucy and four grandchildren.