IT WAS once almost lost by its owner in a game of cards but then became the headquarters of the pre-crash Royal Bank of Scotland for almost 200 years.
Now the former home of the mighty bank in St Andrew Square, central Edinburgh, could be turned into a hotel, department store or private residences.
Documents lodged with the city council reveal that the bank is considering putting its site at 36 St Andrew Square forward for redevelopment to coincide with the forthcoming overhaul of the nearby St James Centre.
Consultants acting on behalf of the bank say RBS would “welcome the opportunity” for talks with the council about the site, on the eastern side of the square, next to the Harvey Nichols store.
It has even suggested that the development be used to help create links between the new St James Quarter and St Andrew Square, now a visitor attraction after its central garden was opened to the public.
The RBS building was built for wealthy merchant Lawrence Dundas and completed in 1774. It has been the bank’s registered head office since 1828 but lost most of its functions when the bank’s new global HQ opened at Gogarburn in 2005.
RBS, which previously sold a neighbouring building to Hearts FC owner Vladimir Romanov, says it has “no plans” at present to leave the site – to which it has an “emotional attachment” – or to close its branch there. However RBS, owned by the taxpayer since being bailed out by the government in 2008 and which posted a £348 million first quarter loss on Friday, is still in the process of reducing its costs.
According to a document lodged by consultancy GVA Grimley with the council, which is consulting on a long-term blueprint for the future of the city: “36 St Andrew Square is RBS’s registered head office and comprises Dundas House, with modern office buildings to the rear.
“St Andrew Square is positioned within an area of significant change in the city centre lying within the St James Quarter,” it says. “Given the above, RBS recognises that the site could provide an opportunity for new mixed uses at St Andrew Square and an opportunity to link to the new quarter redevelopment to the east.
“The activation of current dead routes and spaces, particularly at the rear of the site, could create opportunities for new commercial/residential uses at the RBS property.”
Designed by Edinburgh architect William Chambers, and modelled on the Palladian villa of Marble Hill, in Twickenham, it was built on the site of what was envisaged as a new St Andrew’s church in James Craig’s original plans for the New Town. Dundas got a sneak preview of Craig’s plans and got in first to build a mansion, which is now a Grade A listed building.
It is recorded that Dundas once nearly lost it gambling but he managed to hang on to his family home. It was sold after his death in 1781 to the government for £10,000 and later bought by the bank for around £35,000.
In 1828, it was unveiled as the new RBS headquarters and a domed banking hall with star-shaped windows in the ceiling – which is featured on every RBS banknote – was added in 1857.
With the St James Quarter development, a huge transformation is expected east of St Andrew Square with the demolition of the old Scottish Office headquarters and more than 90 new shops, apartments and a hotel. City council insiders said hotel developments were proving the most viable to developers in the current market, with a lack of suitable sites still the main stumbling block.
“St Andrew Square is a very attractive location because Harvey Nichols is there now, as well as Multrees Walk, and it is much more pleasant since the garden was opened it. It is also right on the tram route,” said one such insider.
Stewart Taylor, a director at planning agents CBRE, said: “The issue with 36 St Andrew Square will be in finding out what restrictions there will be on converting an older building like this. The square has undergone huge changes in the last few years and a hotel is the most obvious thing to do with a building like that.”
Euan Leitch, assistant director of the Cockburn Association, which monitors the use of historic buildings in Edinburgh, said: “The loss of a city institution from a building that it has been its headquarters for almost two centuries would be regrettable but arguably it could be an opportunity for a sensitive conversion to another use.”