A Landmark of Scottish Family Life: Why Visit Tenement House | Architecture

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Miss Agnes Toward was an accumulator. For more than 50 years, she stored old household bills, receipts, war leaflets, letters and personal papers. She also left her Glasgow flat virtually untouched. Her original gas lighting wasn’t replaced with an electric version until 1960, nearly five decades after she started living there.

Toward’s magpie habits and decorative restraint had remarkable consequences. Her carefully curated apartment and contents – period chairs and beds, old theater programs and perfume bottles – have been transformed into a residential time capsule. This is the Tenement House, part of a red sandstone block of flats built in the 1890s at 145 Buccleuch Street, where visitors can experience city life in central Scotland ago a century.

Agnes Toward’s dressing table in the Tenement House. Photograph: Neil Setchfield/Alamy

It has a kitchen with a large black coal stove, which also heated water for the rest of the apartment, and a recessed bed where a maid could have slept; the bathroom has a deep soaking tub with brass fittings and a high marble effect marble sink with mixer taps. A gleaming white bedspread covers the expanse of Toward’s elaborate brass queen bed.

The apartment comprises four rooms – a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom and a main room – which each open onto a square central hall (lobby). This was a basic design repeated by builders across the city in the Victorian era. My grandmother’s apartment had the exact same layout, adding an extra emotional texture to my frequent visits to the Tenement House.

Its wonders were first revealed after Toward’s death in 1975. Since then, many features have been restored, including the apartment’s original gaslight.

His personal paraphernalia was scattered discreetly in his rooms. These tell us that she was a stenographer who enjoyed musicals, took dancing lessons, engaged in religious activities and did not retire until 1959, when she reached the age of 73. year. She had a cat called Tibs and sent long news letters to her friends.

Like other buildings, you access his apartment from the street through a passage called close. This leads to the staircase and then, beyond that, to a door to a communal garden called the back green, where the laundry used to hang.

The Tenement House, Glasgow
The exterior of the Tenement House in Glasgow. The sandstone block of flats was built in the 1890s. Photograph: Marcin Klimek/National Trust for Scotland

Much of Glasgow’s social interaction took place within the fences, back greens, stairways and landings of its buildings. The neighbors met and chatted while at the back of the enclosure, far from the light, nocturnal amorous encounters were carried out by winching couples.

It was the life of a building and Toward’s flat is a monument to those buildings which over the years have housed millions of urban Scots, myself included. And on the whole, they made great homes for us, as Glasgow actor Peter Capaldi points out: “It was great to be brought up in a working-class building in Glasgow. It wasn’t miserable, and it wasn’t misery. It was very safe, full of delights.”

Today the buildings are often likened to slums and, admittedly, some of Glasgow was grim. However, as a rule, this is not true. Indeed, some have sprawling, elite apartments with half a dozen bedrooms – like those found in Hyndland, Kelvinside and other uptown areas of the city. However, others were more modest – like Toward’s first-floor apartment – but they were certainly not places of universal misery.

Agnes to
Agnes Toward has lived in the Tenement House for over 50 years. Photograph: National Trust for Scotland

Glasgow was once renowned for its Victorian architecture. This fame was based in part on its impressive public buildings, such as the magnificent Gothic university building by Gilbert Scott, but also on its long perspectives of elegant stone buildings, with large bay windows, which sweep across the city.

Unfortunately, these buildings were sacrificed in the 1960s and 1970s when it was decided to demolish the decaying buildings and move residents to high-rise buildings and housing, rather than renovate them. “Yet these buildings could have, with a little foresight, been rebuilt to provide permanent accommodation for their occupants,” laments Frank Worsdall in The Tenement: a way of life. The end result, he adds, was “the general hopelessness and helplessness of living in a high-rise building”.

Large swaths of Glasgow were sacrificed as buildings were demolished and motorways cut through the heart of the city. Victims of this civic vandalism included the apartment buildings across from Toward’s apartment. Luckily, its side of the road and its building were spared, thus preserving a remarkable testimony to a bygone way of life.

We should be grateful for this little piece of good fortune. Now run by the National Trust for Scotland, the Tenement House is a fascinating and eye-opening place to visit: a deeply personal experience on one level, but equally enjoyable as a look at how a city and its people lived and breathed. one century ago.

nts.org.uk/visit/places/the-tenement-house

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