Shop, flat and offices, Comrie

M230 Shop, flat and offices, Comrie

Address: 1, Dunira Street, Comrie PH6 2LJ
Date: 1903–5
Client: Peter Macpherson
Authorship: Authorship category 1 (Mackintosh) (Mackintosh)

Colour photograph of front door to first-floor flat

Background

Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh's L-shaped corner block was designed to accommodate a number of uses: a village shop – a general store and drapers – for Messrs Brough & Macpherson on the ground floor, with two floors of living and work space above, plus a two-storey office for the solicitor John Peter Mitchell at the W. end of the Dunira Street front. The shop replaced an earlier one on the same site, destroyed in 1903 by a fire which also damaged the office. 1 Peter Macpherson, formerly a tenant in the building, bought the site and the fire-damaged structure, and by late July 1903 his solicitor, Mitchell, was in touch with Mackintosh about rebuilding the premises. 2

How Mackintosh came to be engaged on this job so far from Glasgow is not known. In mid-1903 he was as busy as he had ever been: supervising Miss Cranston's latest lunch and tea rooms on Sauchiehall Street, starting work on Scotland Street Public School, overseeing The Hill House and working on a bedroom for an exhibition in Dresden. Personal connections may have led him to undertake this modest commission in rural Perthshire, but none have come to light.

Sepia photograph of Dunira Street, Comrie, looking E. B/W photograph of Dunira Street Cross and Drummond Street, Comrie, looking E.

Documentation

No drawings for the project are known, but a great deal of background information is contained in a series of letters from Mitchell to Mackintosh. 3 The survival of this type of documentation is unusual for a Mackintosh building. Although Mackintosh's side of the correspondence has not been preserved, the letters give the impression of a co-operative and harmonious relationship between architect and client. It appears Mitchell acted not only on behalf of Macpherson but also as project manager for Mackintosh, who seems to have visited Comrie rarely. Mitchell's letters show that Mackintosh wrote to Macpherson directly, as well as to Mitchell, but it always seems to have been Mitchell who replied, often reporting Macpherson's opinions and suggestions. Drawings were sent to Comrie, where alterations were added in pencil before they were returned to Glasgow. 4

The client's wish to keep costs down is a recurrent theme of the correspondence. At the outset, prior to the acceptance of tenders, Mitchell explained that Macpherson could afford to spend 1100 or 1200, but anything more would be 'tying a millstone round his neck', and he suggested ways of reducing expenditure, for instance by using local tradesmen and local materials. 5 According to the entry in Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh's job book, the accepted tenders amounted to over 2100, but in the end just over 1000 was paid to the contractors. This suggests that a reduction in the scale or elaboration of the work was agreed. A misunderstanding over fees occurred when Mackintosh submitted his final account in autumn 1905, but the bill was settled, and Mitchell expressed regret that 'any difference of opinion should have arisen', remarking that the 'building seems to me to be quite a success'. 6

Exterior

The style – simple, roughcast vernacular with steep, slated roofs – recalls the previous buildings on the site, as recorded in a mid 19th-century photograph. By the time of the fire, the walls had been smoothly rendered and the windows given decorative architraves, but in his rebuilding Mackintosh reverted to the earlier, plainer treatment. How far this represents his own wishes and how far those of his client is not clear, but Macpherson certainly requested the use of roughcast, possibly for reasons of economy.

The roof level steps up towards the corner, where a broad first-floor turret and unusually tall, tapering chimney make a focal point. They recall Mackintosh's contemporary houses Windyhill and The Hill House, albeit on a more modest scale. Curiously, the turret does not overhang the corner but is set back slightly from it, as if pushed into the building. Its conical roof has a shallow pitch, closer to the garden tool shed at The Hill House than to Scottish Baronial examples. The roof line is enlivened at the W. end of the Dunira Street front by two small, blind dormers with curved coping, the room within the roof being lit by a N.-facing dormer at the rear. 7

B/W photograph of Drummond Street, Comrie, looking E.Colour photograph of S. and E. elevationsColour photograph of N. and E. elevations

Interior

Shop

Steel beams on cast-iron columns (encased in wood to over half their height) support the upper storeys, giving a large, flexible space for the shop floor. The U-shaped counter runs around three sides, between the columns. In the N.E. corner a glazed partition encloses an office. Doors in the N. and W. walls lead to storerooms under the stairs and to older buildings at the rear. The vertically-panelled teak counters are incised at regular intervals with a flat-iron shape, appropriate for a draper's business. The walls are lined with deep shelves, also teak, for which Mitchell supplied the necessary measurements on Macpherson's behalf. Macpherson specifically requested that the glass panels giving access to the shop windows from inside should be made to slide. 8 The exterior and interior doors have two different designs of inset rectangular and square panels, some of the upper panels being glazed.

Colour photograph of structural columns in shopColour photograph of shop counterColour photograph of front door of shopColour photograph of storeroom door in shop

Flat

Wooden stairs, shared by the neighbouring offices, lead to the two-bedroomed flat on the first floor above the shop, where part of the main living room occupies the turret. 9 The street door has nine inset retangular panels with three clear glass panels above, while the flat's own door has vertical panels with three square panels of yellow glass above. The internal doors – panelled in a similar way, but not glazed – have concave jambs, a feature also employed slightly earlier at The Mary Acre, Brechin. The hallway is lit by a lattice skylight, an echo of the near-contemporary open lattice ceiling in the mezzanine gallery at the Willow Tea Rooms.

Colour photograph of inside of front doorColour photograph of front door to first-floor flatColour photograph of roof light in flat hall

Both the living room and large bedroom have mantelpieces by Mackintosh. The one in the living room is more elaborate, with two shelves between wide, splayed jambs. The lower shelf has sinuous curves on the underside, symmetrical about a central inverted tear-drop shape. It is slightly wider than the chimney breast, possibly a miscalculation on Mackintosh's part. The simpler bedroom mantelpiece has flat jambs, and a shelf on brackets with three incised tongue shapes below. Mantelpieces in the kitchen and smaller bedroom were removed in 1985 (see 'Later alterations' below). The living room and large bedroom have moulded plaster cornices of traditional form, which contrast with Mackintosh's unconventional detailing elsewhere.

Colour photograph of inside the turret in the sitting roomColour photograph of sitting room fireplaceColour photograph of bedroom fireplace in flat

Offices

After the fire, the surviving W. section of the building was entirely occupied by the offices of solicitor John P. Mitchell (later Mitchell & Thomson). 10 A survey made in 1980, when the firm was still operating, shows two inter-connecting rooms on each floor. A small rear projection contained a ground-floor W.C. and a safe above. 11 The ground-floor rooms were perhaps public offices, those above for private use, and each was accessed from the common stair that also served the flat over the shop. Original mantelpieces survive in the two first-floor rooms, similar in design to that in the large bedroom in the flat, except that in the S. room the tongue shapes are in relief rather than recessed.

Colour photograph of first-floor fireplace 1 in former offices/cottageColour photograph of first-floor fireplace 2 in former offices/cottage

Second floor

Two workshops were provided above the shop and flat, for tailors and cutters who presumably supplied clothing to Brough & Macpherson's shop. They were accessed via an external stair at the rear, which led to a door in the N. gable. Now removed, the stair was perhaps of iron or timber. The rooms were lit by roof lights, and there was a W.C. in the corrugated metal dormer on the W. side.

The attic room above the offices extends over the common stair. At the time of the 1980 survey, it was reached via a hatch in the hallway of the flat. 12

Colour photograph of second-floor door and former location of external stair

Later alterations

Mackintosh's building at Comrie was 'discovered' in the 1960s, when research by Alexander Smellie(former draughtsman with Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh, later Keppie Henderson) and building inspector Alfred Lochhead drew it to the attention of the architectural historian David Walker. 13 Walker wrote about the building in 1968, but no major publications have mentioned it since. It was listed in 1971. 14

Subsequent interest from Alastair Kirsop, a student at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, and from the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, led the owners of the flat to approach the Landmark Trust when selling their home in 1984. 15 The Trust had already converted a large part of the second floor of The Hill House into a holiday flat, and in 1985 they acquired the Comrie flat for the same purpose. It was restored to something like its original state by architect Stewart Todd, who had previously worked for the Trust at The Hill House. Structural work included blocking off the attic above the offices and creating a hatch in the ceiling of the flat kitchen, giving access to the former workshops. Mantelpieces in the kitchen and small bedroom were removed. Electric heaters were installed in each room. A new kitchen, sympathetic in design, was built by Samuel Carmichael & Sons of Comrie, the same firm that carried out the original building work in 1903. During redecoration original distemper and wallpaper were found in the kitchen and the latter was preserved in situ. Original dark green stained woodwork on the back of the living room door and mantelpiece was used as a guide for restaining other doors, mantelpieces and the wooden floors. 16

Colour photograph of sample of original wallpaper in flat kitchen

In 1986 the shop was also purchased by the Landmark Trust but no alterations were made to it. 17

After Mitchell & Thomson closed in 1990, their offices were converted into a self-contained cottage. A complete internal refurbishment was proposed as early as 1991, but it is not known whether any work was carried out at this date. 18 In 2006, architects Woodside Parker of Bridge of Earn, Perthshire, proposed blocking up the first-floor door from the common stair and inserting an L-shaped stair within the former offices, connecting the two floors internally. 19 The arrangement in 2011 is somewhat different: the former office door on the ground floor has been blocked up and the cottage is entered at first-floor level from the common stair. The first floor is an open-plan kitchen and living room, in which the two original mantelpieces have been retained. There is a W.C. at the rear. A new internal L-shaped stair leads down to two ground-floor bedrooms with an en suite shower and spa bath.

A report on the condition of the building was produced as part of the Mackintosh Buildings Survey, led by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society and carried out between 2015 and 2016. 20

Notes:

1: Strathearn Herald, 30 May 1903.

2: Mackintosh's letter of 27 July 1903 is referred to in two from Mitchell. Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 10, MS114/1/10, 28 July 1903; vol. 12, MS114/1/12, 16 November 1905.

3: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 10, MS114/1/10, 28 July 1903, 1 August 1903, 21 August 1903, 3 September 1903, 8 October 1903, 9 November 1903, 17 November 1903; letter book 11, MS114/1/11, 16 December 1903, 18 December 1903; 18 January 1904, 26 January 1904, 22 March 1904, 2 August 1904; letter book 12, MS114/1/12, 9 March 1905, 15 March 1905, 1 April 1905, 31 May 1905, 16 November 1905, 20 January 1906.

4: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 10, MS114/1/10, 3 September 1903.

5: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 10, 28 July 1903; 17 November 1903; vol. 11, MS114/1/11, 16 December 1903.

6: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 12, MS114/1/12, 16 November 1905; 20 January 1906.

7: A photograph of Dunira Street taken by George Washington Wilson (d. 1908) in the years following completion of the Mackintosh building shows the blind dormers. University of Aberdeen Library and Historic Collections: George Washington Wilson Collection, MS 3792/C5622.

8: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 11, MS114/1/11, 22 March 1904.

9: Making the stairs of wood rather than stone was one of the cost-saving measures suggested by Mitchell, prior to the acceptance of tenders in January 1904. Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, letter book 11, MS114/1/11, 16 December 1903.

10: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson solicitors, MS114.

11: Alastair Kirsop, 'The Mackintosh Building, Comrie', Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow: unpublished undergraduate thesis, 1980.

12: Alastair Kirsop, 'The Mackintosh Building, Comrie', Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow: unpublished undergraduate thesis, 1980, p. 27.

13: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: letter from David Walker to Mackintosh Architecture project team, 26 January 2011; 'Alfred George Lochhead', Dictionary of Scottish Architects, 1840–1980, www.scottisharchitects.org.uk [accessed 8 June 2011].

14: David Walker, 'Charles Rennie Mackintosh', Architectural Review, 144, November 1968, pp. 355ff.; Historic Scotland Listed Building Report, no. 5393, 5 October 1971.

15: Alastair Kirsop, 'The Mackintosh Building, Comrie', Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow: unpublished undergraduate thesis, 1980; James Stevens Curl, 'Comrie', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 5, Autumn 1974, p. 2; A. V. J. T., 'Mackintosh Flat, Comrie', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 40, Summer 1985, p. 4; Landmark Trust information booklet in the flat, p. 1.

16: Landmark Trust information booklet in the flat, pp. 1–2.

17: Landmark Trust information booklet in the flat, p. 1.

18: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: letter and details of initial telephone call from David Pender, McArthur, Stewart & Co., Oban to Pamela Robertson, January 1991.

19: Perth & Kinross Council Archive: Mitchell & Thomson, Solicitors, MS114; The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: letters between Philip C. Parker, architect, and Pamela Robertson, curator, March and April 2006, and plan of proposed refurbishment.

20: A copy of the report (MBS36) is held by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, Mackintosh Queen's Cross, 870 Garscube Road, Glasgow G20 7EL. The Mackintosh Buildings Survey was funded by The Monument Trust.