text and photos by Jeeves
Little did I realise that when on a short break to the Granite City to research my family history that I would find a wealth of Art Deco architecture – with some buildings well-preserved and others in need of some loving restoration.
After taking the Jet 727 bus from the airport and travelling for twenty minutes towards the city you find yourself in the City suburb of Kittybrewster. Located here is the OYO Northern Hotel dating to 1938 and designed by the architect A.G.R. Mackenzie of A. Marshall Mackenzie & Son. It replaced an earlier hotel that was destroyed by fire and was last renovated in 2008, retaining many of its original art deco features.
The hotel has Grade A Listed Building status from Historic Scotland and its original features include its curved facade, Crittall windows, a continuous balcony area on the first floor and a curved ballroom,with one of the largest dance floors in the city. The main entrance leads to reception and office, with a restaurant and bar to the left, and to the right the Astoria Dining Room, which is also a meeting room. On each of the three accommodation floors are some fine examples of Art Deco furnishings including several round display cabinets and period light fixtures and fittings. On the first floor the Mackenzie Room and adjoining ballroom make up a violin shaped function space, able to cater for up to 300 people.
Leaving the hotel and taking the number 23 bus to the city centre you will find that Union Street has a wealth of Deco architecture – some of which has been restored to a very high level and other buildings that need a helping hand.
The jewel in the crown is The Capitol, a former cinema and concert venue at 431 Union Street. The Capitol opened in February 1933 on the site of the former Electric Cinema. It had a seating capacity of 2100 and was built to the plans of Clement George and A.G.R. Mackenzie. In its day this was the most luxurious cinema in Aberdeen, boasting a Compton Organ and a Holophane lighting system.
The hallmark of Holophane lighting fixtures is the borosilicate glass reflector/refractor. They comprise glass prisms that provide a combination of up-light and down-light to illuminate any environment evenly without creating dark spots or glare.
The venue showed its final film in 1995 and closed in 1998, with the exception of the bar at the front of the building. In the early 2000s, The Capitol was converted into a nightclub. At this stage, the rear section of the building was largely remodelled and many of the remaining features removed. The nightclub closed in 2009. The Capitol is Category B listed and in 2013 planning permission was given to convert the building to office space for the Knight Property Group.
A ten-minute walk from The Capitol to the north is Rosemont Square which was considered a social experiment and a response by city architects to the legal requirement for better housing. It is a modernist version of the tenement block and was notably similar to other constructions found in Holland and Austria. This architecture was perfectly suited to the use of the ample granite resources of the city.
The flats were built in a horseshoe design which surrounded a central courtyard thus moving away from the usual back-alley design. Each of the three arched entrance access points carry sculptured panels by Thomas Huxley-Jones, then the head of sculpture at Gray’s School of Art. The panels are said to represent rain, wind and cold and at the time would have cost £500. The Square is constructed from Rubislaw granite, which the council insisted on using, with concrete balconies and other prefabricated details.
On Bon Accord Street to the south of Union Street is the former Jackson’s Garage car showroom – now a branch of Slater’s Menswear. This B-listed building curves into Langstane Place and has long metal-framed windows, a grand entrance which is topped with a bronze winged lantern and clock. Built in 1933-7 by S Gavin Williamson to the design of A.G.R.Mackenzie. The garage would originally have had showrooms at the front, with offices above and workshops behind. To the rear, in Bon Accord Square, the building sympathetically incorporates Archibald Simpson’s Georgian facade of 1823.
All three of the above buildings show a similar large-scale ocean liner façade built of the local Rubislaw granite, casting a towering dark image over the surroundings. All are within easy walking distance of each other, providing a glimpse into the Art Deco heritage in this northern city – many more are close at hand and will provide an insight into the city’s development in the early twentieth century.
Other buildings of note are Bon Accord Baths (1936) on Justice Mill Lane together with the Regent – later Odeon – Cinema (1932), now a health centre. The Majestic Cinema (1936) next to Pret A Manger and undergoing some ground floor restoration at the time of visit. The Beach Ballroom (1929) on Beach Promenade. And finally The Douglas Hotel (1856) which includes an art deco copper clad entrance canopy and is located on Market Street,
This sampling of Aberdeen’s inter-war architecture indicates that there is plenty to see for members planning an Art Deco weekend. Some of the prosperity generated by the oil industry has been reinvested in renovation. When one thinks that Aberdeen has three surviving Art Deco cinemas and most English councils seem uninterested in retaining even one in their area, Scottish claims to have a more enlightened approach may have more than a scintilla of truth.