by Stuart Ferguson
Edinburgh is not blessed with many Art Deco or Modernist buildings, but what it lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality.
St Andrew’s House, home of the Scottish Government and the Streamline Moderne Maybury Roadhouse, on the way into the city from the airport are the best examples of Art Deco public buildings. However, the magnificent Ravelston Garden apartment complex is completely unique within the city; wholly out of sync with the rest of the residential housing in Edinburgh is a shining example of the pioneering spirit of the period.
Ravelston Garden was Edinburgh’s first building in the modernist style and unusually perhaps, was not followed by other developments in the same style. The complex consists of three blocks of four storeys, with 16 generously proportioned apartments in each block, making 48 in total. All the apartments have the same layout, and each has its own garage. The three blocks making up the apartment complex are identical and symmetrical in every way. They have white, harled exteriors; harling being a type of surfacing applied to rough stone walls to protect them from the Scottish weather. It consisted of lime mortar mixed with small stones or shells being hurled or cast against the wall and producing a rough textured finish – a type of render.
In Above Edinburgh and South East Scotland, beside a wonderful aerial picture, the authors comment:
“Proving that Edinburgh was in touch with the very latest architectural ideas in the 1930s, these flats, which date from 1935-37, were among the first buildings to bring the International Style to the city. Slightly nautical in appearance, they had the attributes appropriate for modern living. They were white-painted, with suites of interconnecting rooms, and they were equipped with the latest gadgetry, such as lifts, and had roof gardens and servant’s quarters. We find ourselves here in the world of cloche hats, limousines and sun terraces: the architectural epitome of ‘fastness’.”
The design cannot be regarded as pure Streamline Moderne but there is definitely something of the Ocean Liner in the design: from the porthole shaped windows in the doors; the balconies resembling the open bridge on a ship; the communal main staircase and the four chimneystacks at the top of each block resembling the funnels of a liner. The nautical allusion is enhanced by the choice of sea green paint on the garage doors and other communal areas within the block.
The development was designed by Andrew Neil and Robert Hurd and was also known as the Jenners flats, after the managing agents. It is ‘A’ Listed by Historic Scotland, the highest category for “national and international importance” and no changes, whether external or internal, can be made without planning approval by the relevant authorities.
Charles McKean in his excellent Scottish Thirties book describes them as “Jaunty blocks of international style flats on a butterfly plan, complete with roof gardens, canopies, balconies, up-to-date labour saving devices and curving garages. Must have caused quite a stramash amongst the douce, opulent villas of the area”.
I admired these apartments from afar, never imagining that one day I would be an owner of one them; but when three flats came on the market at the same time, I had no second thoughts and bought one with a balcony; and which also retained most of the original features. For instance, the bedrooms in my apartment still have the wash hand basins as well as original cupboards and door handles.
The flats are marketed as three- bedroom units with lounge and inter-connecting dining room, kitchen, bathroom with toilet and an additional small toilet; it was unusual perhaps for a flat of this size at the time to have two toilets. The third bedroom is on the small side and it was only after I moved in that the reason why became clear.
In the small kitchen at the rear, I was amused to discover the feature tucked away above the door in a modernist 1930’s apartment property. It was something straight out of Downton Abbey – a call bell system! From the photograph you can see what was listed – and what was not listed, namely bedroom three which was actually the maid/butler/valet’s room. The call bell system is in working order with all the rooms except the valet bedroom still having the call bell and when you press the button the noise of the original and loud ringing reverberates around the whole flat and rest of the building no doubt!
Having discussed this with some residents within the block, I understand the reason for the call bell in such a small flat was to copy the country house way of life in the city apartment. It was meant to closely replicate what the owners were used to at the time. I have to say it is completely alien to me why such a system was found to be necessary in such a small apartment – a large country house yes but a two bedroom relatively small flat? A different era. While the building style is modern, revolutionary and forward looking, the potential owners were not quite ready for the same change, as the culture and way of life was still derived from patterns established in Victorian times.
Presumably, the second toilet was for the servant and other features confirming the master/servant way of life are interconnecting serving hatches between the hallway and the lounge as well as a kitchen service hatch.
There is also a separate service entrance and stairs to the side of each building away from the grand main entrance and to this day deliveries to the flats, removal men and other tradesmen are required to use this entrance and stairs! There is a chute for the disposal of rubbish to the basement at each floor of the service entrance just outside the service door to every flat.
The flat’s servant facilities remind me of Jeeves and Wooster; so as a single man, all I need now is a modern-day Jeeves! With the amount of dust these flats accumulate in a short space of time, he would come in useful!
The buildings face at an angle East/West to maximise the natural light and they are bright airy flats.
The development is a joy to be part of; it is well maintained and last, but not least, there are two roof terraces per block to enjoy great views of the Edinburgh skyline and the Firth of Forth. No doubt cocktails were often served back in the day and one would have scented smoke from the finest shag pipe tobacco, mingling with Balkan Sobranie cigarettes and Havana cigars.
It is so distinctive that you’ll spot it when flying into Edinburgh Airport over the Forth.
Stuart is hosting a tour of Ravelston for ADSUK members on Sunday 5th April 2020. For more information or to book your place visit here. The group will also visit the former Maybury Roadhouse, now a Gala casino.
A good selection of aerial and other images can be found at Historic Scotland www.canmore.org.uk.
Above Edinburgh and South East Scotland by Angus and Patricia MacDonald 1989 p140.
The Scottish Thirties by Charles McKean 1987 pp165-166