Doors Open Day - Edinburgh
The end of September was ‘Doors Open Day’ here in Edinburgh, which is a weekend when buildings normally closed to the public open up to visitors. Lots of fascinating buildings participate and if you’re interested in architecture, history or just like nosing around places you don’t normally get to see, then it’s a great way to spend a weekend.
I had a shortlist of buildings I was particularly keen on seeing. On Saturday morning, I set off with my camera over my shoulder and a sense of adventure in my heart. By late afternoon and after walking several miles I had visited nearly all of the buildings on my list, but the best would come the next day on Sunday morning. More on that in a moment.
My first port of call on Saturday was the Merchants’ Hall (1864-5), which is owned by The Royal Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh and features a delightful domed ceiling.
Now in the dome mood, I set off for General Register House which was designed by famous Scottish neoclassical architect Robert Adam and features his ‘magnificent rotunda’. The rotunda is certainly a very striking space. It feels like a temple for books (although it’s home to government records) but you can use your imagination. I also wandered into another room, a research room I think, which sported a handsome coffered ceiling.
I left General Register House and strolled across North Bridge and the Royal Mile to the Old College of the University of Edinburgh. Robert Adam also designed this building, but he sadly died before it was completed. It was completed in 1827 to an amended design by William Henry Playfair, another of Scotland’s great architects of the 19th century. The highlight here was the beautiful public room named after the man himself, the Playfair library, which features a huge coffered barrel vault held aloft by two rows of stout columns.
My final stop on Saturday required trekking to the west side of town, but it was worth the leg work. I arrived at Stewart’s Melville college expecting to wander about by myself, but as it turned out there were regular guided tours. Luckily, I had arrived just in time for the next one. The building opened in 1855 as a charitable institution to house and educate destitute boys, but is now a private school with impressive facilities and a great motto “never unprepared.” Legend has it that the design was based on a failed design for the Houses of Parliament, but who cares. What a ridiculously grand building to have as your school. A little draughty, yes, and possibly haunted, but very handsome none the less.
I had one place left to visit on my list and it was the one I was most excited about. The Mansfield Traquair centre is a former church not far from us, which has intrigued us ever since we moved to Edinburgh. The facade isn’t particularly ornate, but the scale of the building always made us wonder what architectural or artistic delights might be inside everytime we passed. Last year we missed the open day, but this time nothing was going to stop me (it was only me because my wife was away in London).
Having now visited, I can confidently say the Mansfield Traquair centre is a hidden gem. ‘Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel’? Just maybe, yes. There’s a modest amount of neo-Romanesque architecture, but its main beauty lies with its colourful biblical murals which adorn much of the interior. They were painted by Phoebe Anna Traquair in 1895, but have been recently restored and so they are as bright and bold as the would have been in the late 19th century. Scottish churches/cathedrals, compared to, say, English or Italian churches/cathedrals, invariably have sombre and melacholy interiors and so the Mansfield Traquair centre is unique. Having visited many churches in Venice, Rome and Florence, the Italian influence in Traquair’s murals is obvious and indeed delightful. Gazing upon those majestic murals, you can almost forget you’re in Edinburgh.
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