Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

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Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Anorak » Mon Aug 15, 2011 7:43 pm

I ‘ve been doing a bit of research about the origins of the Sixty Steps story and the alleged involvement of Alexander Greek Thomson. I thought it might fill an information gap in my Thomson web page. http://www.scotcities.com/greekthomson.htm

The more I looked into it, the more questions without logical answers appeared.

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There is a plaque on the retaining wall crediting the Sixty Steps to Alexander Thomson in 1872. This was two years after the Queen Margaret Bridge and the Belmont Bridge opened up North Kelvinside for the development of an accessible new suburb.

Why would you appoint an Architect, rather than a Civil Engineer, for the complex job of designing a massive retaining wall?

Thomson is not credited with any other civil engineering project, so why would he take this one on?

In the early 1870’s Thomson was in poor health suffering from bronchitis and asthma. He had to delegate much of his architectural work due to his health problems. He died in the spring of 1875.
Why would a world-renowned architect, heading for his deathbed, suddenly abandon architecture and turn to civil engineering to design a mundane retaining wall and staircase for a suburb that had yet to be developed?

The houses at Kelvinside Terrace, at the top of the stairs, are first listed in the Post Office Directory for Glasgow for 1878/1879, years after the date on the plaque for the retaining wall.
The first part of the development appears in the Post Office Directory for 1872/1873 at Doune Terrace, which is now part of Belmont Street.
If we are to believe the Thomson connection, why would the developers of the new suburb start at the most difficult part of the site at Queen Margaret Bridge rather than the easy part at Belmont Bridge?

I’m sure you guys will have answers to all these questions!
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby The Egg Man » Mon Aug 15, 2011 9:34 pm

It may be we're looking at Thomson with the benefit of hind-sight. Was he a 'world-renowned' architect then?

Maybe he was just a talented architect who knew he was dying who wanted a fee for a job. Maybe whoever commissioned the work had seen Thomson's other work and knew he'd eventually be famous.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Sunflower » Tue Aug 16, 2011 8:37 am

All good questions Anorak - but the entry in Gavin Stamp's Thomson picture book (Alexander 'Greek' Thomson) expresses no doubts about Thomson's responsibility for the Sixty Steps, unlike lots of other entries which have question marks and/or are entered as 'attribituted by Bloggs'. He gives five sources - though probably they all refer to each other.

'Official' opinion is solid, but it is very frustrating that there aren't more (any?) records from Thomson's office to provide insights into his work.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Anorak » Tue Aug 16, 2011 5:08 pm

Thanks for your input guys. I’ve been doing another wee bit of research. Got no satisfactory answers just another set of questions!

Egg Man, I agree that “world-renowned” may be an exaggeration, but the Herald obituary to Thomson on 23rd March 1875 (which I have reproduced in my web page) relates that “the fame of Greek Thomson in Glasgow, seems to be as familiar to London architects as to those of his own city”.

In the early 1870’s he wasn’t looking for work, he was delegating most of the architectural jobs to Robert Turnbull, who saw them through to completion after the death of his mentor.

Sunflower, the references quoted are mostly modern, and I agree that they seem to be relying only on each other for verification.

I consulted the Historic Scotland Listed Building Report, which surprisingly comes to a conclusion not backed by their own references.
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The earliest reference they have is the 1894 O.S. map, reproduced below. What does it tell you about the stages of development from 1870, when the Queen Margaret Bridge opened, until 1892 when the mapping survey took place? (Rhetorical question!)
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The earliest written reference in the Listed Building Report is from the Evening Times in 1936, hardly contemporary evidence!
All the other references (including Gavin Stamp’s) are modern, with absolutely nothing from the 1870’s.

I’ve trawled the Post Office Directories and amended the 1894 map, adding the first entries for houses at the new North Kelvinside suburb to it.
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The Directories show that development took place between 1872 (at the Belmont Bridge) and 1889 (between the two bridges).

Here is the descriptive part of the Listed Buildings Report:
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Given the evidence and references produced by Historic Scotland in their Listed Building Report report, how can the conclusion be reached that the retaining wall and steps suddenly appeared in 1870, simultaneously with the bridge, and that Alexander Thomson was responsible for it?

The report’s great certainty leaves no room for a “circa” or a “probably”……… except for the dismantling of the bridge, “circa 1971”!!

Could there possibly be additional evidence not included in the report?
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby crusty_bint » Wed Aug 17, 2011 3:09 pm

interesting thread - more like this please!

can't help but think you answered your own question in your initial post though
Anorak wrote:Why would you appoint an Architect, rather than a Civil Engineer, for the complex job of designing a massive retaining wall?

...

In the early 1870’s Thomson was in poor health suffering from bronchitis and asthma. He had to delegate much of his architectural work due to his health problems. He died in the spring of 1875.

despite his ailing health, i'm sure Thomson would still have had his hand in many of the projects his office was dealing with. perhaps the steps were just a nice manageable little project for him to amuse himself with. they bear all the hallmarks and finesse of his hand, as opposed to his office, and i don't doubt the steps are his.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby edward carolan » Wed Aug 17, 2011 5:56 pm

I think that this post has resolution by the fact that all architects at Thomsons time were default "Engineers", all you hve to look at is his church on the steep side of St. Vincent Street. I don't know when the structural engineering of the site was separated from the structural engineering of the building that is going to be built on the site. But I would bet a £ to a pinch of shit that if you could not do the site engineering, the quantity suveying, the costings for the site preparation and the cost of the materials and the labour to erect the edifice. He would have been called Geek Thomson, and what CRM and FLW would have been called is thankfully not worth thinking about. Mon the engineers civil or otherwise.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Anorak » Wed Aug 17, 2011 7:15 pm

Great to get some answers to some of these questions, just by thinking about it from a different angle.

Edward, I have to agree with you that the construction of St Vincent Street Church and commercial buildings like Egyptian Halls and the Bucks Head Building would have required considerable structural engineering skills. I reckon I was isolating this civil engineering job from other branches of engineering used in construction at the time.
Thomson must have had himself, or access to, some very specialised expertise.

I’ll take that line of questions as answered!

As to whether it is reasonable to credit Thomson personally, I’m still not convinced.

Crusty, I certainly agree with you that a few of the features on the wall appear to be in the style of Thomson, but that is superficial.
I take it that you would agree with me that there is no direct hard evidence from the Historic Scotland Listed Buildings Report that Thomson had anything to do with it?

With no source of verification, does it not seem too convenient for the report to pin the date of construction down to 1870, while Thomson was still alive?
Is a not a little too neat for the wall and stairs to suddenly spontaneously appear at the exact same time as the Queen Margaret Bridge?

Crusty, I don’t agree that the wall and steps “bear all the hallmarks and finesse of his hand”, but everyone sees things differently.
My initial problem was the opposite. I thought it was totally atypical of anything Thomson had been credited with before.

I don’t see much finesse, or the Thomson touch in this. I find it rather banal.
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Correct me if I’m wrong, but the stonework in all Thomson’s architectural works was of coursed regular smooth ashlar blocks. Here the massive wall is of hammer dressed random rubble. Why make one exception?

The only part of the whole structure that I can find a resemblance to any of the other known works of Thomson are the two small pillars on the upper approaches to the stairway which have the general appearance of the squat columns sometimes used by Alexander Thomson, but in rough stone and without the usual embellishments you would see in his city centre commercial works. I’ve drawn many of them for my web page and think that here we have the right shape, wrong décor.
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Walls start from the ground upwards, not the other way. The alleged Thomson pillars at the top of the stairway would have been added at the end of the project, before the houses in Kelvinside Terrace were built in 1878/1879. They are in Thomson’s familiar squat style, but show none of the usual exotic decoration and motifs associated with him.

I've moved on from being a total unbeliever to a bit of an agnostic about the Sixty Steps.
I guess that there can be no final proof, so I'll leave it to the faithful.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby crusty_bint » Wed Aug 17, 2011 8:43 pm

I would agree that there is nothing concrete in the online HS reports that links Thomson directly to this work, but I wouldn't take that as any sort of indication that it was not his creation. I don't find it convenient for the date of construction to be given as 1872/3 - merely a statement of fact? It makes absolute sense for the bridge and stairs to go in at the same time in order to open up the area for development - starchitecture isn't the preserve of the 21st century.

To my eye, this work couldn't be anything other than Thomson's. The casual, yet somehow at the same time bombastic, sweep of both the retaining wall and stair are highly reminiscent of his demolished Cowcaddens Cross Building, achieving that same graceful and dramatic effect of space through the exploitation of the topography and site limits. That huge wall and stair has definite shades of Mycaenae, or even the megalithic temples of Malta. The squat columns a nod to the Etruscans, the contemporaries of the Classical Hellenic cultures.

In regards to the stonework, well, its a fair point on the surface. But comparing an engineering solution to pure architectural expression is slightly disingenuous, a more amicable comparison would be his bridge at Cove. I also wouldn't discount budgetary restraints as a factor here.

To me, the effect is clear, the retaining wall is expressed as a defensive structure; a great curved bastion defending the street below from the earth within; the blind detailing of the top part as ramparts and an expression of the civility contained above and within. The stair as a graceful processional way for us plebs to ascend to meet our betters, and to be shot down from at the slightest hint of impropriety.

Who else but Thomson? :)
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Anorak » Thu Aug 18, 2011 9:49 am

Methinks you’ve been watching far too much BBC Four, Crusty!
Although we’ve been very much into discussing trivial details, I don’t suppose you and I ever meet up on the “What colour socks are you wearing today” thread?

With a lack of facts, it’s always going to be a matter of conjecture as regards exact dates, so we’ll not waste time on that any more?
It seems I’m a bit more of an “Evidence Please?” man than you are.

I had never set eyes on the Sixty Steps until June this year when I was doing a wander around North Kelvinside with my camera for an “Origins and History” web page which has been uploaded at http://www.scotcities.com/westend/north_kelvinside.htm

I used original sources for the webpage rather than relying on published material and especially internet forums, where there are endless myths you don’t need to ask questions about to know that they are wrong!
It contains maps going as far back as 1795 and press cuttings going back to 1817.

The study gives a much wider picture of the whole extent of the area, which would become the new suburb. Some of the district, like the “North Kelvin Meadow”, on easy flat terrain, has never ever been developed in the 140 years since the bridges gave access to the vicinity.
I’ve included a cutting from the Herald from 20th May 1872, which gives an exact date for the area west of Queen Margaret Drive, on the opposite bank to the Botanic Gardens, being offered for the development of “Villas, Terraces and Flatted Tenements”. I couldn’t find anything similar for the area east of Queen Margaret Drive.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby crusty_bint » Thu Aug 18, 2011 10:31 am

BBC4? How rude ::):

Least. Subtle. Bodyswerve. Ever.

My analysis is merely based on a decade worth of reading, a familiarity with Thomson's body of work and an appreciation of the rational behind the devices he borrows and manipulates to achieve the subtlety of effect which is so distinctly Thomson - something no other architect has achieved, whether from his office or not.

As for trivial details, well, I agree you have gotten a little bogged down in them whilst ignoring the obvious. I gave you a step for a hint in the two examples I cited in my previous post. I also hinted about the financial pressures on the building industry in the first half of the 1870's that would account for Thomson taking on a piece of work you find so trivial, and the material choices he made for the project.

If you're an 'evidence please' man, then please, provide some - absence of evidence (in the form of an 1870's map or development of the meadow area) is not evidence of absence. Convince me you are right.

This myth that you are trying to establish fits quite nicely into the category you describe. Indeed I suspect you don't want to be convinced that this is Thomson's personal work - you sensationalist you, methinks you've been watching far too much Channel 5.

:)
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Sixty Steps - Not a myth.

Postby Socceroo » Thu Aug 18, 2011 4:05 pm

Let's put this another way if the 60 steps and wall are not by Alexander Thomson then who?

As Crusty has so eloquently described, the fair hand of Alexander Thomson appears all over the structure, it is not just the detailing but the whole scale and mass of the composition and the confidence with which it sits.

I am sure that I have more than one book somewhere which refers to the Queen Margaret Bridge, the Steps and the Retaining wall and their role as enabling works to attract development in that area. If I recall correctly Thomson is mentioned and also the Building Company who would have most likely overseen any structural engineering concerns with the Architect. I am sure that it also goes on about how the area and indeed other parts of the West End lay undeveloped for a time. This resulted in others designs being executed rather than the originally intended Architects designs for large areas of housing. It may have been the intention that had Thomson survived he would have been the Architect for houses in the area.

I am pretty sure that the Retaining Wall and Steps are one Thomson design which can be attributed to him through the existence of his drawings or facsimiles of them.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Lucky Poet » Thu Aug 18, 2011 7:21 pm

Good stuff, this thread. By the by, there is one example I can think of where Thomson used rough (or at least irregular) stonework - the lowest few feet of Caledonia Road Church.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby The Egg Man » Thu Aug 18, 2011 7:28 pm

At the risk of causing a stooshie - does it really matter who designed/ built the steps?

I can understand the desire in some folks to know who designed or made smaller items - cutlery, furniture, jewellery, plates, maybe even a house because an attribution to one maker or another can dramatically affect the price of the item.

A flight of steps built into a small hill seems to be a wholly different matter. We can all agree they're well designed, beautifully proportioned and so. They're never going to be sold.

Does the architect's name actually matter.
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby yoker brian » Thu Aug 18, 2011 8:02 pm

The Egg Man wrote:At the risk of causing a stooshie - does it really matter who designed/ built the steps?

Does the architect's name actually matter.


Ooft Mr Omelette your risking world war 3 there !
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Re: Sixty Steps - another urban myth?

Postby Dexter St. Clair » Thu Aug 18, 2011 9:25 pm

yoker brian wrote:
The Egg Man wrote:At the risk of causing a stooshie - does it really matter who designed/ built the steps?

Does the architect's name actually matter.


Ooft Mr Omelette your risking world war 3 there !


World War Eazy side up?
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