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Egyptian Halls, Glasgow among the 14 Most Endangered sites in Europe

Egyptian Halls, an Alexander Thomson building completed in 1872 that stands prominently on Glasgow's Union Street is included in the shortlist for Europa Nostra's 2020 7 Most Endangered Programme.

The site, which has stood vacant for almost 40 years and is suffering serious threats of decay, was nominated by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, with The Alexander Thomson Society in October 2019. The final 7 sites will be announced in March 2020.

The Egyptian Halls in Union Street was built for the iron founder James Robertson, design commenced in 1870 and it was completed on site in 1872. It was not so much a warehouse as a shopping centre-cum-bazaar, apparently built in emulation of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.

It was constructed at a time when Union Street was being developed and was evolving along with other streets in the same area as one of the busiest and most important parts of the city. Records mention at the turn of the century that the Egyptian Halls (Nos. 84-100 Union Street) was used for many years for public gatherings, exhibitions, musical performances and were home to over 50 stalls selling goods from around the world. The ground floor units have been used consistently from the beginning until now as shops. The upper floors, however, have suffered numerous changes and neglect in recent years. Past Building Warrant Applications and other documents held at the Glasgow City Council Archives give an idea of some of the past uses for the upper floors, such as: furniture show rooms, Inland Revenue offices, a tailors workshop, and prior to its vacancy, as a Chinese Restaurant.

Whilst the shops remain in use, the upper floors have now been vacant for 39 years. Planning permission has been granted on numerous occasions for proposals to convert the building into a hotel, but these have stalled due to a lack of available public funding to support a commercial development.

Egyptian Halls was “the great purchasing emporium of the city for all kinds of useful, ornamental and fancy articles and goods” as well as serving a myriad of cultural functions. But it is its architectural significance that makes it internationally valuable. A contemporary of Thomson’s described the elevation as the ‘noblest in Europe’. Endless debate can be had around the sources of inspiration for it, the one thing that is inarguable is that its overall composition transcends precedent to achieve something truly original.

Andor Gomme noted:

“Thomson’s series of warehouse and office buildings is the greatest contribution made by a single architect to the centre of the city” and Egyptian Halls is the finest, most complex and most elaborate of them all. And as the architectural press noted at the time:

"We doubt if its equal, for originality, grandeur of treatment, or imposing effect, could be found in any city.”

Due to past neglect, water penetration, poor alterations and inappropriate use of materials the building bears signs of decay, both internally and externally. Its rear elevation, as well as its interiors, has been disfigured by past unsympathetic alterations. Little remains of its internal original decoration apart from some of the cornices, plasterwork and the odd door detail. Its astonishing principal elevation remains as the only almost intact piece of original design in the building apart from the iron and lightweight structure.

The building is currently in a state of significant decay and is a victim of a myriad of ownership issues which have went unresolved for decades. The building was scaffolded permanently in the late 2000’s to protect the public from falling stone, however no major repairs project has ever taken place.

An independent structural assessment has been carried out within the last six months by a conservation-accredited structural engineer who has found the buildings’s structural integrity to remain intact, and whilst remedial works are required, the buildings structure provides no major barrier to the future use of the building.

Certainly, the significance of Egyptian Halls in portraying the history of Glasgow, in addition to the wonderful beauty and talent of all the careful interior and exterior designs, should be a catalyst for securing the building's survival for future generations to enjoy. We sincerely hope that the nomination will contribute to the successful reuse of this unique building.

Photo credit to Scott Abercrombie. Thanks go to The Alexander Thomson Society for providing the information and photographs for this article.

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