Wednesday, 27 June 2012

12 North Street

Fig. 1 12 North Street before renovation in 1937
The Museum building is as interesting as the exhibits it is home to. Since starting work for The Trust I have been fascinated by its various incarnations and uses. Visitors regularly enquire as to its original layout and how the rooms were used after its conversion into a family home. Recently I obtained copies of the plans for the building pre and post renovation in the late 1930s from the University of St Andrews Special Collections. This has cleared up a lot of things that have puzzled me about the building, as well as introducing me to some new ones! Some facts we had long presumed about the building have proved to be false as well – probably the first time I have not minded being proved wrong!

First, to give you a potted history of the building itself. The site on which it stands is in one of the oldest settled parts of the town, dating back to c.1140 – the time of the foundation of the Burgh of St Andrews. Although there has been a dwelling on this site since around 1140, the present building probably dates from the late 1600s. Originally built to house one family, records show that during the 18th and 19th centuries the house tended to be owned by wealthy St Andrews merchants who let the property to families from the fisher community.

Ownership of the site is unknown until 1576. The house that stood here then belonged to a John Reid and was described as having on the east side “The Archdeacon’s Yard or Garden” (Dean’s Court), and on the south side, the “Great Tenement” known as the “Old Inns”. 

Fig. 2 12 North Street and the adjoining property prior to restoration
Image courtesy of The University of St Andrews Special Collections
The census records of 1851-1891 indicate that, by this time, No.12 North Street was a four roomed dwelling, with each room containing one family of up to nine persons. Two outer doors (now converted into windows either side of the remaining door) served the two homes on the ground floor, and the third, centre door opened onto a staircase which led to the first floor accommodation which had a net-loft above (Fig. 1).  

The Government’s attempts to eradicate slum housing in the 1930s saw a demolition order being served on No.12 North Street. In 1937 it was saved by a local architect, James Hoey Scott. Scott bought both No.12 and the adjacent property, creating a large family home. Although the buildings were altered considerably, Scott was determined to retain old features wherever possible. A keen antiquarian, he rescued many objects from other condemned houses and placed them in his own home. A good example of these are the marriage lintel above the fireplace downstairs and the recycled posts from a four poster bed which hold up the minstrel’s gallery upstairs. During the reconstructions, a woman’s skull, thought to be that of a teacher, was found in one of the walls.

One of the earliest restoration of its type, No.’s 12-20 North Street served as an example to other private restorers. In 1938, the Medical Officer of Health’s report to the St Andrews Town Council declared that “the alterations which have been effected comprise one of the best illustrations of what can be done towards preserving old buildings which I have ever seen”.

In 1962, the house was purchased by The St Andrews Preservation Trust and remodelled into its present form, a remodelling made possible by a generous bequest from Miss Janet Low. It has been a museum since 1977, though previously the Trust had used it for exhibitions, calling it the “House Museum”
Fig. 3 Floor plan of ground floor 12 North Street prior to restoration
Image courtesy of The University of St Andrews Special Collections

The plans for the building pre-renovation, (Fig 2) show the exterior of the building as we understood from photographs (Fig 1); it was harled, there were three front doors, no front garden, a pend running between it and the adjacent property and much fewer windows on the back. The plans prove what we had presumed about the building being over three floors with the loft being used for drying nets, and that the central doorway led to a staircase. The first thing that surprised me was the “washhouse” marked on the plans – what is now a reconstructed chemist shop in the museum (Fig 3). I had always thought this to be an addition by Scott, who refers to is as his “sun room”. The plans also show two outdoor W.C.s in the back garden, separate from the original building, of which I have never heard anyone talk of. I have always been curious about a strange part of the wall in the back garden that contains red brick when the rest is made of stone, and appears to have been painted at some point. It seems that this is the likely spot where the outdoor toilets stood.

Fig 4 Photo of the back of 12 North Street before new windows
were added.   Interestingly, the outside W.C. can be seen
in this photo, but no one had noticed them before!
The second set of plans show Scott’s proposed alterations to 12 North Street and the adjoining property. You can see the obvious alterations he made by simply looking at the outside of the building; that is the bricking up of the close between the properties, the addition of a front garden and the conversion of the two of the front doors into windows. At the back of the building you can see his drastic plan to increase the number of windows in the buildings. In fact, there are actually two more new windows than are proposed on the plans! The museum building went from having four windows to eight, and the adjacent property went from six to eleven! Scott obviously liked natural light. Original window lintels can still be seen in the walls of the rear of the building beside the modern lintels that replaced them, though these were installed long before Scott’s alterations.

Fig. 5 Floor plan of the building after renovation
Image courtesy of The University of St Andrews Special Collections

I had wondered how the two properties were joined together, and my suspicions were proved correct when the plans revealed that there was a doorway between the two where the Post Office display now is in the museum (fig. 5). I was very surprised to notice that there was no staircase on the museums side of the plans at all! The staircase that is now in the museum must have been added during the conversion back to two separate properties in the 1960s. Interesting also is the provision of quarters for a maid, Scott was clearly a man of money.

In the museum collection is this odd watercolour (Fig 6) of the interior of the building when it was in use as a family home; I have never quite been able to figure it out as it shows so many features that do not now exist. Now that I have the plans to compare it too, I can see that is shows a fireplace which is now covered up by the staircase installed in the 1960s. It also shows the view through to the adjacent property, now bricked up.

Fig.6 Watercolour of interior of 12 North Street when it
was in use as a family home
Fig. 7 The same view today, showing the bricked up doorway
and addition of the staricase where a firplace used to stand.

There is no mention on either of the plans for the outdoor privy which was restored by the Trust around ten years ago. The plans show that the garden extended only to the first wall, and it is possible that the privy was classed as belonging to another property.

There are still many many things that intrigue me about the building – I would love to know how it was laid out when it was first built, surely if it was built for one family it would have no need for three front doors? Downstairs in the museum you can see the names of polish soldiers carved into the beams as well as polish insignia nailed to one of the posts – does anyone know how they got there? The gardens is a jigsaw of small parts of land acquired by the trust at various different points over the last 50 years, it would be interesting to know to whom the land was originally intended to belong to when the properties were built. The list of questions is endless, and something tells me the building has not given up all its secrets quite yet.

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