Inside Donaldson’s: the building that ‘should have been Scotland’s parliament’ is now luxury homes

In a city filled with iconic buildings, historic Donaldson’s has a special place in the heart of Edinburgh’s locals. Now, the sandstone structure that some say should have been the Scottish parliament is being turned into luxury flats.
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Since its opening in 1851 by Queen Victoria, Donaldson’s – which sits behind grand iron gates on West Coates Road, near Haymarket station – has served the community as a children’s hospital and school. By 2008, the building had fallen into such disrepair that its tenant at that time, a school for deaf children, was relocated. The site had been sold to developer Cala Homes five years earlier for £22 million, but plans to bring new life to Donaldson’s proved too expensive at the time. The building
remained empty for a decade.

It seemed a sad fate for such a magnificent, Grade A listed structure, a prime example of the work of William Playfair. One of Scotland’s most famous architects, Playfair also designed several of Edinburgh’s most notable buildings, including The Scottish National Gallery and the Parthenon-style National Monument on Calton Hill.

“There is a great affection for Donaldson’s due to its design and location on the edge of the city centre,” says Ian Thomson of Historic Environment Scotland. “It has a striking appearance and was very much designed to make an impact. Often institutional buildings have exteriors that are more impressive than the interiors but Donaldson’s does it to the extreme.”

Sir James Donaldson, a well-known publisher and bookseller, bequeathed the money for the building’s construction. The site was specifically intended to educate and care for children from poor backgrounds – and Donaldson reportedly specified that preference be given to children with the surnames Donaldson or Marshall, his mother’s maiden name.

Playfair created a Gothic structure with overtures to Elizabeth palaces, with pretty cupolas, elaborate stonework, turrets with spiral stairways and an elegant clock tower. The historic importance of the building meant that any redevelopment had to be done sensitively and by specialists, so, two years ago, Cala Homes called in heritage developer City & Country. “Everyone was desperate to see the building used and as soon as I saw it I wanted to be involved with it,” says its managing director, Helen Moore.

City & Country is now in the process of converting what has been renamed The Playfair into a residential development with 110 apartments, and it’s been a huge undertaking. The vast building was suffering from extensive damp and rot, the stonework and interior woodwork needed careful renovation, 900 windows had to be restored or replaced, and the original landscaping, which was overgrown, had to be completely redesigned with parking allocated underground.

Heritage features such as fireplaces, wooden panelling, ornate plasterwork and staircases have been painstakingly retained and refreshed. The original chapel, which has large stained glass windows, and the internal courtyard, which was designed as a playground, will be transformed into contemporary living spaces. The chapel will house three apartments and a large communal area for residents, while the courtyard will be softened with pleached trees and a water feature.

Every part of the building has been utilised, from the basement stores (now studios and one-bedroom flats) to the classrooms and offices, which have been turned into double height homes with mezzanine levels; the best views are from the apartments in the old towers. One penthouse has a spiral stone stairway leading to an outside terrace with a panoramic vista over Edinburgh Castle.

Even the gate lodges have been converted into two-bedroom cottages. The interiors are sleek and contemporary, but buyers will need to accept this is a heritage building. “Like any historic property, Donaldson’s has its quirks,” says Moore. “It doesn’t have double-glazed windows, for example – but it’s like buying a classic car. There are more efficient models but you may want to own something unique, with character and history.”

According to Knight Frank, Edinburgh property is experiencing a surge in demand, leading to a price growth of 5.4 percent in 2017 – its highest in 10 years. More than 2,000 prospective purchasers are said to be already registered for the launch of Donaldson’s on Feb 3. Prices in The Playfair range from £240,000 for a studio to £1.25 million for the penthouse.

Those who insist on double glazing can buy one of the 84 new-build flats that Cala Homes is building on the same site. Situated to the rear of the Playfair building, The Crescent will have a distinctly modern look and prices for the first release of two-bedroom flats start from £599,000.

The new-build aspect was necessary to make the project viable and was given the go-ahead because it was felt that it wouldn’t detract from Donaldson’s historic credentials. “When dealing with a site like this, you have to do something that either faithfully mimics or completely contrasts with the original structure,” says Thomson. “In this case, replication would be expensive and wouldn’t do justice to the Playfair

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