International New York Times - 11 December 2015
Finding new life for a Victorian property
A residential turn awaits Edinburgh building, with original features retained
“Everyone comments on Donaldson’s, it’s magnificent.” The Edinburgh taxi driver stopped his cab outside the imposing iron gates of the turreted building, designed by Williams Playfair and opened by Queen Victoria in 1850. “A lot of people think it should have been the Scottish Parliament.”
Formerly a children’s hospital and school for the deaf, and empty since 2008, the building known as Donaldson’s is magnificent. Its grand Bunny sandstone edifice, large windows, intricately carved façade and octagonal towers, topped with Elizabethan-style domes, moved the author Robert Louis Stevenson to remark: “It has more than a building for the reception of children.”
Now the property – which sits on six hectares, or nearly 15 acres – is set to be redeveloped over the next five years into residences, with the site to be split into two separate concepts.
The fine Victorian building is listed as Category A, a heritage classification given to buildings of architectural importance by the government organisation Historic Scotland, meaning that is original design and structure must be preserved. The property is being restored and converted into luxury apartments by City and Country, a firm based in southeast England. On the ground at the rear of the school, a crescent of new build properties will be constructed by the Scottish firm CALA Homes.
“This is an exciting and high-profile project,” said Helen Moore, Managing director of City and Country. “There is a desire to see Donaldson’s restored.”
The plans show 115 units in the main school building, from studios to three-bedroom duplexes, and 84 apartments in the new crescent. There are two additional independent Victorian gatehouses that will become individual homes.
The crescent will be of contemporary style, with large windows and views toward the building’s ground and chapel. Ms Moore explained that the new-build aspect was important to ensure the overall financial viability of the project, as the cost of heritage renovations is likely to be prohibitive. CALA Homes bought the site in 2008 for 18.5 million pounds, or $27.9 million at the current exchange rate, and City and Country will invest £133 million more in the development of the site.
Though the exterior structure is sound, the interior walls and ceilings are suffering from decades of neglect, with extensive damp, rot and decay. As it is a protected heritage building, any repairs must also be carried out according to strict conservation standards, requiring a team of specialists.
At the heart of the main building is a large enclosed, private courtyard to which residents will have access. At the lower, ground-floor level, there will be 10 basement apartments, built into what were once the storage and utilitarian areas of the school. Several of the building’s 25 towers have castle-style spiral staircases, and the high-ceilinged rooms in these towers are set to become five luxury apartments. There will also be attic units with rooftop terraces.
Because the building was initially designed as a hospital, interiors are largely basic in style, but original features, where present, will be preserved and restored. These include 19th century panelling, sash windows and solid doors, vaulted ceilings with carved beams decorative plasterwork and fireplaces. The chapel interior, with its stained glass, double-height bay window and panelling will also be restored and converted into five apartments.
The most elaborate decorative features were reserved by Playfair, the architect, for the exterior. Heraldic motifs are carved into the building’s stone façade, which is crenelated at roof level, and each elegant domed tower is topped by a smaller, finely wrought dome with a pennant-shaped weather vane. The entrance was designed as an imposing, three-storey gatehouse with four towers and a clock-house, fronted by a large flagstone terrace.
The main lawn, once the school soccer pitch, will be retained, while the original formal garden will also be reinstated and the stone steps and balustrades restored. Even the original 19th century lampposts, awaiting renovation in the chapel, will be reinstalled alongside new reproductions where needed.
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