The name Princes Street is synonymous with Edinburgh, but its architecture is often overlooked by city residents. In fact most of its buildings are now listed and in amongst the modern stores are some real treasures.
Princes Street is part of the New Town plan designed by James Craig in 1767, and took its name from the sons of King George III. In stark contrast to today, it started out as a residential street with the first inhabitants moving in during the 1770s.
Many of the original houses still exist, although they are now often heavily disguised. Look out for No.95 Princes Street now Hector Russell’s kilt shop, the last surviving completely intact Georgian town house. Here you can still see the basic design of a building with three storeys and sunken basement, as laid down in the regulations in 1781.
The first residents of Princes Street must have been a fairly adventurous bunch, as it was not a particularly desirable place to live. The Nor’ Loch had only just been drained and resembled a muddy swamp, the ‘earthern mound’ was just being formed from all the excavations, and the street had a growing reputation for being rather windy. Fairly quickly however the character of the street started to change, and by Victorian times it was known for its shops and hotels, which brought new styles of architecture.
A good example of this is Debenhams, built in 1884 as the Conservative Club. The exterior has a lot of careful detailing, but a key feature is the spectacular staircase with its ornate stained glass windows, now moved to the back of the store. In 1978 Debenhams extended to take in the building next door, and today you can still see an intriguing survival of its former grandeur. Hidden on the first floor amongst the clothes racks is the oak panelled Gladstone Library, a remnant of the Liberal Club which used to be on this site.
Perhaps the best example of this new generation of architecture for the street is Jenners is department store. It was built in 1895 and designed in a Renaissance style, with a wealth of intricate carving decorating the exterior, including female figures or ‘caryatids’ symbolically showing that they are the support of the house. The building also used cutting-edge technology for the day, with a fire-proof structure made of iron columns, steel beams and ‘Stuart’s Granolithic’ floors.
In the 1949 the Abercrombie Plan proposed radical changes to Princes Street, with extensive re-development and only three historic buildings considered worthy of retention. In 1967 a report recommended building first floor balconies to form a continuous walkway across the front of the entire street. The plan never took off, but you can see a small complete section at British Home Stores. Built in 1967 it shows just how far architecture had moved on since the Edwardian grandeur of Jenners, and today is a listed building in its own right.
The next time you are shopping or on a bus, take a closer look and admire the hidden beauty of Princes Street.