George Street has a reputation for high-class shopping, but it’s not just the big name brands that create that image, it’s the architecture that really sets the character of the street.
When the New Town was first planned in 1767 what is now called George Street was titled simply ‘the principal street’, deliberately positioned on top of a ridge so as to be the most prominent part of the new development. The intention was to create terraces of elegant townhouses to attract the wealthy back to the city. However, initially planning regulations were fairly lax, and some criticised it as being monotonous. At least one observer thought that it was: “…so wide in proportion to the height of the buildings, that in the declining line of perspective they appear like barracks.”
The early residents were professionals, attracted by the space and light in comparison to the Old Town. One of the best known was Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, a politician, writer and statistician, who lived with his family at 133 George Street. He and many of his 15 children were over six feet tall, and so the pavement outside his home was known as the ‘Giants Causeway’.
During the Victorian period George Street slowly became a place for shopping. On the ground floors of many buildings, dining rooms and libraries gave way to showrooms. In some places properties were extended at the back with long top-lit rooms, to show off products in more spacious and opulent surroundings. Today there are still some good examples at LK Bennet, Moss and Hobbs.
The street also became associated with banking, which has left a legacy of some very grand architecture. The most obvious is The Dome, with its enormous classical columns built in 1845 as the head office of the Commercial Bank, but look closely and you can still see other clues. Contini’s at 101 – 103 George Street was once a Bank of Scotland branch, and the coat of arms is still above the main door. The Standing Order pub has clue in its name of course, built in 1874 for the Union Bank, and with the old 30-tonne safe still intact in one of the side rooms.
Retailers too have left their mark on the street’s buildings. Gray’s, the famous Edinburgh firm of ironmongers traded on George Street for 160 years, and their old shop still stands at number 89. It has a distinctive Renaissance inspired design, with many intricate details. Look out for the roundels on the first floor, with an owl, a ship and a cockerel on mosaic backgrounds. What is now Austin Reed’s is actually one of Edinburgh’s first modernist buildings, built between 1924-5 for M. Cleghorn & Co who specialised in luxury trunks and leather goods. One of the most impressive department stores was built at 80 George Street for the Professional and Civil Service Supply Association, a sort of Harrods department store with a private club attached. It was designed in a baroque style with ‘caryatids’, female figures supporting the top floor.
Trotters Opticians at 44 George Street has a more unassuming shopfront, but an interesting story to tell. Over the years, new shopfronts were built out from the ground floor of this Georgian building, but in 1985 the opticians Trotters decided to reinstate a more traditional look. The later additions were removed, returning the building to something like its original form, but with a nice humorous touch. If you look closely at top of the columns either side of the main door you can see they represent pairs of spectacles.