Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald in 1903, 217 Sauchiehall Street is an outstanding example of an artistic Glasgow Tea Room that was entirely conceived by Mackintosh and Macdonald. This three-bay, four-storey building over basement was originally built as part of a row of sandstone tenements in the mid-1860s. The structural shell of the building was retained but the interior and exterior were entirely remodelled by Mackintosh, as a new tea room for the businesswoman Catherine Cranston.
The building has recently undergone major refurbishment to reinstate Mackintosh's original design scheme. It now functions as a tea room and is internally linked with the adjoining property at 211, which contains additional facilities (2018).
The stripped-back stuccoed finish of Mackintosh's front (north) elevation stands in sharp contrast to the adjacent buildings. It is divided in two sections by a simple projecting stringcourse over the first floor window. The three-bay upper floors of the existing building were altered with a shallow bow inserted to the left-bay. The windows are deeply recessed.
On the lower floors Mackintosh created an entirely new design (reinstated 2018). The first floor is emphasised by a shallow curve and a bowed window of tall and narrow leaded lights with a leaf-shaped motif. This spans three bays and is flanked by metalwork signs. The ground floor shopfront is set-back with a door and tall narrow leaded lights over a stuccoed stall riser. This is surmounted by a deep and continuous transom of small rectangular glass panels featuring two large metalwork hoops. The elevation is framed by strips of Viennese squares and is topped by a deep and unmoulded projecting cornice. The roof is slated and pitched with shared chimneystacks.
The rear (south) elevation is on Sauchiehall Lane. The upper floors were unaltered by Mackintosh and comprise walls of stugged and snecked rubble sandstone. The ground floor is abutted by a one-and-a-half-storey addition over a basement, which is thought to have been added in the 1890s. It was partially altered by Mackintosh in an Arts and Crafts idiom. The walls are roughcast. The slated and hipped roof is partially glazed and there is a tall and battered chimneystack to the wallhead. There are four leaded glass windows, and the two to the gallery level are bowed, emulating the first floor window of the main elevation.
The interior of the original building was remodelled by Mackintosh. Both he and Macdonald were responsible for the design of every element of the interior, from wall murals, light fittings, gesso panels, chairs, upholstery, cutlery and even the waitresses' uniforms.
The interior has been subject to substantial alteration and refurbishment over the last century. Much of the original fabric has been lost or is held in museums or private collections. In 2018, as part of a large-scale restoration programme, the interior layout and decorative scheme of Mackintosh's original design was reinstated. Where the original pieces no longer survived in situ, replicas were created. These were made as close to the original designs as possible (2018).
Mackintosh remodelled the interior of the original building to create three tea rooms on the ground floor. These comprise the bright and light-coloured front room, a back room, which has darker tones, and the light and airy gallery above, which is top-lit and has tree-like supporting columns supporting the roof. These three spaces are all open to each other but a sense of subdivision is created through structural elements, openwork screens, decorative balustrades and changes in colour, decoration and furniture.
The exclusive Salon De Luxe is located at the front of the first floor. It has a barrel vaulted ceiling and is richly decorated with two replica chandeliers of coloured solid-glass drops. There are high-backed silver chairs, purple velvet and silk upholstery, ornate leaded glass doors and the dado is lined with leaded mirrored glass. The focal point of the room is the replica of Margaret Macdonald's gesso panel.
The second floor originally contained a billiards room at the front of the building, with a smoking room and lavatories at the rear. Mackintosh designed the billiard table and the timber panelling and banquettes around the walls (all now gone). The layout of the third floor was not altered by Mackintosh but has since been remodelled. The basement originally housed the kitchen, stores and staff lavatories. It was converted into an additional tea room, known as the 'Dug Out', by Mackintosh in 1917, however no trace of the scheme remains and the basement has been remodelled (2018).
Statement of Special Interest
The Willow Tea Rooms at 217 Sauchiehall Street is an iconic design by the internationally celebrated architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The finest and most accomplished of his tea room projects for Miss Cranston, it is now the only surviving example. It is also remarkable as it is the only tea room for which he had total control over the design of both the interior and the exterior of the building. Centred on the theme of the willow, Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald were entirely responsible for the design of the interior furnishings, fixtures and fittings. Due to variations in detailing, each space is carefully composed and distinctive. Mackintosh successfully created a unique and luxurious spectacle of a building, which gave Miss Cranston a marked advantage over her competitors. The Willow represents a single cohesive design, in which every individual detail has been considered in its relation to the whole. It epitomises the concept of Mackintosh as 'the complete designer'.
Mackintosh designed the Willow Tea Rooms in 1903-04 for the Glasgow businesswoman, Miss Catherine Cranston. Although he carried out a number of other schemes for her tea rooms, this was the first and only time where he was able to design the exterior. Dramatically modifying the main elevation of the existing tenement, the elegant and refined austerity of Mackintosh's elevation is in stark contrast to the adjacent mid-Victorian tenements. Similarly, the Arts and Crafts idiom that he employed on the rear elevation is highly unusual for what is a narrow city-centre back lane.
Mackintosh and Macdonald were entirely responsible for the design of all of the interior components, including the gesso panels, tables and chairs, curtains, cutlery, doors and carpets. Symbolism was a key part of their work and here it centred on the theme of the willow tree, from which the name of Sauchiehall Street was derived. For example the motif of the willow leaf appears throughout the building and the ceiling of the gallery is carried on tapering columns which give the impression of a forest of trees. This willow theme culminated in Macdonald's gesso panel, which is an interpretation of Rossetti's sonnet 'O ye, all that walk in willow wood.'
In 1906 the basement facilities were expanded into the neighbouring property at 211. In 1916-17 a new staircase was added, connecting to a new tea room and vestibule that were inserted into the basement of No.219 to the west. Known as 'The Dug Out' this was designed by Mackintosh and was characterised by a colour scheme of cobalt blue and black, contrasted by bright elements in yellow and green. The fireplace was a commemoration to the then ongoing First World War.
In 1919 the Willow Tea Rooms was sold. In 1927 it became part of a neighbouring department store and extensive internal and exterior alterations were made, such as the removal of Mackintosh's ground floor window and the reconfiguration of the internal spaces. Some of the original decorative features were retained. In the late 1970s, the building was vacated by the department store and was reinstated as a single property. Restoration works were carried out to try and restore the building back to how it was in 1903 but efforts were restricted by a lack of funds and a shortage of suitable materials and craft skills (Mackintosh Architecture, The Willow Tea Rooms).
The building was restored in 2018, as close to Mackintosh's original design as was possible. Subsequently, very little of the internal fabric is original, as much was lost during the previous alterations and refurbishments of the 20th century. Most of those pieces that do survive are currently held in private collections or museums. Although much of the fabric does not date from Mackintosh's time, the authenticity of his overall design concept has been retained through the careful replication of the building and its internal decorative scheme.
Born in 1849, Catherine Cranston was a prominent businesswoman and an important patron of design in Glasgow. Her brother Stuart first pioneered the idea of a tea room. As a seller of tea leaves, he offered samples to potential customers, which evolved into premises with tables and food to accompany the tea. With urban prosperity and the rise of the Temperance Movement, tea rooms became increasingly popular during the late 19th century, particularly among fashionable middle class women. Often artistically styled, by the 1880s tea rooms had become a celebrated feature of Glasgow, with their popularity spreading to London and Edinburgh.
Miss Cranston began as a restauranteur in 1878 but soon moved into the tea room business. After her marriage in 1892 she had the financial backing to expand and went on to establish a suite of successful artistic tea rooms in Glasgow city centre. Wanting to add interest, she commissioned largely unknown designers and architects (George Walton and Charles Rennie Mackintosh) to carry out the internal design. Mackintosh was introduced to Miss Cranston in 1896, as work on her Buchanan Street Tea Room was proceeding under George Walton. He was first commissioned to provide the striking murals at Buchannan Street but after 1898, Mackintosh provided all of the future design work for Miss Cranston. Highlights included The Willow and Ingram Street (LB32736) Tea Rooms, The Dutch Kitchen in Argyle Street (LB32616) and the interiors for her home, Hous'hill (now demolished).
Famous for their innovative and modern design, Mackintosh gave her establishments something truly unique. The Willow Tea Rooms is the most celebrated example of Mackintosh's work for Miss Cranston. The Salon De Luxe was particularly lauded in contemporary accounts, for its luxury and spectacle it was described as '…simply a marvel of the upholsterer and decorator.' (Glasgow Evening News). Mackintosh was often described as difficult and uncompromising but through Miss Cranston he found a valuable patron, who did not interfere with his creative process and allowed him total aesthetic control. Work on her tea rooms brought his designs into the public consciousness and a large article on The Willow in the German journal Dekorative Kunst meant that the Mackintoshes were celebrated by the avant-garde Secessionist movement in Europe.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was born in Glasgow and is internationally regarded as one of the leading architects and designers of the 20th century. He became known as a pioneer of Modernism, although his architecture took much inspiration from Scottish Baronial, and Scottish and English vernacular forms and their reinterpretation. The synthesis of modern and traditional forms led to a distinctive form of Scottish arts and crafts design, known as 'The Glasgow Style'. This was developed in collaboration with contemporaries Herbert McNair, and the sisters Francis and Margaret Macdonald (who would become his wife in 1900), who were known as 'The Four'. The Glasgow Style is now synonymous with Mackintosh and the City of Glasgow.
Mackintosh's work is wide-ranging and includes public, educational and religious buildings to private houses, interior decorative schemes and sculptures. He is associated with over 150 design projects, ranging from being the principal designer, to projects he was involved with as part of the firm of John Honeyman & Keppie (Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh from 1901). The most important work during this partnership was the Glasgow School of Art, built in two phases from 1897 and culminating in the outstanding library of 1907. The Willow Tea Rooms is the finest and most cohesive example of his work for Miss Cranston. A complete and unified aesthetic, The Willow displays the modern principles of the German concept of 'Gesamtkunstwerk', meaning the 'synthesis of the arts'. This is something that Mackintosh applied completely to all of his work, from the exterior to the internal decorative scheme and the furniture and fittings. His design for The Hill House (LB) is another important example of this design approach.
Mackintosh left Glasgow in 1914, setting up practice in London the following year. Later he and Margaret moved to France, where until his death, his artistic output largely turned to textile design and watercolours.
Glasgow Evening News (29 October 1903) p.7.
Billcliffe, R. (2009, 4th ed.) Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings and Interior Designs Moffat: Cameron & Hollis. pp. 151–65, 295–7.
Crawford, A. The Tea Rooms: Art and Domesticity in Kaplan, W. (1996) Charles Rennie Mackintosh New York and London: Abbeville Press. pp. 263–89.
Crawford, A (1995) Charles Rennie Mackintosh London: Thomas and Hudson. pp. 107-108, 110-114, 138-139, 175, 196-198.
Gomme, A. and Walker, D. (1968) Architecture of Glasgow London. pp.218-220.
Howarth, T (1990, 3rd ed) Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement London and New York: Routledge. pp. 124-125, 136-147.
Kinchin, P (1996) Tea and Taste – The Glasgow Tea Rooms 1875-1975 Oxford: Cockade Publishing. pp. 80-86, 101, 103-107, 121-123.
Macleod, R. (1983) Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Architect and Artist London and Glasgow: Collins. pp. 102-103.
Williamson, E. Riches, A. and Higgs, M. (1990) Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow London: Penguin. p. 241.
Brocklehurst, S. (2018) The Tea Rooms That Brought Mackintosh Back to Life, BBC News, accessed at:
Dictionary of Scottish Architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, accessed at: http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=200362
Dictionary of Scottish Architects, The Willow Tea Rooms, accessed at: http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/building_full.php?id=207789
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University of Glasgow, Mackintosh Architecture, Context Making and Meaning, Miss Catherine Cranston, accessed at: https://www.mackintosh-architecture.gla.ac.uk/catalogue/name/?nid=CransC&xml=des
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Printed: 19/03/2019 16:48