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Glasgow’s Argyll Arcade regains its luster

By Bennett Voyles
While scouting Europe for new uses for some property, mahogany importer John Reid discovered the elegant covered shopping passages of Paris. Glass-covered shopping arcades had been popular in the notoriously rainy city for 29 years and in equally rainy London for eight. Reid bet that a similar arcade would do well in even rainier Glasgow.

Reid was right. He was so right in fact that his Argyll Arcade is still doing business today, 184 years after its opening. In fact, the passage is looking better than it has in years, thanks to a two-year partial restoration that cost £750,000 (about $1.2 million).

Designed by Scottish architect John Baird, the arcade linked Buchanan and Argyle streets — then, as now, two of central Glasgow’s biggest shopping streets. The narrow, two-story, cast-iron-and-glass-roofed arcade was, like its cousins to the south, a popular venue for dressmakers, milliners and other luxury merchants. It was also the height of modernity and featured in tourist guides even in Victorian times.

As it aged, the roughly 300-foot-long passage also evolved. Charles McKean, a professor of Scottish architectural history at the University of Dundee, recalls the arcade in the 1950s as a paradise for boys that stocked “not the necessities of life but the add-on bits,” including a joke shop. Still operating there was one of the original tenants — the Clyde Model Dockyard: “the best model shop in Scotland,” selling toy boats and trains and similar items. A second-floor tearoom looked down on the arcade. “Boy, is it fun looking down on people,” said McKean.

That tearoom was a landmark in its own right. In 1875 Stuart Cranston, a Glasgow tea importer, hit on the idea of selling cups of tea as a way to boost tea sales and accidentally invented the tearoom: a Victorian-era equivalent, perhaps, of the Starbucks and other coffeehouses of today. The innovation proved so popular that in 1896 Cranston took his four shops public, including the one in the Argyll Arcade.

About 15 years ago the tearoom closed, perhaps reflecting the changing fortunes of central Glasgow, which was once among the largest and richest cities in Europe and was even considered the “second city of the British Empire.” The decline of its shipbuilding and other heavy industries and the depredations of unsuccessful urban renewal have shrunk the population from 1 million to 600,000 over the past 100 years. Glaswegians moved to the suburbs and took their shopping with them. Outside of a central core on Buchanan and Argyle, most shopping now takes place in large suburban centers, McKean says.

Unable to compete any longer as a mall, the Argyll evolved into a destination for jewelry, a high-value purchase requiring little inventory space — perfect for the narrow old shops. Jewelers had always had a place in the mall, but now 31 of the 33 stores are jewelers. (The model shop never made it, closing in the early 1970s as tastes in toys changed.)

Despite a solid strategy, the arcade still faced a major operational hurdle: cooperative ownership. The Cranston family, which operated not only tea shops but also nonalcoholic hotels, had sold off individual storefronts over time, leaving the arcade owned by some three dozen owners. Maintenance was neglected for the past 25 years or so, says Kyron Keogh, chairman of the owners’ committee and co-owner of jeweler Rox. When Jones Lang LaSalle took over as property manager in 2008, a survey uncovered multiple problems, particularly with drainage and the roof. So many sections of the roof leaked that some of the owners had to put out buckets when it rained. “On the west coast of Scotland, that’s a problem,” said Niall Robertson, the Jones Lang LaSalle associate director who conducted the survey.

Convincing the owners that something had to be done was not difficult. “There was no choice — it had to be done, from a health and safety point of view,” said Simon Porter, representing the fifth generation of Porters to man the counter of James Porter & Son, the Argyll’s oldest jeweler. Helping sweeten the otherwise bitter pill was the participation of the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, which pitched in with £200,000 in grants.

Much of the work done was hidden from view, but the repairs did yield some plainly visible benefits as well. While investigating the roof, for instance, Robertson had pulled up the plywood and uncovered some ornamental iron grillwork panels that had been unseen for decades.

Restoring the pre-Victorian-era decor may return the arcade to its origins visually, of course, but in other respects the owners are trying to change with the times. Cranston’s tea shop, for example, is back — sort of. Rox has rechristened the second-floor space the Diamond Bar, and the shop’s associates invite customers to share a cup of coffee or glass of champagne in the airy, skylit space. “It adds a bit of theater,” said Keogh. And as Reid proved nearly two centuries ago, theater is a sales element that is not to be underestimated.

This story is from the June 2011 issue of Shopping Centers Today.

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