Lost Edinburgh: Leith Street, St James Square and Greenside

An Aerial view of the St James Square area, demolished in 1960s. Picture: TSPL
An Aerial view of the St James Square area, demolished in 1960s. Picture: TSPL
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A LITTLE over 40 years ago, a colossal chunk of Edinburgh city centre, situated only a stone’s throw from Princes Street, faced such relentless annihilation that few similarities are visible today.

Although Leith Street, St James Square and Greenside have managed to survive in name, the removal of their original buildings and layouts between 1966 and 1972 have rendered this district of Edinburgh virtually unrecognisable. Plans to redevelop the areas to the south east of Princes Street were first unveiled as early as the late 1940s. Following the trend of many other British cities of the era, The Edinburgh Civic Survey imagined a futuristic, automobile-friendly city centre that would usher out the old and embrace the new.

Leith Street in 1958. Top Deck restaurant, John Collier menswear and Timpson's shoe shop are all visible. Picture: TSPL

Leith Street in 1958. Top Deck restaurant, John Collier menswear and Timpson's shoe shop are all visible. Picture: TSPL

Scotland’s capital would indeed go on to be significantly altered over the next 30 years, but the mass shredding of the city’s historic architecture and heritage envisaged by the Edinburgh Corporation was never fully realised.

The areas in and around Leith Street, St James Square and Greenside, however, failed to escape the tides of change.

St James Square, with its collection of pleasant Georgian townhouses and tenements, initially conceived by New Town architect James Craig in 1773, met a swift demise. Today, only one side of the Craig’s square remains adjacent to the large, looming bulk of New St Andrew’s House, isolated and unrecognisable as part of the St James Square grand design. It is a testament to how heavily the axe fell.

Nearby Leith Street, a thriving hub of activity for over 150 years, was next on the list.

A number of shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs and dance halls lined either side of the roadway with an attractive upper level terrace akin to Victoria Street providing further retail space.

Fairleys dance hall, John Colliers and Burtons tailoring, Hoy’s furniture store, The Top Storey club, The Register Tap bar and Jeromes photo studio are among some of the most fondly recalled establishments from the street for those of a certain generation.

Further down from Leith Street lay Greenside, a mainly residential area that adorned the north western ridge of Calton Hill. It had been deemed unfit for human habitation by the authorities, an urban slum that stood little hope of regeneration in this age of mass modernisation.

A new residential area was proposed but never built, hence the Leith Street ‘bridge to nowhere’ which had been originally intended to link the new development with the St James shopping centre. The Omni Centre eventually filled the gap in 2001.

Across from Greenside, there also stood a triangular bank of buildings hemmed between Broughton Street and Picardy Place.

One of the buildings on this block, No 11 Picardy Place had been the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A new roundabout system was put in place soon after the Picardy triangle’s demolition.

A notorious light sculpture, that consistently failed to switch on, stood for a brief period in the centre of the new intersection throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s.

The St James Centre and New St Andrew’s House complex that went on to replace much of Leith Street and its neighbouring environs is still with us today. Since their inception, they have often met with widespread public derision, with one of the main criticisms being that the architecture is crassly unsympathetic to its surroundings. Both the St James Centre and New St Andrew’s House are expected to be demolished within the next 10 years.

In Edinburgh, like many cities throughout the UK, the much celebrated swing of sixties pop culture was often counterbalanced with the persistent swing of the wrecking ball during the same decade that threatened to erase the past.