Townhouse off Royal Mile reborn in £45m revamp

Tour guides Annabel Holland and Keith Baxter in period costumes in one of the new bathrooms. Picture: JANE BARLOW
Tour guides Annabel Holland and Keith Baxter in period costumes in one of the new bathrooms. Picture: JANE BARLOW
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FROM a 15th-century home to 21st-century offices – one of Edinburgh’s oldest townhouses has stood the test of time from its prime spot just off the Royal Mile for more than 500 years.

With solid stone walls and strong wooden beams, the Advocate’s Close property was already standing when the Flodden Wall was raised.

Original features have been restored. Picture: contributed

Original features have been restored. Picture: contributed

It kept its occupants warm and dry – and hopefully safe – throughout English attack, plagues, bloody civil war and right royal squabbles.

Even the advance of modern life barely dented its medieval charm, although much of it was temporarily hidden ­behind soulless panels and functional office desks.

Now, however, a delicate ­regeneration project has turned back the hands of time to reveal a fascinating snapshot of Old Town living, and at the same time breathed fresh life into a historic quarter which stood at the very heart of city life.

The stunning townhouse, once home to two of the city’s wealthiest merchants, Andrew Bertram and later Clement Cor, was unveiled yesterday as the jewel in the crown of a £45 million project which began five years ago to revamp some of the Old Town’s hidden lanes and buildings around Advocate’s Close, regenerating them as a thriving business and leisure hub.

View of the serviced apartments. Picture: JANE BARLOW

View of the serviced apartments. Picture: JANE BARLOW

While work continues to create up to 45 serviced apartments for tourists to sit alongside the recently opened 208-room Motel One hotel, three new restaurants, including Zizzi’s, and new office space, the former medieval townhouse – with its £850-a-night price tag for visitors – can definitely claim the title of the oldest new property in the Capital.

For beyond its entrance, complete with original stone carved lintel which reminds visitors “blessed be God and all his gifts” is a fascinating combination of original architectural features, wooden beams, painted wall panels, old fireplaces and stonework, restored and reborn with all mod cons for a new age.

It’s a return to past glory for a property that was originally a home for the well-heeled and which, as well-off residents left for better properties in the New Town, later evolved into a brewery, had its 15th-century fireplaces bricked up and put out of use, and then became bland offices.

According to local historian Frank McGrail, of Mercat Tours, its rebirth along with the surrounding redevelopment of Advocate’s Close including sympathetic 21st-century additions, is a remarkable transformation for what had become a “dead” zone within the Old Town.

The outlook over Princes Street Gardens. Picture: JANE BARLOW

The outlook over Princes Street Gardens. Picture: JANE BARLOW

“You can clearly see the medieval townhouse with rough stone from Salisbury Crags and walls built like a dry stone dyke, alongside the sandstone of the 19th-century tenement. For five centuries, the Old Town has been continuously developed and this is part of that process.

“The close is now opened up and attractive for people to explore.”

Work has been overseen by developer The Chris Stewart Group which took over derelict properties and unused tenement blocks in the area along with the 15th century townhouse and embarked on one of the city’s most challenging regeneration projects.

During the course of the work, stonemasons built the first crows step gable to be constructed in the city for over 100 years and uncovered previously buried interconnecting passageways linking Advocate’s Close to Roxburgh Close. They faced particular problems – for while most of the buildings on the site are listed by Historic Scotland and date from the 16th century onwards, years of use as Edinburgh City Council offices meant historic features had been hidden for decades.

Yet, remarkably, the project was accomplished without the disruption of large cranes or heavy plant machinery – making it a model for historic city centre regeneration.

“There were properties that were just general council offices which had not been used for a long time,” explains Julie Grieve, chief executive of Old Town Chambers, the name given to the luxury serviced apartment development. “Some original features were hidden behind panels, and in some cases the work was very technical and everyone had to be very careful. This part of the Old Town was closed off for a long time and it’s been good to get it back into use.”

Chris Stewart, chief executive of The Chris Stewart Group, said the project was: “A labour of love, with every detail meticulously planned and executed.

“We have designed in open spaces and new square as well as created vistas from the top of the close out and over Princes Street Gardens and beyond. It’s a privilege to develop such a site.”

Mercantile beginnings

THE townhouse was the home of 15th century merchant Andrew Bertram, who traded from nearby Luckenbooths.

Later it was occupied by wealthy Baillie Cor, who had marriage lintels ‘CC and HB’ carved into the stonework over the doorway. The Cor family added high-quality painted ceilings and wooden beams. Most recently, the townhouse was used as offices by the Old Town Conservation Trust.