IT HAD been labelled one of Britain’s most architecturally valuable buildings, but nothing could halt the destruction of Princes Street’s magnificent “palazzo”.
The palazzo in question belonged to the Life Association of Scotland (LAS) insurance company.
It was constructed between 1855 and 1858 above and around the foundations of three Georgian townhouses at 81, 82 and 83 Princes Street. An imposing structure, when it opened it was among the tallest buildings on Princes Street, and by far the grandest.
Edinburgh-born architect David Rhind was responsible for its majestic façade, which would serve as the entrance to the new head office for insurers the Life Association of Scotland. Sir Charles Barry, famed for his role in supervising the construction of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, assisted with the design of the lower floors and mezzanine level to incorporate a hotel and a commercial unit. Rhind, like Barry, was a disciple of the Italian Renaissance and Classical styles who had won plaudits a decade earlier for designing the spectacular Greco-Roman inspired headquarters for the Commercial Bank of Scotland on George Street (now the Dome).
Banks and insurance firms were transforming Scotland’s cities in the 1840s and ’50s with a constant influx of ever more ostentatious building designs. The aim was to essentially out-swank your competitors. Rhind and Barry’s 1855 collaboration would not disappoint. The LAS building echoed the finest architecture of the Renaissance-era; a true palazzo for Princes Street with its variety of elaborate window bays and cornices, beautifully-fashioned sculptures, and stunning supporting pillars styled in each of the three ancient orders.
A cover star for the hugely-popular Illustrated London News in October 1859, the premises would go on to be regarded by some as the finest Victorian building ever to grace Princes Street, with distinguished American architectural historian, Henry Russell Hitchcock, describing it as “the best of all buildings in Britain in the Venetian High Renaissance style”. A real pity then that there’s nothing of it left.
In 1967, despite ardent opposition from a swell of conservation lobbyists and the general public, the LAS building, one of Princes Street’s proudest edifices, was razed to the ground. Demolition was reportedly undertaken in the wee hours in an effort to prevent any unwanted interventions.
The LAS’ immediate neighbour, the New Club, an elegantly-appointed William Burn creation dating from 1837, had met a similar fate just months earlier (albeit with marginally less public outcry). Out were the grand Victorian insurance offices, hotels, clubs and department stores as the Capital once again looked to reinvent its main drag, this time as a thriving, modern shopping precinct tailored explicitly for the 20th century high street consumer. The concrete replacements for the New Club and LAS buildings adhered to the infamous Princes Street Panel formula, a series of radical plans conceived years earlier with the aim to purge Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare of all its existing architecture. The Panel recommended a “comprehensive redevelopment” of Princes Street. All new builds would conform to a unified design, restoring the consistency in scale and building materials of the Georgian era. A continuous upper level walkway would also run the length of the street, effectively doubling the available retail space. Evidence of this is still visible today. At least half a dozen of Princes Street’s most celebrated buildings fell between 1965 and 1975 before the tide began to turn and Edinburgh began to re-evaluate the importance of retaining its wider architectural heritage.