Lost Edinburgh: Rockville

STANDING at the corner of Napier Road and Spylaw in the capital’s affluent Merchiston area, the striking and impressive Rockville building is arguably the most extraordinary looking structure that the city has ever lost.

Monday, 27th May 2013, 9:28 pm
Picture: Canmore
Picture: Canmore

Rockville was described as “a building to delight every child who enjoys a fairy tale” and was the creation of Sir James Gowans in 1858 with the intention of housing him and his wife. Sir Gowans, born in Blackness near Falkirk, was a well-known architect, railway engineer and quarry owner who had a habit of building his own residences. Shortly after the completion of Rockville, the esteemed Gowans received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in recognition of his organisation of the 1886 Edinburgh International Exhibition.

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Affectionately referred to by locals as “The Pagoda”, “The Chinese House”, “Tottering Towers” and “Crazy Manor”, Rockville consisted of a three-storey house with an adjoining five-storey, 64-ft viewing tower. The exquisite chequerboard pattern of the façade resembled a Hansel and Gretel-style gingerbread house that was no less intricate in detail than anything out of a fairy tale novel. The exterior featured a huge variety of stones selected from every quarry in Scotland with samples from continental Europe and even as far afield as China. Each roof dormer was created in an elaborately different style from the last. The variety of window shapes and surrounds, the tall, elegant chimney stacks and delicate design of the iron balusters provided a somewhat eerie Gothic appearance. The extravagant and spacious interior featured hot water and gas in all rooms and above the kitchen area was carved a motto reading “Waste Not, Want Not” - an odd maxim perhaps, for a house that appeared to unnecessarily embrace the incorporation of ostentatious design features as well as the use of costly building materials.

Rockville would go on to be described as “the embodiment of a Gothic novel” with Gowans fervently refuting this suggestion by claiming that its rather flamboyant design had “no desire to create novelty”. Rockville was “an experiment in building rationally using a modular grid system to produce an economic and aesthetically pleasing result”. Few would argue that it failed to succeed in respect of its aesthetic value.

The decision to demolish Rockville in the mid-1960s instigated a huge public outcry and an impressive 2,500 signatures were collected in the petition to save the structure. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the conservationists, the building finally disappeared in 1966. The three blocks of flats which now adorn the site offer a markedly lessened aesthetic impact than what had went before. The opulent essence of Rockville remains only in the surviving stone wall and gateposts on Napier Road.