The Dundee Waterfront has seen a lot of change in recent years. The Olympia has moved, the train station is being reborn and the new grid road layout has settled around Slessor Gardens. The finishing touch to the new Waterfront will be the V&A Dundee. Due to open its doors next year, the striking building is a constant topic of discussion in the City (particularly in our office as we get quite a good view of it). This month’s FDCA talk will be on the very subject. However the V&A is not the first impressive building to be planned for the waterfront.
Dundee was a boom town in the mid 19th century and this included her port. Goods came in from across the world, including coal, timber, flax, cotton, and of course the world famous jute, ready for the mills. Originally cargo arrived on sail boats, that would unload their freight at the busy harbour, including the Earl Grey Dock. But as sails were replaced with steam and ships continued to get bigger, the old docks could no longer cope. Wharfs were built further along the shore at the Stannergate and the old docks became largely redundant.
In the early 1900s the Town Corporation realised that the old Town House was no longer fit for purpose. A new civic hall was needed. Improvements were also needed to the many narrow, dark and overcrowded areas of the city centre, including the Overgate, Greenmarket and the Vault. The City Engineer and Architect, James Thomson, was tasked with designing the improvements and the new civic centre. Thomson went to town. He designed an elaborate City Hall, similar in style to many US Capitol buildings. His plans also included raised gardens, a market hall and widened streets leading from the High Street to the waterfront. The City Hall, was to be built on the filled in Earl Grey Dock – by now deemed to be of little modern use. The Dundee Courier described the plans as “so elaborate and far-reaching that the city would have difficulty in facing them”.
His plans were put to the Council. In general there was support for the scheme, but an underlying feeling that the City Hall was too large, too grand and, perhaps most importantly, too expensive for Dundee. The Lord Provost feared that the plans were “trying to make of Dundee something, perhaps, that she was never intended to be”, but was convinced that the plans were achievable. The council started to buy up land (including 37 High Street) and planned for demolition.
Fears over the cost of the building were alleviated in early 1914 when Sir James K. Caird stepped in. The wealthy Jute baron offered to give £100,000 towards the building if they were done to his designs. So Thomson went back to the drawing board and came up with a more sedate, rectangular civic hall accompanied by a City Square in the place of his planned raised gardens. Caird approved. All systems were go and the King and Queen were invited to lay the foundation stone in July 1914. The outbreak of WW1 the following month led to a slow down and eventual halt in construction. In the end it took 9 years to build the city hall, and it was finally opened on 26 October 1923 as the Caird Hall in honour of her benefactor. The Earl Grey dock managed to survive until the 1960s when she was filled in to build the Tay Road Bridge.