Rockville, Edinburgh

This is a post about a house called ‘Rockville’, 3 Napier Road, Edinburgh. It was built by James Gowans.

Rockville was demolished in 1966. Today, only the gateposts survive.

James Gowans first wife drowned in her bath aged 28 years.


25th August 1859

MR JAMES GOWAN’S VILLA AT MORNINGSIDE.

“THAT houses are built by rule” is a truth that Mr George Herbert need not have enunciated in the present era of architectural conventionalism, and particularly to the people of Edinburgh. Modern Athens—that is, the strictly modern part of our Athens, the new town—would perhaps carry the palm from any other city in Britain for unadorned rule and square buildings, and streets of painfully angular cut! Glancing at the new town, a stranger would be apt to imagine that the whole was laid out, planned, and executed, by the ingenuity of one brain, possessing but one single architectural idea—viz., that of correctness and nakedness of structure. None will dispute that nearly every window in the three grand parallel streets of Edinburgh are as like as one pea is to another, both in shape and size, one lintel of a single stone laid across from side to side with square cut jambs being the order of composition in each. Many will think that this cold and meaningless style, so utterly devoid of ornament and beauty, has something of the majestic about it—something which in its very disregard of elegance is attractive and interesting. But we think otherwise. How much would the proverbial beauty of our fair city he heightened, could the eye find relief amidst the substantial buildings of the new town in something Gothic or Romanesque, where national and thoughtful ornament prevailed. The extra cost of a pinnacle, a pointed window here and there, a specimen or two of scroll work and “twisted knots with roses laced,” would have exceeded, by very little, the expenditure upon that dryness of style on which it is wearisome to gaze. It is well known that within two or three miles of Edinburgh there are not half a dozen villas combining that elegance, and variety of style and lightness of character, which are so observable in the suburbs of English towns.

To what must this be ascribed? To nothing, we think, so much as a prevailing fear to step beyond the limits of conventionalism, and strike out a path, the novelty of which might provoke criticism or ridicule. We are told by Mr Ruskin that it is only by sympathetic regard to the domestic work done for each of us that we can either educate ourselves to the feeling, or our builders to the doing of what is entertaining and agreeable to the view. Upon this first principle Mr James Gowans, of Edinburgh, has proceeded in the elegant villa which he is erecting at Morningside, and which is designed for his own metropolitan retreat. So unique and artistic in character is this edifice, and so regardless of the prevailing styles of domestic architecture in this utilitarian age, that we are disposed to notice its features somewhat in detail.

The building, we may mention, is situated in the immediate vicinity of Merchiston Castle, and occupies a site at the corner of a new road not yet completed. Almost square in proportion, the house rises three storeys, and covers an area of similar dimensions to that occupied by an ordinary country mansion. The novelty or eccentricity of the structure consists in its being planned upon geometrical lines, a two-feet scale being the standard of measurement. By this means the exterior is made to represent a series of squares or panels of two feet square, over which a kind of rough ashlar trellis-work is laid —projecting slightly beyond the walls, the intersecting lines running at right angles. The stones or panels which compose the walls are of a varied description, consisting of specimens of rock from nearly every quarry in Scotland, and some from even as far distant as China. These are hewn to the necessary size, and fixed with the rough sides outward in the building, care being taken to make the vari-coloured stones contrast as harmoniously as possible. The effect thus produced is fantastic but not disagreeable, Facies non-omnibus una nec diversa tamen; and when regarded from a short distance has a certain richness of aspect which, however, is only apparent when viewing “the joint force and full effect of all.” Built in no one particular style of architecture, the house combines a mixture of several—in which the Italian and the Oriental prevail, a touch of Gothic being evident here and there, but only in the minor accessories of the building.

The windows are of varied kinds, and well suited to the character of the edifice. Some are arranged in bays, and others in squares, with shades, and the roof has fine storm windows of prominent appearance. ‘The chimneys are indescribable. They rise above the roof like an assortment of miniature pagodas with their sides formed in the same variable manner as the walls of the house, and have a decided originality about them, although they may perhaps be regarded as the most exceptionable part of the house. But the most prominent feature of this remarkable villa is the tower at the south-east angle, which, rising to a height of no less than eighty-four feet, somewhat resembles the renowned edifice of Pisa, although scarcely “inclining” in its direction. The tower is said to be Indian in character, but it has also something peculiarly Chinese about its construction. Lessening in area from the base, it rises in several distinct tiers, the separations of which are strongly marked in richly ornamented cornice work; and from each tier windows of an ecclesiastical appearance look out on either side. The two lower courses of the house—which, we may mention, is externally an excellent geological museum—are composed of specimens of the old rocks; and show these, on the north and east fronts, the rubble is principally from the brown rock of Redhall, mixed with fossil and quartz, from numerous districts. The main entrance is on the south side, and flanking this are panels representing different Scotch metals. Immediately above appears a selection of specimen rock from the Braid Hills, and in the upper storey of the west front, the porphyrite stone from China is arranged. The kitchen and outhouses occupy a detached site on the south side of the. building: but there is little in their construction out of the ordinary: saving the characteristic panelling which is the chief and prevailing feature of the whole work.

Internally the arrangements are commodious, the drawing and dining rooms being exceedingly spacious, and both looking out to the westward. Mr Gowans, who is an architect as well as builder, has, while aiming at may be said that he has produced a very handsome structure, which will add to the curiosities as well as the beauties of Edinburgh. The building may be considered as somewhat Pre-Raphaelite in character, not only in point of minute regard to detail, but in respect of outward construction—its walls, representing as they do, so many geological specimens, certainly “holding the mirror up to nature,” though nature blended with the delicate working of art.

Such is briefly the picturesque house at Morningside, which, as it has gradually sprung into life during the last few months, has furnished material for very much conversation and criticism. No house on or around the “ridgy steep” of our romantic city has a better chosen site. Standing on very elevated ground, it commands a lovely prospect, which is unsurpassed for variety and extent in Edinburgh. The Pentlands rise within a few miles on the south of the building; to the west lies the woody Corstorphine Hill ; on the north, the country slopes gently towards Cramond and its picturesque shore, and beyond are seen the cliffs of Fife—

“While broad between them rolled
The gallant Forth the eye might note
Whose islands on its bosom float-
Like emeralds chased in gold.”

In the distant northwest, the heathy Ochils may be distinctly seen; and from the summit of the Great Tower may be discerned, in a clear sunset, the shadowy peaks of Ben Lomond and Ben Ledi.

Whatever faults may be found with Mr Gowans’ architectural taste in constructing this singular and beautiful mansion—and we doubt not there will be many—all must give him credit for having selected one of the most lovely suburban sites in Scotland; and when it is considered that he has so daringly thrown down the gauntlet to conventionalism of style in a city where it prevails so largely, we cannot help feeling that the example he has set is alike bold and creditable.