My favourite building: The Willow Tea Rooms

By Rachel Kacir, GCHT Heritage Outreach Manager

“A TREASURE-BOX OF SPECIALNESS’

The Room de Luxe at the Willow Tea Rooms has been described as “a kind of glittering treasure-box of specialness” by author Perilla Kinchin. But following a lack of investment, by the time the building was bought by the Willow Tea Rooms Trust in 2014 it had lost its shine. Supported by grant funding from Glasgow City Heritage Trust, a four year restoration project followed, securing the future of the only surviving example of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work for his patron, local entrepreneur Kate Cranston.

A WARM GLASGOW WELCOME

After graduating I worked at the Willow Tea Rooms for several years. We were usually run off our feet, welcoming visitors from around the world who had come to see what was left of the original interiors designed by the well known Glasgow architect. Sometimes the queue would spill down the stairs and onto the street, and servers would rush around, taking orders, delivering food, and sometimes searching for an elusive teaspoon when the cutlery supply couldn’t keep up with the demand for afternoon teas!

THE ROOM DE LUXE

Occasionally though I would take a step back and daydream about what the tea rooms must have looked like in their heyday, the Room de Luxe in particular. It had always been the jewel in the Willow crown. The decoration here was particularly plush, indeed those who chose to dine in this room had to pay an extra penny for the privilege.

“DRIPS OF GLASS’

Leaded mirrored glass panels adorned with willow motifs lined the room, culminating in a spectacular set of doors at the entrance. What fascinated me most though was the light fittings and what had become of them. When I worked there replacements in a standard Mackintosh style were in place. However, I’d seen the one surviving photo of the originals, and a quote from Mary Newbery Sturrock, daughter of Glasgow School of Art Director Frances Newbery, where she described the light as “drips of pink glass” and laments that “nobody knows what happened to that light. It was absolutely, perfectly beautiful”.

RECREATING MACKINTOSH’S UNIQUE DESIGNS

Luckily, the Willow Tea Rooms Trust were able to draw on the skills of a range of craftspeople to recreate Mackintosh’s unique designs, including these lights. In this video glass specialists Rab MacInnes and Ingrid Phillips explain how they had to depart from their usual practice to achieve the desired result for the chandeliers, such as including glass bubbles or ‘seeds’ in the glass when usually the goal is to eliminate them.

 

TRADITIONAL CRAFTS

I still hope that some day the original light fittings will be discovered in somebody’s attic, but until then I’m glad we still have traditional craft practitioners able to faithfully recreate them, enabling this part of Glasgow’s past to continue to be part of its present. If you enjoy arts and crafts activities, we run regular practical workshops. Join our mailing list to stay up-to-date! 

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