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4 Jun 2018

We must save this house

The Hill House seen from the garden on a sunny day. Green hedges follow the line of the wall in the foreground.
As we mark Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 150th birthday, one of his finest creations is in peril. We head to the Hill House to hear about an ingenious rescue plan.

To walk around the Hill House, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1904 masterpiece, is to witness at first hand a cultural legacy under threat. This home, built for one family but loved by generations of visitors, has been a beacon for Scottish and European culture for more than a century. Now, though, that beacon is at risk of being extinguished. The problem is so mundane and yet so destructive: rain. Water stains form brown archipelagos on the ceilings and walls, and above the fireplaces the paint has bubbled and flaked.

The back of a wooden frame above one of the windows is crusted with what, at first glance, appears to be frost. This whitening is actually salt deposits from the flue, caused by water finding its way into the wall and then down the wood. ‘It’s incredibly sad to see the damage,’ says Richard Williams, the Trust’s general manager for Glasgow & West and the figurehead for the Hill House conservation campaign. ‘But it’s something that we can and should fix.’

A man surveys the damage, using a thin cane to point out damp areas, above a window in the Hill House. The window is covered by curtains made from a light fabric featuring Mackintosh motifs.
The damage is something that we can and should fix.

The Hill House, overlooking the Argyll town of Helensburgh, was commissioned in 1902 by the prosperous publisher Walter Blackie. He chose as his architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, then just 33, whose Glasgow School of Art was nearing completion. ‘Here is the house,’ said Mackintosh to the Blackies on completion. ‘It is not an Italian villa, an English mansion house, a Swiss chalet or a Scotch castle. It is a dwelling house.’

It was to be a modern house for a modern family, and this meant modern materials. Mackintosh decided to cover the red sandstone with harling that was made not from lime render, as would have been traditional, but from a material that was new to the construction market: Portland cement. Considered a ‘wonder material’ by the trade, it failed to live up to its promise – in fact, it was never fit for purpose. Rain quickly became trapped behind the harling and seeped through the sandstone, causing damp, rot and leaks. The result? After more than a hundred years of wet weather sweeping across the Clyde and battering the walls, the Hill House is, as National Trust for Scotland President Neil Oliver put it, ‘dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water’.

How, then, to get the pill out of the glass? What is proposed is ‘the Box’ – a giant shield made from fine stainless-steel mesh that will envelop the whole of the Hill House and part of its gardens, allowing the walls to dry out and solutions to be researched and implemented. The property will be closed for around 16 weeks while the Box is constructed, but thereafter will remain open. Indeed, the idea is that it’ll be more open than ever – visitors will be able to climb elevated walkways to access views of the building, including the roof, which have not been possible to see before – viewing conservation in action as they go.

An artist's impression of the giant shield, made from fine stainless-steel mesh, that will envelop the whole of the Hill House
A giant shield, made from fine stainless-steel mesh, will envelop the whole of the Hill House.

To make this happen, however, we need to raise £1.5 million by spring 2019. You, as a member of the Trust, can play a vital part in this. ‘With every year we wait, the damage will get worse, and the time and effort it takes to fix it will get bigger,’ explains Richard. ‘The damage should be reversible – but only if we act now.’

In February, every National Trust for Scotland member received a letter about the Box appeal through the door. You might already have contributed, or you may have put the letter to one side in your ‘to-do’ pile. We know that asking our members for help in this way marks a departure for the Trust, but as the world celebrates the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, we feel it’s crucial that you know just how big a challenge his domestic masterpiece faces.

‘If it wasn’t for our members we wouldn’t be able to look after the heritage of Scotland in the way that we can,’ says Richard. The Hill House was taken on by the Trust in the 1980s, and it has been cherished by members ever since. To give money now is to belong to a tradition of guardianship. You are the shield.

The Hill House is special. On a bright, early-spring afternoon there’s a golden light on the Clyde. A robin pecks at a windfall apple, each as rosy and plump as the other. Sunbeams slant between the curtains (which are kept drawn to help preserve the paint finishes and textiles) and pick out magical details: gilt lettering on the spines of the books in Mr Blackie’s library; stencilled roses on the walls; the Turkish delight-coloured glass panels in the doors. The decades fall away, scattered petals, and it’s easy to imagine this place as it would have been when it was fresh and new.

A detail of a stencilled wall decoration with blue vertical lines and pink Mackintosh roses.
Stencilled roses on the walls

The artist Margaret Macdonald, the architect’s wife, is in the drawing room, putting the finishing touches to the gesso panel above the fireplace; her red hair is pinned up beneath a hat, as the Blackie daughters would later recall, and she applies plaster from a piping bag as if icing a cake. Mackintosh himself, dark and handsome, rather bohemian in dress, has his back to the fire, and is talking to Walter Blackie. It is 1904, a moment of personal and cultural optimism. No one knows of the wars to come. No one knows that Mackintosh will die too young and unappreciated. No one understands that this house will, in time, become a national treasure.

Fast forward to 2018. There are buckets on the floor of the drawing room, positioned to catch the drips. The oak floor is water-stained. Upstairs, in the master bedroom, a wall of stencilled roses have been partly lost to rot. There have been several repairs to the exterior and interior, both by the Trust and by former owners – all to no avail.

A close-up view of a section of the Hill House exterior, just below the roof, where water damage has caused severe cracking of the outer render.
A damaged exterior wall at the Hill House

What is it like for Richard and his team to witness this? ‘What I want to do is reverse all of the technical damage, and get back to that sense of optimism, light, joy and love here. I want to restore the Hill House as that beautiful family home that both Blackie and Mackintosh intended it to be.

‘There is something about the design, the use of space, the use of light, which is just attractive to the human soul,’ says Richard simply. ‘It’s a very peaceful space in which to spend time. It’s not a monument. It has a presence; it wants people to be in it. And it would be terribly sad if it were gone.’

A silence falls. The only sound comes from the hall: a steady solemn beat heard in this place since 1904 and, one hopes, for many years to come. The clock is ticking.

A Mackintosh-designed long wall clock in the hall of the Hill House, The square face has Roman numerals and two gold pendulums hang beneath it.
The clock in the hall at the Hill House

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