Ebenezer Macrae trans­formed the liv­ing con­di­tions of Ed­in­burgh’s work­ing class

The Scots Magazine - - Contents - By LAURA BROWN

DUR­ING the in­ter­war years, one man was re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing Ed­in­burgh’s cher­ished ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory while also bring­ing the city into the mod­ern world by cre­at­ing so­cial hous­ing de­vel­op­ments and pub­lic ameni­ties like li­braries and schools.

Though his fore­name, thanks to Charles Dick­ens, has be­come short­hand for a miserly mis­an­thrope, dur­ing his two decades as City Ar­chi­tect, Ebenezer Macrae em­bod­ied the orig­i­nal mean­ing of his name – “stone of help”. One stone at a time, he helped build a live­able, work­able Ed­in­burgh that didn’t lose an ounce of its beauty, and his legacy can still be seen in the city to­day.

Ebenezer trained as an ar­chi­tect be­fore serv­ing in the Royal En­gi­neers dur­ing the First World War. After be­ing ap­pointed City Ar­chi­tect in 1925, and then Di­rec­tor of Hous­ing the fol­low­ing year, his mis­sion was to cre­ate coun­cil hous­ing that would ben­e­fit the city’s work­ing classes by be­ing in­ex­pen­sive, clean, well-lit and spa­cious. The coun­cil wasn’t at all sure about this plan – they pre­ferred the idea of sub­si­dis­ing pri­vate rentals – but Ebenezer wouldn’t budge. His per­se­ver­ance paid off, and though he had many fi­nan­cial ob­sta­cles in his way, new hous­ing sprang up at a star­tling rate through­out the city.

He cham­pi­oned the hum­ble ten­e­ment as af­ford­able hous­ing close to peo­ple’s work­places, in or­der to help them cut their travel costs. It took a brave man to pro­pose erect­ing new ten­e­ments in the his­toric Old Town, but his in­fill de­vel­op­ments were im­pres­sively sym­pa­thetic to the tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture. His se­cret? He re­fused to use con­crete blocks, fight­ing for stone and ren­dered brick fa­cades in­stead. He also painstak­ingly re­stored ex­ist­ing build­ings, in­clud­ing a re­vamp of the Canon­gate’s 17th and 18th cen­tury ten­e­ments.

The sub­urbs also ben­e­fit­ted from Ebenezer’s vi­sion and the hous­ing de­part­ment built 12,000 new homes dur­ing his 21 years as City Ar­chi­tect. In ad­di­tion to build­ing ten­e­ments, hous­ing es­tates, and dozens of pub­lic build­ings, Ebenezer’s mag­num opus

“His legacy can still be seen in the cap­i­tal to­day

was the re­design and ex­ten­sion of the mighty Por­to­bello Power Sta­tion. The sta­tion sup­plied Ed­in­burgh’s elec­tric­ity for more than 50 years, its chim­ney loom­ing over the rooftops un­til the late 1970s.

He was also very keen on street fur­ni­ture, in­stalling tram shel­ters, traf­fic lights and street lamps across the city, as well as de­sign­ing its iconic blue po­lice boxes. But Ebenezer knew that a mod­ern cap­i­tal city couldn’t sur­vive by sim­ply be­ing a mon­u­ment to its ar­chi­tec­tural past. He not only ex­panded Ed­in­burgh, but vastly im­proved the lives of the or­di­nary peo­ple who called it home.

Por­to­bello Power Sta­tion

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