The typical New Town street is a terrace of graceful and neat terraced houses, but 36 St Andrew Square was designed to break that rule. In its day it would have stood out as the grandest house in the New Town, but even now it is still an imposing building. It also has a spectacular interior, which must count as one of the treasures of the city.
The building dates back to 1772, and was built for one of the wealthiest men in Scotland at that time, Sir Laurence Dundas. He was a self-made man, well versed in the shady dealings of Georgian commerce and politics. Dundas made his fortune by providing supplies for the army through his post as Commissary-General. With the Jacobite rebellions quickly followed by a major war in Europe, there were many soldiers to feed and so vast profits for Sir Laurence, estimated at between £600,000 and £800,000.
He had already bought many fine houses and estates, when his eye fell on a prime spot in the New Town plan, in what was to become St Andrew Square. Acting quickly before anyone could object, he bought a plot of land which had been earmarked for a church because of its prominent position.
Set in its own grounds, the building would have appeared more like a country mansion than a townhouse, and by far the grandest in the New Town. The architect William Chambers designed a building in the latest fashionable taste, a compact neo-classical villa with decorative features inspired by ancient Rome, following the lead set by Marble Hill House in London.
There is an old story that Sir Laurence staked his splendid new house in a bet with one General Scott. When he lost the bet, Dundas decided instead to build the general a replica in Drummond Place. Unfortunately Sir Laurence was not able to enjoy his house for long. Only nine years after it was built he died, and the building was bought by the government as the Excise Office for Scotland. To this day the royal coat of arms, picked out in gold leaf, still adorns the front of the building.
In 1825 it was bought by the Royal Bank of Scotland to be used as their head office. They carried out several changes, including taking out a floor to create the soaring entrance hall and installing a statue in the forecourt to the bank’s governor, the fourth earl of Hopetoun. The biggest change came in 1857 when a new banking hall was added to the building. This has to be one of the most magnificent interiors in the city, with four wide arches supporting a blue dome pierced with glazed stars.
Today Sir Laurence’s mansion is another city centre branch of RBS. Although the rooms on the upper floors remain private, the entrance and banking hall are open to the public and well worth a visit. As you look up to admire the architecture though, also look out for a plaque on floor. It commemorates the importance of this point in the creation of the first New Town plan.