Many generations of students at the University of Edinburgh will have fond memories of time spent in Teviot Row House, others will remember the Fringe Club of past years and the Gilded Balloon of today. It is one of the city’s most important venues, but also a fascinating piece of architecture in its own right.
It opened its doors in 1889, making it the oldest purpose-built student union in the world. It was the inspiration of the university’s new ‘Student Representative Council’ formed a few years before, who saw an urgent need to provide facilities catering to all the students’ needs. The essential requirements of a Victorian student were quite different to those of today, and the building was to include billiard rooms, a servants hall, tea and luncheon rooms, a writing room, library, dressing room, ‘retiring room’, barber, and a fives courts in the basement.
Sydney Mitchell was appointed to design the new building, one of the city’s most important architects, responsible for many of Edinburgh’s most distinctive buildings such as Ramsay Garden and Well Court. In 1885 he was in charge of the restoration of the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile, a high profile project for a relatively young and inexperienced architect.
Many of Sydney Mitchell’s buildings show his great interest in Scottish buildings of the Renaissance period, and Teviot Row House is a good example. Its distinctive frontage has twin drum shaped towers, inspired by the sixteenth-century palaces of Holyrood and Falkland. Inside there are turnpike stairs, gothic windows and a magnificent hammer-beam roof for the Debating Hall.
Something of that Victorian atmosphere lasted until comparatively recently. One alumni recalls: “Friday lunchtime’s little treat in the 1970s was the sophistication of a sit-down 3-course lunch in the Library Bar served by waitresses of uncertain age dressed in black waitressy uniforms complete with frilly white pinnies emblazoned with gravy stains.” It was only in 1970 that the bar sold spirits for the first time, and the year after the first female students were admitted.
In 1981 the building became home to the Fringe Club, where every night audiences could see snippets from shows across the programme. Since 2003 it has been used by the Gilded Balloon as a major venue for their brand of stand-up comedy and cabaret, hosting over 100 shows per day from local and international performers.
For many students though, Teviot Row House will be synonymous with its famed moose head, displayed above one its archways. The story goes that any group of students who are able to remove the head and provide evidence that they have re-located it more than a mile from the building will have their names placed on a plaque next to the head.
Of course, the building has been extended and altered over the years, but much of its original character has remained. Much of the building is open to the general public during the week, and it is worth going to explore and admire its distinctive architecture.