Madeira Mondays: A Visit to the Hill House (Helensburgh, Scotland)

Keeping historic houses in good condition isn’t always an easy job. And the folks at The Hill House in Helensburgh have had a particularly challenging time. This quirky and unique house – designed by the wildly creative Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1900 – has been threatened recently by water damage. You’ll know if you’ve been to Scotland, but it can get pretty wet here!! Water got into the walls of this beautiful house and was threatening its existence. So that led them to a drastic and very inventive solution to save the house.

As you can see from this photo I took on my recent trip there: The Hill House has been enclosed in a protective metal ‘Box’. The box shelters it from the elements and gives it a chance to dry out. It’s made from steel frames and covered in chainmail mesh, and it’s full of walkways that allow visitors to not only walk around the house but actually to walk OVER it and look down at the roof (which I’ll show you pictures of in a second!).

This is a super innovative, creative and architecturally interesting solution to a problem (necessity is the mother of invention, I guess!) and, as their signage outside states, it’s ‘one of the most ambitious heritage projects in the world.’

This is what it looks like when you’re inside the Box!

I was lucky enough to go to Helensburgh and see both the house and its Box last week! The Georgian House very kindly takes volunteers like me on outings across Scotland as a ‘thank you’. We get a choice of different field trips and I picked The Hill House because I like Charles Rennie Mackintosh (if you’re ever in Glasgow, check out his Willow Tea Rooms!) and I wanted to see the Box.

The house was designed for wealthy Glasgow publishers the Blackie family. They made mostly children’s educational books and, as one guide explained to me, they capitalized on a change in the late 19th century requiring all children to go to school. Suddenly more educational books were needed and the Blackies were able to swoop in and make lots of reference books etc. And they were successful enough to build something like The Hill House.

Some of the Blackie family books:

The married duo of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the artist Margaret Macdonald collaborated to create most of the house – from the building itself to what’s inside. I’m not super knowledgable about architecture, but their style is very distinctive and you know it when you see it! It has a bit of an art deco kind of vibe, mixed with sort of Japanese influences. Geometric and bold. I suppose it’s easier to just show what it looks like. Each room in the house was very unique, but to give you some idea, here’s the shadowy and almost sultry entryway:

And here’s one of their characteristic light fixtures in the dining room:

And here’s a chair with a long skinny back…I really associate this style of chair with Mackintosh and I’ve never seen another chair like it!

And finally, a snapshot of their parlor (living room):

The house is worth seeing for its design details alone, especially if you like interior design! But I think it’s definitely worth visiting now that it has the Box project going on, because you can walk all around it too and explore it from different angles. It added a whole other layer (literally!) to the experience.

Sorry this one of me is slightly blurry!

So I’d definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area! If you go, you can comment here and let me know what’s currently going on with the Box. As of my writing this, they aren’t sure what’s in store for the future. Visitors are asked to ‘vote’ on whether they think the property should keep it. I voted on yes, but (true to my Libra nature) I can see it both ways.

This was my ‘vote’ to keep the Box

Thanks so much for reading and hope you enjoyed this virtual visit to The Hill House. Thanks too to The Hill House staff for the private tour of the place and for keeping this unique structure alive despite all the challenges. I’m certainly grateful that we can still see it.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month and thanks for reading!

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