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Going, going, gone: The demolition of St Nicholas House 10 years ago in photos

The final stage of demolition of St Nicholas House over the summer of 2014 was like a public post-mortem of Aberdeen's failed 1960s architecture. We look back at its history in photos.

St Nicholas House in 1999, and during the final stages of demolition in June 2014. Image: Roddie Reid/DC Thomson
St Nicholas House in 1999, and during the final stages of demolition in June 2014. Image: Roddie Reid/DC Thomson

A whole 10 years has passed since St Nicholas House was demolished, disappearing from Aberdeen’s skyline forever.

When the concrete building began to rise from Broad Street in the 1960s, it was said “Aberdeen builds for the future”.

But fewer than 50 years later, St Nicholas House – a building Aberdonians loved to hate – was carefully picked apart floor by floor.

A promotion for St Nicholas House in 1965. Image: DC Thomson

St Nicholas House cost nearly £2 million to build, and it cost nearly £2 million to demolish.

The final stage of demolition over the summer of 2014 was like a public post-mortem of Aberdeen’s failed 1960s architecture.

Far from building for the future, the 15-floor building quickly looked older and shabbier than the historic buildings it overlooked.

As often happens, the old ways and the old materials triumphed over the new.

1920s: The west side of Aberdeen’s Broad Street as it was in 1920s. These shops were opposite Marischal College and were demolished piecemeal after 1945 and later became the site of St Nicholas House. Image: DC Thomson

Aberdonians were not keen on St Nicholas House plans

Even at the time, Aberdonians were not enamoured with the plans for St Nicholas House.

But this isn’t a criticism of the architect George Keith. The towering office was of its time.

Never again could architectural landmarks like Marischal College, Woolmanhill Hospital or the majority of Union Street be built.

1965: Work beginning on the new council headquarters site. Image: DC Thomson

And perhaps they too were considered gaudy and modern at the time.

The construction of solid granite buildings had tailed off by the 20th Century – by then it was mostly used as cladding or facing.

And by the 1960s, the architectural standard was concrete, open plan, large plate-glass windows and flat roofs.

Heritage and restoration in planning was in its infancy. Why keep historic but tired, grey granite buildings when you could have a modern “municipal marvel” like St Nicholas House?

1966: The new council HQ starting to take shape in the old Guestrow car park. Image: DC Thomson

New council HQ would tower 170ft over city

When Mr Keith unveiled his vision for the council’s flagship building in 1961, it had been years in the making.

In 1956, Lord Provost Stephen said no business in Aberdeen would tolerate the conditions council staff worked in.

But with no space to build outwards in the city centre, the only way was up – 170ft up to be precise.

Mr Keith did not intend to build a high-rise, but as more departments were to be brought under the same roof, more floors had to be added.

1967: It was said naming the new municipal offices ‘St Nicholas’ was a reminder to Aberdonians that he is the city’s patron saint. Image: DC Thomson

St Nicholas House was never going to sit comfortably with the grandeur of Marischal College.

It was a tricky brief; a practical office block could never compete with the council’s Town House – the city’s civic heart.

So, the tower was designed at right angles with Broad Street, with just three storeys facing Marischal College, wrapping around Provost Skene’s House.

St Nicholas House was scaled back when budget was rumoured to be slashed

Builder and contractor JK Hall said: “I am confident that when it is completed it will be an outstanding example of a civic centre and of modern architecture.”

It certainly stood out, and it was certainly modern.

1967: A cloud of lime rises as the gable end of a building falls as part of the demolition of old properties in Broad Street to make way for St Nicholas House. Image: DC Thomson

Initially St Nicholas house was to be built in three phases. As the first got under way in 1965, the face of Broad Street changed forever.

But, with rumoured budget cuts halfway through, a planned glass-fronted walkway linking Union Street and Netherkirkgate was dropped.

Mr Keith was said to be hurt by the criticism of his vision, which was never fully realised.

Inside, the building contained ‘novel features’ like moveable walls. And instead of conventional ventilation, it had suspended ceiling tiles that ‘breathed’ through porous holes.

1967: St Nicholas House was built at right angles to Marischal College. Image: DC Thomson

Compromises during build caused problems years down the line

More than 600 council workers were housed at St Nicholas House when complete in 1968.

Until then, staff were scattered across offices, converted houses or former shops in Carden Place, King Street, Bon-Accord Crescent, Broad Street and other locations.

There was a staff restaurant on the top floor, an underground car park, and “three high-speed lifts that could travel 500ft-a-minute”.

The city council architect department was one of the first to move in, the well-lit office was a welcome contrast to the ‘rabbit warren’ of small rooms it had occupied at number 11 Broad Street.

1967: No harnesses or hard hats here as men get to work building St Nicholas House. Image: DC Thomson

And while St Nicholas House was not popular, the memories it held for council staff – many of whom would have worked their entire careers there – cannot be overlooked.

But, far from being the future of Aberdeen, compromises during the build created problems further down the line.

The high-speed lifts were often out of order, and although structurally sound, St Nicholas House was long afflicted by heating problems and a crumbling exterior.

St Nicholas House became city’s most-loathed building

A mere 30 years after it was finished, even the council couldn’t hide its desire to see the back of its HQ.

1967: Nearing completion and dominating the skyline. Image: DC Thomson

Its defects meant it cost them £150,000 a year to maintain.

And by the year 2000, Councillor Len Ironside definitively told the Evening Express the council was to get rid of St Nicholas House and that it had “never been very pretty”.

A poll revealed it was Aberdeen’s most-loathed building.

Its demolition was proposed as part of a radical transformation of Aberdeen’s built heritage, where it was suggested Marischal College could become a luxury hotel, and the Salvation Army Citadel could be sold off.

1972: St Nicholas House on Broad Street four years after completion. Image: DC Thomson

But even then there were question marks over what could become of the site, which although lucrative had its limitations – namely parking and conservation.

Then-chairman of Aberdeen Civic Society Norman Marr said it would have to be a sympathetic redevelopment.

And he added: “It would be wrong to leave the land as open space, as historically the site was a maze of courts and housing.”

Forensic flattening of St Nicholas House skeleton in 2014

But St Nicholas House clung on until 2014 before the wrecking ball moved in.

St Nicholas House standing next to Marischal College in 2003. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Council staff were to move into the refurbished Marischal College as part of a plan announced in 2003.

It was a piecemeal demolition. Safedem had to forensically strip the tower block back to its frame, carefully removing asbestos and other fittings.

Slowly, floor by floor, the skeleton of ’60s town planning shrunk and returned to dust.

In photos: Going, going, gone – the demolition of St Nicholas House

St Nicholas House was stripped from the inside out by Safedem. Image: Submitted
Each part of the building had to be carefully taken apart internally before the external demolition could begin. Image: Submitted
Internal walls came down after asbestos was removed. Image: Submitted
A room with a view, Michael Wadell working on the stripping out of the former council HQ. Image: Submitted
The lower sections of St Nicholas House were removed by 2014. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
St Nicholas House shrouded in scaffolding as Safedem moved to the final stages of demolition. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson
By May 2014 the tower was much diminished and Provost Skene’s House began to re-emerge. Image: DC Thomson
One of two 96-tonne ‘nibblers’ used by Safedem to tear down St Nicholas House. Image: Safedem
Some internal doors exposed during the strip down. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
The nibbler cutting through concrete blocks with ease in June 2014. Image: Roddy Millar
Dust to dust, the progress in the demolition of St Nicholas House, from the Gallowgate. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
A wider view of the site from the roof of the Town House at the end of June 2014. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson
The last floors coming down before the end of June. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
Provost Skene’s House becoming visible through a hole in the middle of the building. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
Provost Skene’s House and Marischal College appear behind the dust. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
Broad Street liberated from the shadow of St Nicholas House. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
A tangle of concrete and metal was all that remained of St Nicholas House on June 27 2014. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
The final section of St Nicholas House coming down on July 2 2014. Image: Chris Sumner/DC Thomson
With demolition complete, the former site of St Nicholas House looked as it did in 1965, with Provost Skene’s House and Marischal College in the background. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

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