The Town House
It may be aesthetically controversial, but Kirkcaldy's Town House is at least familiar to most locals and visitors, as it should be.
Along with its Square, it has been the focus of many cultural gatherings, political events and markets, as well as being the centre of municipal administration.
Our story tells how the current Town House came to be.
From the submission of a striking winning design, the process was far from straightforward. It encountered some seemingly perennial delays and controversies before the of completion of the 'Toon Hoose' we know (and love?).
There's No Place Like Home
This month's object features Kirkcaldy's iconic Town House and outlines the difficulties and objections the Council overcame in bringing their new municipal headquarters to fruition. Although there had been intermittent discussions over the years, the time between the matter being first mentioned and the decision to build taken was only a matter of months. The current building would appear to the 4th incarnation of a Town House in Kirkcaldy's long history.
A Town Council was first mentioned as far back as 1582 and it is believed that summer meetings may have taken place on the town's common land. All that is now remains is the portion known as the Volunteer's Green. In inclement weather the suggestion is that meetings took place in the old Tolbooth which certainly predates 1678.
We can be on much firmer ground when we move on to the Council's second home.
A Town House and Jail had been established on the High Street around 1678. The 1791 First Statistical Account reveals that both this building and the Parish Church were the town's only public buildings of any note. A steeple, added in 1782, is believed to be partly constructed with stone from the demolished Mercat Cross. Around 1824 the famous mapmaker John Wood was busy surveying Kirkcaldy and to his maps he added notes from his observations.
We are therefore fortunate in that, between the First Statistical Account and John Wood's map and writings, we have what amounts to eye witness statements of the town at the time.
In 1825 a new Town House was erected. It was also an impressive building. Many photographs are still in existence, its steeple and clock being notable High Street landmarks for close to a century. The area was a favourite gathering place for public pronouncements such as election results, proclamations, and traditionally to hear the town clock chime in the New Year. It was eventually replaced by the Marks and Spencer's 1930s building.
By the mid1930s, as the Council's responsibilities increased, the staff numbers outgrew the building's available space. The result was that staff became based in various locations, thereby hampering communication and increasing costs.
In December 1934 a proposal for a new building met with the Council's approval. It was to be partly funded by the sale of the existing building together with the sale proceeds from a site in Whytescauseway– eventually bought by Burton's.
This seemed straightforward but, as the detailed story discloses, any number of obstacles and handicaps were faced.
Some were self-inflicted, especially with the Town House being sold before any new location was even found, planned or built! There almost seemed an undue haste to get the work underway and it may be argued that more thought could or should have been given to the planning. The impression is perhaps to some this became a vanity and legacy project which nothing would be allowed to derail. There were also issues with the proposed sale of the two properties resulting in their price being reduced. The question has to be raised as to why sell your current home before you had somewhere to go. Cart before the horse?
To crown it all, the building's eventual purchasers, Marks and Spencer, had to be taken to court to force fulfilment of the sale contract. In all, the Town House lay empty for two years before being demolished.
Despite already owning a potential construction site, the Council decided to spend significant sums on two Wemyssfield mansions before razing them to the ground creating the location we know today. This was where Adelaide House and Tylehurst once stood and it has to be asked why this expenditure was considered necessary.
The illustrious architect, Thomas S. Tait, was engaged to assist the Council in their planning activities. Tait proposed a plan with a cost of around £120,000 which to the public and the Fife Free Press was eye-watering, contentious and outrageous. Thomas Tait was a top level architect with a significant body of work, national and international, which suggests that it was almost inevitable that his ideas may well prove costly.
Eventually, with a lower ceiling set, an architectural competition was organised and judged by Thomas Tait. From the 33 entrants David Carr, a young architect from Berwick, was the victor and it is his vision which stands today.
Building both commenced and halted in 1939 due to the intervention of the War. Work recommenced in 1950 over two phases, the first being completed in 1953, the second in 1956. It was the Earl of Home who opened the first stage with Provost Wright doing the honours for the second.
The building and square remain impressive additions to the townscape possessing several outstanding features both internally and externally. Most notably these include the mural and clock tower/weathervane, although St. Bryce appears to have vanished from his lofty position!
Of course it can be argued that when first built it was more elaborate and larger than required at the time. However, with the passage of time and the Town Council having to take on more responsibilities, the staff expanded to fill the space. This could be construed as forward thinking and worthy of credit. It must be kept in mind that the planning and building were the responsibility of Kirkcaldy Town Council which was abolished in 1976. Our story does not move past that point.
The full narrative also attempts to uncover the fate of the original town clock but that search seems a lost cause. However, the fact remains that, from the second the Town House was sold agreements were in place that the Council retained the clock with the intention to reset it in the new building. Whatever happened it is not in the current clocktower and its whereabouts appear unknown. As the original town bell was recovered from a scrap yard and presented back to the town in 1966 – perhaps the clock met the same fate? It is a great pity as the clock and the bell form a significant part of the Town's heritage and history.
The conclusion has to be that despite all the initial problems, arguments and turmoil, not forgetting the time lost to the War – Kirkcaldy has a Town House and square which stands comparison with any. The building, together with the Art Gallery, Museum, War Memorial Gardens and Adam Smith Halls, provides an undeniably pleasing central area of the town.
Doors Open Days affords the opportunity to visit the property and it is one the team commends readers take advantage of. The artefacts, architecture and decoration, make it well worthwhile, interesting and informative.