top of page
  • Tom Reid

The Architect J.D. Swanston

On 25 January 1956 one of the architects who helped to shape Kirkcaldy in the Edwardian era, JD (John Daniel) Swanston, died aged 88 at Newton Mearns, at the home of his daughter, a physician, who had taken him into her care. His normal address had been Addinstone, 8 Townsend Crescent, Kirkcaldy, and he was cremated at Paisley with his ashes later interred at Kirkcaldy. He had been born in July 1868 in Dundee and educated at Dollar Academy then articled to architectural practices in Edinburgh and in Glasgow before commencing practice on his own account in Kirkcaldy in 1895 at 196 High Street - premises later swallowed up by Marks and Spencer’s new store. He was always prominent in public life in Kirkcaldy, becoming a councillor for the second ward and thus a burgess in November 1900 - going on to become the oldest surviving burgess. He was convener of the Street Committee for four years and was also an enthusiastic volunteer and was commissioned in the 1st Forth Royal Garrison Artillery. During WW1 he became a captain in the Black Watch and for a time was commandant of a POW camp inSussex

Among his first works were the lodge and the gardener's house at Beveridge Park in Kirkcaldy. These were in what was to become his distinctive style of rock-faced rubble with red sandstone dressings at the doors and windows. Although these were sometimes attributed to the West Lothian architect JW Hislop they are entirely unlike his only surviving work in Kirkcaldy, an undistinguished pair of cottages in Alexandra Street.

From at least 1896 he took on a Peterhead-born architect, George Lindsay Legge as partner and as Swanston & Legge they won a design competition for the Bain/Forman church hall beside St Andrews church in Durie Street, Leven. This appears to have been a job with severe budgetary constraints as it is very untypical. The partnership ended in 1903 when Legge left to take up the post of Burgh Surveyor at Kingussie.

He was mainly known for his theatre, cinema and public house work, especially the delightful Feuar's Arms Pub on the corner of Commercial Street and Bogies Wynd, Pathhead. This had originally been converted from a former flour mill in 1859 and was then rebuilt in 1890 by Swanston, possibly working with William Williamson who later remodelled the interior. It is an attractive Jacobean style pub with red sandstone ashlar to the ground floor and rock-faced rubble with contrasting red sandstone dressings on the first floor.

Despite its compact appearance it contains a remarkably long mahogany bar - 18 metres! The Listing category was changed from B to A in 2008.

While staying at 4 Bennochy Terrace in 1898-1903 he built a home for himself as part of a very impressive block of seven B-Listed villas from 69 - 81 Milton Road.

His own house, Redholm at No 69 on the corner of Munro Street is a particularly dramatic exercise in half-timbered Tudor-style contrasting with creamy rock-faced stonework which is again contrasted with extensive use of red sandstone ashlar dressings. Elsewhere in the block the treatment of the doorways behind 4-arched porches and beneath Rosemary-tiled roofs is particularly appealing. He liked to add interest to the roofline and was adept at doing so with a variety of alternatives.

The Building News LXXV announced in 1898 that a block of tenements incorporating a corner shop were ‘to be built’ along with a double villa, for the Dysart Building Company by Swanston & Legge on Normand Road, Dysart.

The 2-storey double villa at No’s 41 & 43 is attached to, and closely matches the tenement block but with a central paired doorway and bay windows to either side. These extend upwards to polygonal roofs with broad concave eaves and a hook-shaped finial at the left. These are in his characteristic rock-faced squared and snecked creamy rubble with contrasting red sandstone ashlar dressings, and the whole block is tied together by a string course at the upper floor cill level. This string course is stepped up as each pair in the block rises with the hill, and each step is masked by a carved block showing the arms of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland on heraldic shields.

The paired tenements have steps up to roll-moulded and subtly Florentine round-arched doorways with the doors set back.

The corner shop - later cafe - now office, turns the corner into Berwick Place with a chamfer containing a doorway and flanked by round-arched shop windows. An ingeniously detailed polygonal turret roof rises over the corner. This is a fine C-Listed block (probably due to the replacement doors) and forms a good complement to William Williamson’s hunky Dysart Primary School which rose up across the road in 1914 - 16. Some time before 1914 Swanston also apparently built terraces of model working class houses, again for the Dysart Building Company, but these fell victim to extensive mining subsidence in the area and were swept way.

Also around 1899 he built the very striking free Flemish-style tenement block, including shops and a pub, at the East Port on Burntisland High Street and where he really let rip with his exuberant roof-scape. It is by where the old town wall and East Gate, or Port, stood until being demolished in 1843. It really makes a splendid entrance to the High Street with its abundance of gables, balconies, and his usual red sandstone on the upper storeys and a nice mixed collection of arched windows to the pub and shops at the painted ground floor.

According to the FFP it was “built for Mr Adam Wilson with a copper dome fitted by Mr Louis Grant, plumber from Dundee, 3 sundials bear the wording: E facing - ‘I only count the sunny hours.’ SE facing - ‘I mark time, Dost thou?’ S. Facing - ‘Time Flies’.” There is an abundance of variety and interest throughout the front of this B-Listed building, including an inset panel showing the original Port Buildings.

He built various other houses and tenements in Kirkcaldy and in Kinghorn High Street and around 1905 he was responsible for a number of C-Listed villas on the corner Balwearie Road and Balwearie Crescent. These were 1 and 3 Balwearie Road - just by the railway embankment, with Queen Anne details, and half-timbered No 5 on the corner connecting with 1 Balwearie Crescent. At around the same time he built another C-Listed pair towards the other end at 69 and 71 Balwearie Road. These are all quite different from each other and his use of red sandstone is less evident in these villas. He does include a few turrets however.

His cinemas and theatres were generally in a bold neo-baroque or half-timbered neoTudor idiom. These included his 1899 Empire Theatre of Varieties in the High Street, Cowdenbeath, with cantilevered balconies and seating for 1500-1600 people. Opening on 27 December 1907 this theatre flourished during the first two decades of the 20th century and drew its audience from Lochgelly, Kelty, Crossgates and Dunfermline with special late trams being laid on for them. From 1922 it became a cinema known as 'Slora's' but burnt down in 1954.

He also built the Gaiety Theatre in Denbeath, Methil, which also opened on 27 December, but in 1907, and which, like ‘Slora's' and the King's Theatre in Kirkcaldy, was associated with housing. It was behind an existing recently-built terrace of houses with the foyer formed from a former Post Office. It also had a large glazed canopy extending over the pavement at the entrance. This was supported on columns and brightly lit and led in to the auditorium, while the pit and balcony were reached through doorways a little way along the street. During WWI it became an army recruiting centre and in the 1920s it became the Denbeath Theatre of Varieties, and then the Western Cinema until 1973 before becoming Rick's Nightclub, then Rick’s Videotek. Exactly one year and one day later (1908) Reid’s Hall opened as a Burgher Chapel at 81-99 Main Street Lochgelly. The chapel was later converted to become a Music Hall and then became an Opera House - yes, in Lochgelly.

Another vanished work was the Palace Theatre in Whytescauseway, Kirkcaldy. The Building News of 16 May 1913 reported that 'A new picture house was opened on Saturday. It is centrally situated on Whytes Causeway, the main artery to the station from the High Street. The hall is 45 feet by 75 feet and has a seating capacity for 1,100 people. The decorations are white and gold, the main walls being relieved in a darker tint. The stage accommodation is 30 feet deep and 50 feet wide. The building has been executed from designs by Mr JD Swanston, architect, Kirkcaldy, and has cost between £4000 and £5000.'

Almost exactly ten years later he converted it into a cinema - the Picture Palace, but it too was destroyed by fire in 1945 and eventually replaced with very undistinguished offices for solicitors.

His Port Brae Cinema, at the end of the High Street, also of 1913, closed in 1942 and was demolished in 1949 to be replaced by a garage and petrol station, and is now a carwash.

One job not listed by the online Dictionary of Scottish Architects as among his works was the refurbishment of the Palais de Danse in Rosyth - once again now no more. It had been situated on the corner of Park Road, and re-opened on 4th November 1922 with a hundred couples present (no wallflowers) dancing on a floor measuring 75ft by 35ft - 3ft shorter and a foot narrower than a tennis court, and thus giving each couple a space of roughly five feet square.

Possibly his best known work is the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, designed along with another architect and town councillor, James Davidson of Coatbridge, who was responsible for the rather dour 'Lanarkshire Municipal' style exterior, while the exuberant and luxurious interior was by Swanston. On the 18th August 1906 Andrew Carnegie laid the memorial stone, with copies of current newspapers and coins buried underneath, and the theatre opened on the 8th of December 1906 (with Cinderella). The Builder reported that the seating was ‘built on the cantilever principle,’ with ‘not a single pillar.’ The exceptional interior has largely survived intact and a refurbishment scheme in 2012-13 included the repainting of the dome of the auditorium with a mural by the artist John Byrne. The interior of the auditorium was described as being an ‘Aladdin’s Cave of fruity Viennese baroque, all swathed in plush and gilt’. And, following an extensive refurbishment in 1985 it is ‘undoubtedly one of the most luxurious theatres in Scotland’ and helps to give Edinburgh ‘the best theatre provision in any British city outside of London.’

The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh (1984), rather loftily says:- ‘King’s Theatre, Leven Street. 1905-6 by JD Swanston of Kirkcaldy and James Davidson of Coatbridge, two minor architects with some experience of theatre design. A red sandstone front, rather Glaswegian, with a pedimented oriel between coupled Ionic columns. . . . The general effect of the auditorium is much more confident, . . .’

Davidson’s previous theatre experience consisted of one reconstruction and one enlargement. He was more used to designing banks and Insurance Offices.

In 1904 Swanston formed a second partnership, this time with William Syme, about whom very little is known other than that he was also a town councillor and their office was located in Redburn Wynd - which will have been very convenient during the construction of the ‘Wrennaissance’ style King’s Theatre and Playhouse, again as part of a block of tenements and shops.

Plays had previously been put on by touring companies at the town’s Corn Exchange and then a theatre named the Theatre Royal opened in Kirk Wynd In 1887.

Despite its grandiose name this was essentially a wooden interior to a former flax warehouse leased from a local farmer, and on 30th December 1888 it went on fire in an attempt to scam the insurers. Thus the new King’s Theatre and Playhouse by Swanston was the first real theatre for the town.

The British Architect of 20 July 1903 reported that: ‘At Tuesday’s meeting of Kirkcaldy Dean of Guild Court plans were passed for the King’s Theatre which it is proposed to erect on a central site on High Street and Redburn Wynd. The frontage to High Street is to be occupied by a large block of buildings comprising shops and dwelling houses with a wide entrance leading to the theatre. The theatre is to be fireproof throughout and will be erected on the cantilever principle. The theatre is expected to cost between £20,000 and £30,000. The architects are Mr JD Swanston and Mr W Williamson, Kirkcaldy.’ (William Syme was not yet on board, and the builder was to be WS Cruickshank, who was also the contractor for the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh). Built at a cost of just £20,000 it opened on 14 November 1904, more than two years earlier than the Edinburgh King’s despite some sources claiming that the reverse was the case. William Williamson, Kirkcaldy’s pre-eminent architect of the time was involved in the design of the adjoining tenements. It was Swanston however who had very much the major role and created the lofty Edwardian elegance of the foyer and the stunning baroque auditorium with its ranks of boxes. Naturally linoleum featured heavily throughout and as an additional feature part of the ceiling and roof could be opened up during the intervals to ease the heat given off by the numerous gas chandeliers. This meant patrons could not only see stars on the stage but also in the sky.

The theatre seated 2,000 and there was space for an additional 500 people to stand behind railings on the upper tiers. Unfortunately it lost money and was sold in 1908, renamed the Hippodrome and with pictures, variety acts and circus acts. By 1916 it become the Opera House before changing hands again in 1928 and was then changed into a modern cinema with a streamlined interior. It was later split to two screens as the ABC, and the MGM in 1996 but once again closed down in December 2000 and is currently in the process of being transformed once again, this time by the Glasgow architects Page and Park, as part of the Plaza redevelopment scheme for the waterfront.

It was the largest indoor venue in the town and hosted many civic occasions, including the awards of the Freedom of the Burgh, etc. Swanston’s last public appearance was made there in November 1954 on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening to give a talk about the original design and the numerous changes made since as it went through its various transformations and incarnations. Perhaps the best surviving example of his sumptuous interiors is the 1913-21 refurbishment he carried out for the Opera House in Reform Street, Dunfermline, first built in 1903. This transformed the theatre completely with fully cantilevered balconies and a complete change of interior to give it one of the finest auditoriums in a provincial theatre in Scotland; indeed it was marketed as ‘Fife’s Premier Theatre,’ and is well worth a visit.

Mind you, a visit would involve a 6,000 mile round trip as it is now relocated to Sarasota in Florida. Business at the Opera House had declined and shortly after its jubilee it closed down and became a furniture and electrical goods warehouse, while the interior remained, neglected but not wilfully damaged. It was granted a grade B listing in 1981 and then, under the supervision of Professor (later Sir) James Dunbar-Nasmith the interior was carefully dismantled, with all the ornate cornices, friezes, plasterwork etc., cut out from the building before the demolition men moved in to clear the way for the Kingsgate shopping centre.

Meanwhile the Asola Arts Complex, based on a theatre in Asola, near Venice in Italy, which had been dismantled and put into storage, then purchased and shipped to Florida. So when they decided to expand it was no big deal to purchase (for half a million dollars) the complete artefacts from Dunfermline and build a new theatre around them. Another $15 million, including donations from Burt Reynolds, saw the auditorium return to its former glory for its opening on 27 January 1990, as the Harold E and Esther M Mertz Theatre in the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts. Apparently ’the dimensions of the original were modified slightly to suit modern requirements, even so every effort was made to replicate the original decoration and Curtaindesign.’

Maybe to suit ‘modern requirements,’ is a polite way of saying Florida bottoms.


Scotland’s Splendid Theatres: Architecture and Social History from the Reformation to the Present Day. Peter Bruce 1999 Polygon (an imprint of EUP)

The online Dictionary of Scottish Architects. 1860 - 1980

The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh. John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker Penguin Books 1984

Fife Free Press; 21 February 1990; photo of JD Swanston

476 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Pathhead Smuggler and the Porteous Riots

On January 9th 1736 Andrew Wilson, a baker, from Pathhead, and incorrigible smuggler, tried to rob John Stark, the collector of excise in Kirkcaldy, of a large consignment of illicit brandy which had

Two Parish Churches - Kirkcaldy and Dysart

Kirkcaldy 777 years ago, on Tuesday, March the 21st 1245, the Bishop of St Andrews, David de Bernham, 'maximus episcopus Scotorum' dedicated 'ecclesia de kirkaldin' (Kirkcaldy Auld Kirk) to St Patrick

William Williamson

William Williamson, one of the most notable architects from Fife, and one of the most accomplished of his generation, was born at a house in the High Street, Kirkcaldy, on the 19th of April 1871, the


bottom of page