In the second part of our feature looking back at the demolition of Dundee West Railway Station, Gayle Ritchie finds that it was one of a series of cultural vandalisms of the 1960s….
The Great Knockin’ Doon
Dundee-based historian Dr Norman Watson says Dundee West Station was “another casualty” in the “Great Knockin’ Doon” of the 1960s.
“This had all come about due to the rather arrogant civic insistence that the new road bridge had to make landfall in the city itself,” he reflects.
Describing the West Station as a “grand turreted affair” built by the Caley Railway in the Scottish Baronial style, Dr Watson laments the fact that it succumbed to the wrecking ball in 1966 to allow the development of the bridge landfall area and inner ring road along Yeaman Shore.
“The old Victorian tiered wedding cake of a building did not go without a fight, however,” he says.
“There were howls of protest after its closure and a public inquiry sat before it was finally demolished, with all rail traffic by then routed through Tay bridge Station below street level. Even still, the West Station goods yard lived on a while after that, before it too closed.”
Much of Dundee’s historic city centre vanished in what Dr Watson refers to as the “demolition-happy days”, and the fact Dundee West Station closed on the very same day as La Scala, Dundee’s first purpose-built cinema, isn’t lost on him.
“This was the scene of what has been termed the ‘Great Knockin’ Doon of Dundee’,” he says.
The triumphal Royal Arch
Another casualty was the triumphal Royal Arch which stood at the junction of Dock Street and Shore Terrace.
“The arch was an 1850 stone copy of an earlier wooden doorway built to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria in 1844,” says Dr Watson.
“When the Queen passed under the Arch she discovered a town with new-found importance and limitless ambition.
“It possessed, ‘a buoyant spirit of intelligence, enterprise, assiduous labour and successful speculation.’”
Mocked and mourned by citizens in equal measure, the Royal Arch was unceremoniously bulldozed into the docks during the ‘Knockin’ Doon’ of 1964.
East Station and Empress Ballroom
Also sadly demolished in this area were the East Station and the Empress Ballroom.
The former served passengers on east coast routes. With 80 trains a day in the 1890s, an average of one every 13 minutes during its hours of operation, it was the busiest of the city’s three Victorian stations.
Alas, no remnant remains of this curious half-moon-shaped building – known locally as the Black Hole – which succumbed to demolition in 1959.
Meanwhile, the Empress Ballroom, demolished to make way for the Tay Road Bridge, had been where many young couples went dancing and shared their first kiss.
Commonly known as The Tonk, it was opened in 1938 in Dock Street by James Duncan, who had also opened the Palais, on South Tay Street — an institution in Dundee for six decades.
Wartime Dundee’s dancing scene thrived as foreign soldiers made use of the city’s multitude of assembly halls and dances such as the rumba and the jive emerged.
“The Empress Ballroom had seen service as a pavilion during the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and was re-erected in Dundee later that year,” says Dr Watson.
“Remembered as a ‘swinging’ place, it could accommodate 400 dancing couples. It was also a casualty of the ‘Great Knockin’ Doon.”
Another casualty was La Scala, Dundee’s first purpose-built cinema when it opened with the film Moths in 1913 on the site in the Murraygate latterly occupied by Tesco Express.
The cinema had a narrow facade, which consisted of a large square tower clad in white tiles, and topped by a huge golden globe.
The screen was at the front of the building, so patrons entered the auditorium on each side of the screen, then walked away from it to reach their seats.
La Scala was closed on May 1, 1965, having been acquired by FM Woolworth to extend its already existing store.
“La Scala seated 1000 customers, had an 18-piece orchestra, the biggest in the city, and advertised ‘continuous performances’.” says Dr Watson.
“Alas, performances were discontinued in 1965 when the building was demolished to make way for an extension to FW Woolworth.
“It was not a happy time for film lovers from outlying areas with La Scala and Dundee West Station closing on the same day.”
A decade or so after these treasures were knocked down, our city fathers began ruining the skyline with eyesore buildings like Tayside House.
Built in 1975, this blot on the landscape was once voted Dundee’s least liked building,
It was the headquarters of the old Tayside Regional Council and had been used since the mid-1990s by hundreds of Dundee City Council staff, who enjoyed spectacular views over the city and the Tay estuary.
But the 16-storey building was never popular with citizens and in 2000 was voted the city’s worst. When it was torn down in 2012, no tears were shed.
Ugly and unsympathetic
Another ugly building, unsympathetic to the surrounding environment, was the waterfont’s Olympia Leisure Centre, which opened its doors in 1974.
With its new-age wave machine, rapids and age-specific pools, locals took to the Olympia like fish to water.
Within its walls, hometown heroes were made, and Olympic champions showcased their immense skill.
In 2010, it was finally agreed that the aging facilities were due a replacement and the old Olympia was torn down in 2014.
The great Scottish architectural historian Charles McKean said described Dundee during the 70s and 80s as: “an invisible town, unloved and even unmentioned in Scottish history books”.
McKean wrote: “By the 60s and 70s most of Dundee’s (Medieval and Victorian) architectural heritage made way for car parks, shopping centres and walkways, turning a once beautiful city into the eyesore many see it as today”.
In his view, these decisions undertaken by Dundee’s city fathers amounted to more than just urban vandalism – they “obliterated much of its past”.
City’s fortunes on the rise
For decades, Dundee was considered the country’s ugly duckling but with the regeneration of the waterfront, including the opening of V&A Dundee in 2018 – an imposing, striking new building which resembles the prow of a ship jutting out over the water – it seems the city’s fortunes are on the rise.
Dundee’s bid to become European Capital of Culture 2023 found itself in tatters when UK cities found they were not eligible for the title – due to Brexit – but nevertheless, it was a sign that the city was being taken seriously.
Today, the city has a reputation for being a place that continually punches above its weight in terms of creativity.