It’s 50 years since Dundee College opened on one of the city’s steepest streets. Now lying derelict and with an uncertain future, Gayle Ritchie takes a trip down memory lane with former staff and students – including recently retired principal Grant Ritchie.
When it opened in 1970, the Dundee College of Commerce building was a buzzing, vibrant space, bustling with students from the city and beyond.
Fondly known as the “Conshy” because of its location on Constitution Road, it was an exciting place to be – full of hope and opportunity.
Fast forward half a century and it’s a sad, empty, derelict shell.
The college campus closed in 2011 and in subsequent years the Dundee landmark has become a target for vandals and urban explorers.
Most windows have been smashed, spray paint has been daubed inside and out, and break-ins have been rife.
Graffiti covers almost every wall in the building, with one tag reading: “RIP Dundee College”.
It’s damp, depressing and ugly – a shadow of its former self.
It’s not an image the city of Dundee, which earned a place on Lonely Planet’s 2018 must-visit hotlist, would wish to present to the world.
Last year plans to transform the iconic nine-storey building – described as a fine example of 1960s Brutalist architecture – into high-quality apartments collapsed.
The ambitious £15 million regeneration project would have seen the property transformed into a multi-use block featuring 111 apartments, 24 short-stay serviced apartments, a cafe, cinema and a gym.
However, the plan was shelved because of a lack of funding and the site is now back up for sale.
Right now, the building’s future remains unclear but, as a prominent feature on the city’s skyline for so many years, it’s sad that it projects nothing more than a grim spectre on the landscape in 2020.
There are many people who want to see new life injected into it, and there are those who have fond – and some not quite so fond – memories of life inside the Conshy.
The £1 million College of Commerce building was officially opened on May 29 1970 by Princess Alexandra.
During her two-hour visit, she was reported to have said that, in the age of automation, “it was still people and individual talents who mattered”.
The Princess, dressed in an “elegant off-white coat with a turquoise lattice-check design” and a striking hat “like a white solar topee”, had flown to RAF Leuchars before being taken by limousine to Dundee for the grand opening ceremony.
She was greeted at the entrance by Lord Provost William Fitzgerald.
“The Princess waved to the crowd of spectators, mostly women, at the entrance to the drive before climbing the steps to inspect a guard of honour,” stated a report.
The college picked Princess Alexandra as its “first and only choice” to perform the official opening event.
“They knew of her interest in many of the subjects taught in the college, and were proud of her interest in, and association with, this part of Scotland,” stated a report.
On being shown round a grocery display on the seventh floor by Mr John Ferguson, head of the retail and display department, the Princess spotted a coffee percolator and declared: “That’s exactly the same one we have at home. I like it for making coffee. It does the job in no time at all.”
Bill Dower worked at Dundee College as a press officer for 19 years. He started in 1998 when the Conshy was one of six campus sites.
“You got a great view of the Brown Street Mosque from the top floor,” recalls Bill, 62.
“And during winter you sometimes watched cars going down the road sideways.
“Staff all knew just how treacherous Constitution Road could be in icy conditions but ‘outsiders’ didn’t!”
Bill jokes that the Conshy is the only building he’s been in where he could “get claustrophobia and acrophobia” – an extreme fear of heights – almost simultaneously.
“The lifts were dimly lit, hence the claustrophobia, and when you stepped out on the top floor, with one wall being all glass, that was when the acrophobia kicked in!”
‘A real family feel’
Recently retired Dundee College principal Grant Ritchie has strong bonds to the Conshy, having first forged links with the campus in 1978 as a student.
“I left school without Highers and worked for the city council for a couple of years,” he recalls.
“I decided to go back and do my Highers again and enrolled in the college in 1978.”
Grant, 62, describes his time there, from 1978 to 1979, as a “great experience”, with “really strong teachers and a really supportive atmosphere.”
On leaving college, he studied at Aberdeen University. Six years later, in 1985, he applied for a job in the college teaching communications to Youth Training Scheme (YTS) kids.
He worked for the college “in all its various guises” until he retired on July 31 this year.
“The College of Commerce, as it was before the merger with Kingsway Technical College in 1988, was a great place to work,” says Grant.
“The place had a real family feel and staff worked and socialised together. The building had two concrete blocks, the small block and the tower.
“The small block had the business and management departments and they always felt slightly superior to the rest of us, but they always had the wildest Christmas parties and the staff would all end up in the Bread (a legendary Dundee pub) or the Terra Nova along Dudhope Terrace with its murals of Arctic adventure.”
Grant recalls how the college was always “packed at the seams” with Dundee folk “trying to better themselves and get on”.
Night classes were busy and recruitment events saw crowds queued all the way down Constitution Road.
In dire need of a makeover
One of the worst things about the college was the frequency with which the lift broke down.
“I taught communications in the tall block and the major pain about the building was how often the lift broke down and the only way up was the nine flights of stairs, normally after walking up Constitution Road!” says Grant.
Around the year 2000, the building was in dire need of refurbishment and it was suffering from leaks and problems with its flat roof.
By Grant’s admission, it was “far too small” and centres on Graham Street and Melrose Terrace had to be used as extensions.
These were old school buildings with their own culture and charms but they weren’t sustainable as modern centres of learning.
In 2003, Grant had the job of selling all these buildings off, buying the old teacher training college at Gardyne and refurbishing it to take all the activity from the old centres.
“Melrose Terrace and Graham Street were sold for housing and so was Constitution Road, but the financial crash in 2008 killed that deal and the building lay empty, deteriorating fast, and attracting all sorts of short term ‘tenants’ – graffiti artists, drug users and vandals,” he laments.
“Our estates team was being called out most evenings, despite all the security measures we put in place.
“Eventually we auctioned the building off as it had become such a burden.
“It was bought by a development company who had great ideas for turning the building into exclusive flats but the project never quite got off the ground and the building is still empty and a complete eyesore.”
Like many people, Grant reckons this is a huge shame because the building gave so many folk a chance to access education.
“Scratch the surface of every Dundee family and you’ll find loads of connections to the Conshy and the great opportunities it opened up for people,” he says.
“In our heyday we had more than 25,000 enrolments every year.
“The building has the most amazing views out over the city and the river and has high ceilings and great internal spaces.
“It would be a fabulous shell to build spectacular flats in but in the current climate, it’s hard to see that happening in the near future.”
‘A hidden gem’
Grant retired after 35 years of doing “loads of different jobs” at the college.
He was a lecturer, a department head, the assistant principal for eight years and finally, the principal, a job he did for five years.
He was depute principal when the colleges of Dundee and Angus merged in November 2013 to become Dundee and Angus College, a “super” college serving Tayside, also known as D&A College.
“Being principal felt a long way from the day I entered the building back in 1978 to have a second go at my Highers,” he says.
“I was lucky to be there when the college grew and grew.
“We added theatre, music, dance programmes, built the Space dance centre up at the Kingsway, and had a brilliant, creative time.
“I then spent six years or so on the Gardyne project, bringing that building back to life and spending £50 million on great learning spaces.
“That facility is still a fantastic resource for the region, and always will be.
“To me, the college is a hidden gem. It is one of the best-performing colleges in Scotland, known across the sector for ideas and innovation.
“The resources are outstanding and the staff are just as dedicated to helping all the learners improve, find their confidence, and move on as they always have been.
“Having officially retired last month, I find it strange waking up and not having my first thoughts about what is happening in college.”
Launching a travel career
Stuart Betty was a student at the Conshy from 1981-1982 – “around the time of Adam Ant, The Police and Human League” – and credits it with launching his career in the travel industry.
“I studied business travel with travel and tourism which involved lots of different subjects,” he recalls.
“Accounts with Mrs Lettuce was fun. She would always wear green lipstick and green eye shadow!
“Then there was Mr Stewart the geography teacher who would tell us that beaches were sandy and that cliffs had rocks.
Stuart recalls the views from the top floors of the college were stunning, especially when it wasn’t cloudy.
“The climb up the hill to the Conshy, plus all the steps, definitely kept you fit!” he muses.
“The entrance was a total wind tunnel and no matter how calm the weather, you were always hit with a huge gust of wind when climbing those final steps.”
He was a big fan of the Conshy’s cafe and regularly chomped on its omelettes and other fine fare.
As part of Stuart’s travel course, he took trips to London and Prestwick Airport.
“If it wasn’t for the college, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he says.
“It’s the college that put me in a wee travel shop called Ebb Travel for a week’s work experience and I was asked to go back for a trainee job.
“I have been in the travel industry ever since.”