From further up the hill it may have looked almost like a new block of flats, except, of course, they don’t build the chimneys on the outside walls any more, and those Huguenot style cornices are dated now, but the granite glistens in the winter sunshine and the whole building gives an appearance of rather sanctimonious solidity and precision, so that it comes as a surprise to notice the patently decaying wood of the door frame, the cracked windows, and the granite step worn quite hollow. There are three bells on either side of the door, two ‘houses’ on each of the three landings, probably twenty-five people behind the one front door— perhaps two hundred ‘houses’ within the whole rectangular, hollow block of masonry, perforated at intervals by narrow passages —the ‘closes’. These lead past the prams and bicycles to the area at the back of the building, what has obviously once been a drying green: although the clothes lines still indicate the use made of this space, it is green no longer. There is an air of decrepitude about the buildings round the green that contrasts with the clean lines of the main block, slates missing on the wash-house roof, broken hinges on the lavatory door. The ‘green’ itself isn’t paved, and the dustbin bays are too obviously a haven for rats. But amidst the jumble you miss the peripheral bric-a-brac that distinguishes ‘living high’ in the English city; no pram stores, no lifts, no coal hoists or refuse chutes, only a common wash-house, two or three lavatories and a row of coal cellars—this time very obviously a haven for cats! Even ‘wash-house’ is too dignified a term for these often dark, damp rooms, cold and badly ventilated, and too frequently used as a storehouse for excess rubbish—invariably little used by ‘more particular’ tenants, who might only enter to fulfil their ‘turn’ at keeping it reasonably clean, every two weeks or less. The uniformly brown doors of the houses leading off the green repel curiosity by their massiveness, keeping out both the dirt of the green, and the ‘too prying’ interests of the neighbours, and no doubt also the cold; but where communality is forced on one by the physical structure of the environment, privacy can be good in itself. Looking outwards from the green instead, through the ‘closes’ punched at intervals in the other side of the block, you see the noisy traffic of the street beyond.
Inside, the stair rail is cold metal, worn quite away at the bottom. Looking upwards you see one of those smart photographs that you’ve
Along the gloomy, narrow passage to where a strip of oil-cloth, highly polished over its faded green and brown check, marks the front door of a tenement house. Behind the front door is a tiny lobby, off which the rooms lead. It is a moderate size as tenements go, a two apartment home, the smaller room usually the children’s bedroom, the larger one used as kitchen, living room, dining room and main bedroom, the bed sometimes half hidden in an alcove; though alcove beds are becoming a rarity now, begin designed for a generation whose limbs were much shorter.
The smaller room must often be used as store-room too, for any clothes, cases, boxes, etc. which just won’t fit into the main room— leaving precious little space for a bed, or perhaps beds, into which the children must crowd. The large room rarely alters in appearance—no room here to satisfy the housewifely love of ‘changing the furniture round’, to fit it in once is a big enough problem and once done it has to stay put. Perhaps there is a cracked sink, with cupboards, maybe only a tap. The room will have built-in cupboards, probably too deep and not too practical. Even where effort is made to smarten it, with bright curtains, cushions, pictures and fresh flowers, it is difficult to bring much relief to this overall muddle of a room in which all the family must live.
This is a tenement, not a good one, probably not yet scheduled for replacement, structurally perfectly sound, yet this is the kind of dwelling house that forms the largest part of the housing problem in Scotland.