St. Peter’s Seminary is an abandoned Roman Catholic education facility near Cardross, Scotland. Built near the banks of the Clyde River and located just a half-hour outside of Glasgow, it was intended to be Scotland’s National Seminary. The radical shape was penned by a now-legendary Scottish design firm, and paid homage to one of architecture’s greats.
While the building won multiple design awards, it failed to reverberate within the ranks of the church in transition. The architecture was striking, but so was the building maintenance. Combined with escalating operating costs and a decline in enrollment, St. Peter’s closed just fourteen years after opening – and it has been abandoned ever since.
aerial cover photo courtesy rcahms
The story of St. Peter’s of Cardross began when the former St. Peter’s of Bearsden was lost in a 1946 fire. After the Bearsden fire, seminary pupils were transferred to one of two Catholic establishments in Cardross: The Darleith House accommodated the philosophy students and the Kilmahew House (pictured at left) became the new home for theology students.
The Kilmahew House was a Scottish Baronial estate, established by James Burns in the late nineteenth century.
Originally finished in 1868 as a family home, the Kilmahew House was later listed for sale as part of the overall Kilmahew Estate in 1919. Eventually it would end up in the hands of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow after World War II.
Wanting to replace the St. Peter’s at Bearsden, the local diocese was ambitious and realized that failure to accommodate for the anticipated influx of seminarians would put unwanted pressure on the remaining district facilities.
After speaking with several architectural design firms, local Catholic leadership eventually selected the famed Glasgow-based firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia In 1953.
The request was to design a unique but functional complex which integrated the original Kilmahew estate home. It was intended to house one hundred students and would be capable as serve as a flagship National Major Seminary.
It was not until 1958 that design plans began to finalize.
Firm architects Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan (at left) penned the proposal, which contained elements paying homage to famed architect Le Corbusier via an amalgamation of Corbusier-inspired design. Of particular inspiration to the duo was Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp and his monastery at La Tourette.
Metzstein and MacMillan penned four blocks in the Brutalist architectural style, each with a different mission and together forming a loose quadrangle on campus.
The original Kilmahew House would remain at St. Peter’s and be centrally integrated as the new professors’ accommodation.
Surrounding the Kilmahew House were the main/sanctuary block, the education block (consisting of classrooms and the library), and a convent block. The design’s innovation was defined by more than the sum of its angles; MacMillan and Metzstein created an atmosphere which fused religious-focused activities of eating, sleeping, studying, and worship into a synergistic open floor plan concept.
St. Peter’s College was designed in three main blocks: The main block is four stories tall and includes the chapel, dining, and residence rooms.
Alongside the main block sits a three-story education wing with classrooms and the site’s library. Hidden in the opposite corner and behind the Kilmahew House was a smaller, two-story concrete structure which served as the convent.
Built in concrete and pine, the convent was not unlike comfortable hotel accommodations of the time and featured a comfortable, warm interior to offset the cold, industrial exterior.
The main block measures 184 feet long by 80 feet wide and it resembled a cross between a spaceship and the Tower of Babel (this type of structure is also known as a ziggurat).
[ St. Peter’s Seminary construction cost: £300,000. ]
Cantilevered overhangs in the school offered dramatic classroom environments. At one end of the ground level was the chapel, while the refectory (dining area) was at the other.
Above were three tiers of “study-bedrooms,” stepped inwards, each with interior balconies open to the central space below.
Final drafts were approved by 1960, and within a year construction on the modernist buildings began.
St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross was completed within five years of its groundbreaking, eventually opening in 1966.
Within a year of St. Peter’s opening the designers won awards from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Below: St. Peter’s Construction photos
The finished product was a home-run for designers, but the new St. Peter’s Seminary offered a unique set of challenges to its occupants.
During its first operational year in 1966, the building was plagued with maintenance issues and engineering defects.
Problems manifested themselves in the form of jamming windows, loose door handles, and the eerie creaks heard emanating from support beams throughout the sanctuary.
Water entry was a troubling constant. The chapel experienced flooding during the rainy season; student accounts recalled the oft-muddy grounds around the blocks, much of which was unusable during the winter and possibly a result of poor drainage considerations.
The lower floors of the main block and education block contained floor-to-ceiling glass, intended to give the impression of being outdoors. The windows did this well, however it also became somewhat of an icebox in the winter when the single-pane glass failed to insulate occupants from the low temperatures.
St. Peter’s Refectory: Then & Now
Lighting was provided by stylish but uncommon Danish light bulbs, ones that proved difficult to source and replace.
However Seminary residents soon developed a quick solution: When the bulbs burned out, they removed working bulbs from other lights. It didn’t take long before the college students just decided to carry around their own personal light bulbs.
Architects blamed the engineers while engineers blamed the architects. Designer Andy MacMillan was rarely short of wit and offered this response when asked why his buildings leaked:
“I think it’s because we had to build them outside.”
Changing Environment Leads to Closure
One of the goals set forth for St. Peter’s College at Cardross was to become a major National Seminary. However candidate enrollment of the priesthood began to decline just as the pride of Scotland’s diocese was unveiled. Compounding these headwinds was the decision by the Second Vatican Council to shift the training of priests to the communities they would ultimately serve, rather than forested retreats like the one built at Cardross.
Despite a relatively meager aspiration of 100 students, the school failed to reach capacity during its entire operational life. In the mid-1970s enrollment had barely eclipsed fifty students; as the years went on the numbers dwindled further.
By the late 1970s just two dozen students matriculated through the grossly oversized facilities. Meanwhile, the maintenance costs had nearly surpassed the building’s standard operational costs.
In February of 1980 and in concert with other Vatican cutbacks, the diocese shut down the embattled architectural wonder of Cardross. The buildings were de-consecrated, the remaining pupils were relocated to Newlands, and the celebrated seminary that was St. Peter’s was closed after just fourteen years of operation.
[ St. Peter’s College at Newlands lasted until 1984; students were again transferred, this time to Chesters College. ]
St. Peter’s College was never intended to be a revenue generator, but the estimated operational costs were based on an enrollment baseline and an expected rising status within the church – neither of which St. Peter’s College managed to achieve during its time.
St. Peter’s Convent: Then and Now
photos courtesy rcahms
The buildings continued to deteriorate even after they were re-utilized in 1983 as a drug rehabilitation center. On the grounds the rehabilitation clinic occupied the former Kilmahew House, at the time the only building in the complex still in a serviceable state of repair. Before long the onerous maintenance costs caught up with the non-profit, at a time it was already facing increasing budgetary headwinds. The drug rehabilitation center closed in 1987, leaving the former Royal Institute award winner abandoned once more.
Several proposed plans would surface for the complex in the following years, ranging from a training center for law enforcement to upscale apartment housing. However the buildings’ unique design and floor plan – with small resident rooms and a large sanctuary – limited the scope of what entities could reasonably operate in the former St. Peter’s College.
Given the unique design, redevelopment plans were always going to be an uphill battle. Investors not deterred by the specialized floor plan or repair costs still had to digest the school’s remote location.
If these didn’t drive investors away, conservation groups such as the Twentieth Century Society added additional development hurdles by championing non-alteration restoration efforts and placing the buildings on their “Risky Buildings Register.”
To his credit, Glasgow Archbishop Mario Conti was pragmatic in his assessment of St. Peter’s fortunes:
“Changes of circumstances sadly render buildings obsolete, and in the case of St Peter’s Seminary this occurred much sooner than could have been foreseen…we are currently awaiting planning permission for a scheme which would safeguard the building, prevent further dilapidation, and allow us to gift the building and estate to the local community…
We have attempted to put adequate security in place, but failed. Put bluntly, the vandals defeated us. We have also been victims of a policy which fails to recognize that owners of listed buildings need to have the opportunity to develop a site in order to preserve its architectural treasures. “
After developers tried and failed to re-purpose the property, the former college became an afterthought. Over time vandals added their contributions by breaking windows and ransacking anything in view.
Young artists felt obliged to demonstrate their capabilities with a spray can, while the homeless and destitute retrieved the crosses, decorative woodwork, and window frames for heat during the winter.
Support came on August 6th, 1992, when the buildings of St. Peter’s College were listed by Historic Scotland as Category A structures, the highest level of protection offered for buildings with “special or historic interest.”
However this designation was merely administrative and regulated future development; it did not offer present-day physical protection.
[ Did You Know? St. Peter’s is one of only 42 post-war buildings in Scotland to be listed as a Category A structure. For a full listing of Scotland’s Category A structures, click here. ]
above photos courtesy Russell Ardo
Despite its recent legal protection designation, the site would still find a way to let nature slowly break it down.
The oldest building on the property was the first to meet its demise: In 1995, the Kilmahew House was decimated in a fire.
Concerns over the safety of the burnt structure forced its demolishment shortly thereafter.
“I actually can’t believe they let it go to pieces the way they did, but they never were able to fill it. The sheer malevolence of the destruction of the building… It might have been kinder to knock it down, I don’t know. ”
– Andy MacMillan, architect of St. Peter’s College
In October of 2005, the readers of architectural magazine Prospect voted St. Peter’s College as Scotland’s greatest post-WWII building.
Selection panel chair Penny Lewis shared the following about the winning building:
“It enjoys a fantastic relationship to the landscape. At the heart of this building is the space for worship which has to be one of the best public places in Scotland for acoustic quality.”
The Royal Incorporation of Architects Scotland (RIAS) director of communications John Pelan agrees:
“Many Scottish architects believe St Peter’s to be one of the finest examples of post-war architecture. You should not see it as it is now, but as it was when it was built. It was very radical and bold, a real architects’ building, and we would love to see it restored to its former glory.”
[ See complete list of Prospect’s “100 Best Modern Scottish Buildings.” Architectural Firm Gillespie, Kidd, and Coia penned five of the top 30 buildings on the list. ]
St. Peter’s Convent Common Area: Then and Now
Renewed Attempts to Re-use St. Peter’s
In June of 2007 the World Monuments Fund announced the former St. Peter’s Seminary would be included on the “100 Most Endangered Sites List” the following year.
Developer Urban Splash started to get involved in 2007 with plans to re-purpose the site but viability issues forced the company’s withdrawal four years later when it was learned £5 million worth of public cash was needed to get the project off the ground.
The Archdiocese of Glasgow repeated its position that no commercial operation would be viable for the site.
“Over many decades no one has come up with a solution for the site, it has always been the church’s view that no commercial scheme is viable for St Peter’s.”
– Ken Crilly, development director, Archdiocese of Glasgow
Awards & A New Hope
Despite the site’s operational obstacles, the buildings still managed to win multiple awards for their innovative design.
And it seems the pace of accolades has increased after abandonment; St. Peter’s College architects MacMillan and Metzstein were honored with the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Annie Spink Award in 2008.
Also that year, the architects were awarded an honorary degree from the Glasgow School of Art and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the RIAS (Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland).
St. Peter’s Main Block Processional Ramp: Then & Now
In 2009 the Scottish Arts Council awarded a grant from the National Lottery Public Art Fund to environmental arts group NVA for development of artwork around St. Peter’s College and the surrounding Kilmahew Woodlands.
ESS ltd and ERZ landscape architects were commissioned to perform the work, while funding came from the Dunard Fund, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Forestry Commission, and Scottish National Heritage.
By 2010 the NVA had developed plans for an invention and partial restoration of St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, and presented them during the 12th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice during the Biennale (listen to the audio below).
Watch: This video contains audio from 2010 delegation discussing St. Peter’s
Unfortunately, funding shortfalls would stall this effort – although the NVA would continue efforts to preserve St. Peter’s by raising awareness via exhibitions.
In 2012 the Scottish Government awarded £500,000 in repair grants to St. Peter’s via the Historic Scotland building grant.
The Catholic Church has moved on, having since donated the property to the NVA, to date the most plausible and preferable redevelopment option available. NVA director Angus Farquhar plans to create a hybrid site, blending a new arts venue with concrete structures preserved in a state of arrested decay.
In early 2015 fundraising was again kick-started while work on removing asbestos was underway. Farquhar has an inspired plan for the property and he doesn’t fail to capture the imagination with his vision:
“The site carries a remarkable 500 year history of human intervention, from the medieval foundations of Cardross Castle, the survival of natural woodlands and a stunning Victorian designed estate, to the powerful imposition of the 20th century seminary buildings.
A creative landscape is driven not by a single focus or perspective on its heritage, conservation, environmental or leisure value, but by an inspired reading of the layers of history that underpin it, that define its complex character and the visionary artistic responses that can expand this narrative into a new century. The plan will allow us to look at temporary and permanent ways to take these ideas forward”
– Angus Farquhar, NVA director
If fundraising has been a problem, continuing to acquire accolades has not. International architecture conservationists DOCOMOMO named the 1969 RIBA Gold Medal winner to their Key Scottish Monuments List and called the College a modern “building of world significance.”
[ See DOCOMOMO’s map of 60 key Scotland monuments. ]
St. Peter’s Refectory Sunken Seating: Then and Now
Construction speak: How did they build it?
Perhaps best described by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which released this excerpt in their evaluation:
“… the main block derives from a series of combined frames and cross-walls of reinforced concrete placed in situ at 8 ft. centres. These include deep double-cantilevered beams, between which non-structural vaulted ceilings of metal lath and plaster are placed. These main structural frames are 9 inches thick and are tied externally and internally by arched members.
The cross-walls divide the study bedrooms on the upper floors. An escape stair at the north end of the block is of in situ reinforced concrete cantilevered from a reinforced concrete chimney and independent of the structure of the main block. The external cladding is of precast concrete slabs, light brown in colour, with an exposed aggregate finish of large rounded pebbles – a suitably vigorous type of finish in this rugged setting.
The slabs generally span the 8 foot bays in the form of arch, gallery, or handrail units 4 inches thick. Dark brown paint to window frames – and unexpected detail this – complements the colour of the units.
The three-story library and classroom wing (pictured above), at right angles to the main block, is again an in situ reinforced concrete structure, remarkable for its deep cantilevers and the boldly jutting silhouette of the classrooms, made all the more dramatic because they project over steeply falling ground.
The entire top floor which contains the classrooms is supported on four large internal columns. These support two 4 foot deep beams which, in turn, carry two longitudinal beam-walls spanning 58 feet and cantilevering up to 40 feet at each end of the block.”
Did You Know?
• St. Peter’s Seminary trained Scotland cardinal Keith O’Brien.
• The BBC filmed the freshly completed St. Peter’s in 1966 and again in 1967 for the “Making of a Priest” documentary. 1972’s “Space and Light” by Murray Grigor explores the campus and structures of the college. (watch below)
• Watch this excellent aerial drone video of St. Peter’s by scottishmotorman, filmed April 2014.
• Want to visit? The Royal Geographical Society, through the Discovering Britain project, offers an informative walk of Kilmahew (view the walk e-flyer here). You can also download and listen to the Invisible College’s mp3 audio drift as well as their excellent map & guide (pdf format).
• St. Peter’s Seminary has already been covered by Glasgow-based blogger Alex Cochrane. Alex penned a great piece after his encounter with “the Ruins that Mock God and Architecture.”
12/07/2015: Artistic group Hinterland, produced by the NVA, recently announced a creative light show would take place at St. Peter’s Seminary in March of 2016. In the announcement the group shared:
“With A TWO YEAR RESTORATION PLANNED TO START LATER IN THE YEAR, this will be the only opportunity for the public to witness this world-renowned building in its current state of majestic decay.”
The BBC also featured an article about the event.
Update 2: 03/23/2016
Monetary details of the restoration project have been released. According to a BBC article, the Seminary has received a £4.2m boost. The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £3,806,000 to NVA, with Creative Scotland also contributing another £400,000.