A History of The Willow Tea Rooms

1903:  The Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow

The site chosen for the Tea Rooms was at the middle of Glasgow’s most fashionable street. ‘Sauchiehall’ means ‘alley of willows’, and the theme of young willows – both naturalistic and metaphorical – was used throughout the building.  The Willow Tea Rooms were also notable as being the only ones where Mackintosh was able to design the exteriors as well as the interiors.  Enclosed between existing buildings, the site had frontage only to the north and south.  The entrance was in the north elevation which rose through four storeys; on the south side, Mackintosh modified the ground-floor elevation of the existing extension, which was never intended for public view, adding new windows, a new chimney and fire escape doors.
The variety and arrangement of rooms was similar to those at the Argyle Street and Ingram Street Tea Rooms, though here there was a special dining room, the Room de Luxe, which was at the heart of the building and was unique in Mackintosh’s oeuvre.  The entrance was at ground level in Sauchiehall Street, and visitors were channelled to the foot of the main staircase past a long, white-painted panelled screen, with glass panels above, like that used at Ingram Street.  At the end of this corridor was the central cash desk, and here customers had the choice of entering the Front or Back saloons or ascending the staircase to the Gallery and upper floors.  The basement contained cloakrooms and lavatories, and also the kitchens.

Roger Billcliffe

The most elegant of Miss Cranston’s four Tea Rooms, the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street opened in October 1903. Mackintosh had been at work designing it from the beginning of 1903, if not earlier (the plans submitted to the Dean of Guild Court, Glasgow, are dated February 1903).  Most of the furniture was put out to tender from July to September 1903, but some pieces were still being added in 1905.  It was the last complete suite of rooms he designed for Miss Cranston, although additions and alterations at Ingram Street were carried out piecemeal until about 1912.

The building housing the Willow Tea Rooms is in the middle of a tenement block on Sauchiehall Street, erected in the 1860s, with three floors of flats above the commercial premises on the ground floor.  The tenements were grouped in pairs, each pair above the ground floor having a central common staircase and elevations that mirrored each other.  The Willow is situated at 217 Sauchiehall Street and paired with number 215.  It was extended at the rear, on the ground floor and basement, probably in 1892, before Mackintosh’s involvement.  Miss Cranston may have rented number 215 as well as number 217; certainly, Mackintosh’s alterations to 217 impinged on 215 and both buildings are shown on his submissions to the Dean of Guild Court.  The common staircase was subsumed into the Willow, thus widening its frontage on to Sauchiehall Street, and a staircase providing access to the upper floors of 215 was added at its rear.