Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition and the Beresford Hotel

Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition and the Beresford Hotel

Many people recognise the Beresford building in Glasgow as one of the best examples of Art Deco/Streamline Moderne architecture in the city. However, fewer people know that it was built in 1938 to provide accommodation for some of the nearly 13 million people that attended the Empire Exhibition. At seven stories high the Beresford Hotel, as it was known then, was the tallest building constructed between the two world wars and is regarded as Glasgow’s first skyscraper.

The Empire Exhibition was a large-scale international exhibition held in Glasgow that took place in 1938. Held in Bellahouston Park from May to December, it was orchestrated to display the best of Scotland’s industry and create an event that would boost the economy by attracting a large number of tourists. In fact, to this day it remains the largest event that has ever taken place in the city and attracted a staggering 12,800,000 visitors.

The origins of the event can be traced back to the National Exhibition held in Paris in 1798, which was designed to showcase the finest products being made by French industry at the time. This in turn led to the first international exhibition ever to take place, the Great Exhibition, which was held in London in 1851 and attracted 6 million visitors. Following this event, a second International Exhibition was held in Glasgow in 1888 which was followed by the creation of the first Empire Exhibition in Wembley Park in 1924.

By the mid-1930s the Scottish Development Council, created by prominent industrialist and shipbuilder Sir James Lithgow, had begun to consider hosting a similar exhibition. Lithgow approached Sir Cecil Weir, the businessman and advocate of social and economic reform, about the possibility of the Scottish Development Council having a role in coordinating a Scottish exhibition. Weir, who was convenor of the Scottish Development Council’s general purposes committee, then suggested this to other members of the committee who agreed and by 1936 official reports and proposals were created. Over the following months, Cecil met with several industry and manufacturing leaders as well as government bodies and in October 1936 the Empire Exhibition officially began planning and construction from Merchants House.

The next stage of development was finding a suitable location and thankfully Glasgow Corporation leased 145 acres of Bellahouston Park for the event free of charge. The Ibrox Park stadium nearby was also granted as a venue for the opening ceremony and any sporting events and competitions that would take place as part of the exhibition. The Scottish Development Council and the council of management and administrative committee were heavily involved in all aspects of the exhibition, and as both were chaired by Sir Cecil Weir the event became known by the public as ‘Cecil’s Exhibition’. Several other smaller groups were created, both nationally and internationally, so that the exhibition could include the best of science and technology as well as arts and entertainments.

As well as showcasing the best in Scotland, the event was also an opportunity to celebrate the wider accomplishments of the Empire at the time, and to kickstart a recovery from the worldwide economic Great Depression of the 1930s. With this in mind, and the increase of fascism in other parts of the world, five objects were declared to be the focus of the exhibit:

  1. To illustrate the progress of the British Empire at home and overseas.
  2. To show the resources and potentialities of the United Kingdom and the Empire overseas to the new generation.
  3. To stimulate Scottish work and production and to direct attention to Scotland`s historical and scenic attractions.
  4. To foster Empire trade and a closer friendship among the peoples of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
  5. To emphasize to the world the peaceful aspirations of the peoples of the British Empire.

 Bellahouston Park was transformed for the exhibition and a huge number of purpose-built venues were created. The mastermind behind the designs was the modernist architect Thomas Smith Tait, originally from Paisley. Working with consulting engineers Crouch & Hogg he determined that the event buildings should be in an Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style and designed the majority of the 100 buildings at the exhibition. The exhibition was made up of several pavilions including the Dominion and Colonial Avenues which included exhibitions from several different countries across the African and Asian continents, as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Next to this area was a large ornamental lake and a display of the first-ever created dancing water fountains that were also floodlit and changed colours. At one end of the lake was the large Engineering Hall, and at the other, the equally grand Industrial Hall was built.

These buildings were flanked by a multitude of pavilions that included 19 restaurants and plenty of smaller snack bars serving a variety of dishes from Britain and beyond. There was also a large garden area, and in the centre stood the prominent Tait Tower which was built to be 300ft (91 metres) high but as it was on a hill stood at over 470ft (140 metres). The tower was then handed to the British Army after the exhibition and was subsequently demolished, although it could have remained a permanent exhibition. The Scottish pavilions were on the other side of the hill and included a Highland Village or Clachan, the Peace and Fitness Pavilions, the Concert Hall, the Palace of Arts and several other smaller pavilions. The largest pavilion was the British Government Pavilion, and there were 62 pavilions constructed to showcase celebrated commercial and industrial achievements. The total area of all the buildings was over 1 million square feet. Travel was provided between the areas by 50 Lister Auto-Trucks that carried passengers between the different areas. At the exhibition’s height of popularity over 10,000 people were transported each day.

The event officially opened on the 3rd May with a ceremony at Ibrox Stadium attended by 146,000 people that was officiated by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The exhibition had several events between May and December including fashion and theatre shows in the Women of Empire Pavilion, staged classical concerts at The Concert Hall which were broadcast by the BBC, frequent displays by the British Military, pipe band competitions, and an international football tournament as well as 90 national and international conferences. On top of this, there was an Amusement Park spread out over 12 acres that included nearly 30 large rides and 105 other smaller shows and games.

 

Not many structures have survived since the event, or at least not where they originally stood. The Palace of Arts, which was designed by Launcelot H Ross, is the only remaining building in Bellahouston Park. The other buildings were either completely dismantled, like the Tait Tower, or moved to different locations. This includes The Empire News Theatre which was moved to Lochgilphead in 1939 to be used as a cinema then eventually became a guest house, The Palace of Engineering which was dismantled and transported to become part of Scottish Aviation at Prestwick Airport in 1940, and the South African pavilion was moved to Ardeer in Ayrshire to be used as a canteen. One of the other remaining buildings created for the event that is still in use today in its original location is also the Beresford Hotel, where we will open the Beresford Lounge.

At Beresford Lounge we are proud to be part of an establishment that has played such a big role in the history of this event, and therefore the history of Glasgow as a whole, as one of the few remaining buildings left from the time. We are also one of the few buildings left in the once-popular Art Deco/ Streamline Moderne style and remain a category B listed building.  In the spirit of the exhibition that built where we are today, we are committed to showcasing the best of Glasgow and beyond by providing excellent service, a variety of meals and drinks, and top-notch entertainment in glamorous surroundings. We hope you will visit us soon.