Mr. John Hall Nicol was a well-known Lanarkshire builder and Architect of the early 20th Century.
Born in 1875, the son of John Nicol a grocer, he was also Justice of the Peace taking up residence in Hamilton and later in Motherwell and Harrowgate. He was primarily a builder but also a sandstone quarry master with easy access to stone materials.
He started building houses in Motherwell from about 1905.
In 1912 he was responsible for designing renovations and alterations to the former Blantyre Music Hall, The Olympia Theatre of Varieties on Glasgow Road changing it from a theatre, to a cinema, which the following year, when complete became the Blantyre Picture House. He acted as entrepreneur as well as building contractor as he was the proprietor of the Alhambra Theatre in Motherwell (opened 1912) as well as the contractor and fitted it out sumptuously (not to be confused by a former threatre in Blantyre of the same name.)
He did not seem to have served in the First World War, at least at the beginning. In 1914 he gave evidence to a committee of the Middle Ward of Lanarkshire about the state of housing and stated that he had generally fitted his houses with baths, although many, he discovered, were used for other purposes such as storing coal. He also gave evidence to a House of Commons inquiry into the need for improvements in housing construction.
In 1915, John was the owner of “Dales”, a large house subdivided into 8 houses at High Blantyre near Broompark Road junction. His tenants renting for £13 per year included moulders, bottlers, firemen, grocers and miners. The property was demolished in the 1930’s and John Hall Nicol replaced it by constructing the current tenements, homes also still called “Dales.” This was at a time when he lived in Allanshaw Street in Hamilton.
In the 1920’s he also became business manager in Scotland for his famous fellow Hamiltonian, Sir Harry Lauder. Together Nicol and Lauder formed the Scotsman Car Company Ltd in 1921, which built in Wigton Street, Glasgow a range of three 4-cylinder Scotsman cars, funded by Sir Harry and designed by Nicol. Some cars were displayed at the Scottish Motor Exhibition of 1922 in the Kelvin Hall but were not put into general production.
In 1923 Nicol wrote and produced a three act musical play, with Lauder’s permission, based on the idioms of Sir Harry`s melodies and sketches. He seems to have written other scores and songs for Lauder.
One should not underestimate the amount of construction John Hall Nicol undertook for others, especially in Motherwell and Hamilton, although his outright ownership was significantly less. The advertisement which appeared alongside the report of the opening of the Central Hotel in Dundee which he designed and built in the 1920s records that he had by then completed contracts for 174 villas, 70 cottages, 614 tenements, 5 theatres and 3 hotels. He also ‘designed for London Syndicates – theatres and Picture Houses at Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Odessa, Rio de Janeiro and Petrograd, and houses for an American Syndicate in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Red Deer Park.
Nicol in recorded as travelling to Canada in 1930. He probably went on other occasions as well explaining his lack of Scottish census records.
The Central Hotel was one of three hotels constructed by Nicol’s company, Rockvilla Hotel Ltd. The two others were in Glasgow; both called the Rockvilla Hotel, one located at Garscube Cross, the other at Port Dundas. The one at Port Dundas was a hostel for workingmen, a kind of step-up from a lodging house (Nicol had already designed a similar hostel in Falkirk). The other would seem to have been built or rebuilt in the later 1930s and had ‘200 modern rooms’. In 1938 an advertisement appeared which described it as a place where staff working at the Empire Exhibition could lodge.
John died in Tradeston, Glasgow in 1953 and aged 78.
With thanks to Scottish Architects Directory for some of these notes and to Gordon Cook for providing this photo.