Alexander "Greek" Thomson lived from 9 April 1817 to 22 March 1875. He was an eminent Glaswegian architect. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Alexander Thomson was born in Balfron in Stirlingshire, the ninth of twelve children of a bookkeeper. Alexander's father died in 1824 and the family moved to Glasgow. Between 1828 and 1830, his mother, his oldest sister, and three of his brothers, all died. The remaining children moved in with an older brother, William, who was a teacher on the south side of Glasgow. Alexander was tutored at home, and at the age of 12 went to work in a lawyer's office. He then became an apprentice to Glasgow architect Robert Foote, later going on to gain a job in the office of architect John Baird as a draughtsman.
On 21 September 1847, Alexander Thomson married Jane Nicholson in a double wedding ceremony in which her sister, Jessie, married the young John Baird, son of the architect Alexander worked for. Alexander and Jane went on to have twelve children, though five were lost in childhood. In 1848 Thomson set up his own practice, Baird & Thomson, with the younger John Baird, and they worked in partnership for nine years. During this time Thomson developed a singular style that amalgamated elements of Greek, Egyptian and Mediterranean architecture and led to his nickname, Alexander "Greek" Thomson.
In 1857, by now known as "the rising architectural star of Glasgow," Thomson entered into practice with his brother George, and the most productive period of his life. Over the following years he spent periods as president of both the Glasgow Architectural Society and the Glasgow Institute of Architects. Thomson produced a wide range of buildings including villas, a castle, urban terraced houses, commercial warehouses, tenements, and three remarkable churches. Of these, Caledonia Road Free Church is now a ruin, Queen's Park United Presbyterian Church was destroyed in the Second World War, and St Vincent Street Church still survives. The three were once described as "three of the finest Romantic Classical churches in the world".
The best known of his villas was Holmwood House, built in 1857-8 at a cost of £3,600 for the businessman James Couper. Today it is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and, as the most accessible of his buildings, serves as a shrine to Thomson and his architecture, attracting visitors from all over the world. Later in his career he came to concentrate much more on the pure Ionic Greek style, and is often seen as the last of the British Greek Revival architects.
Thomson was among the first architects to look at housing from the point of view of what would today be called sustainability. In 1868 he produced plans for the Glasgow City Improvement Trust for the redevelopment a large area of slum housing in the medieval core of the city. Thomson's plans, which were never built, suggested closely spaced parallel tenements built within central courtyards, with alternate streets covered over. The overall aim was to better balance ventilation in summer and retention of warmth in winter than in traditional designs.
Thomson died on 22 March 1875 at the home he designed himself in Moray Place in Glasgow. He was buried in Gorbals Southern Necropolis.