Halfway along Sauchiehall Street is a building that looks strikingly different from its neighbours. 

Slotted in amongst Caffe Nero, opposite Tesco Express and the recently opened Assai Records store is one of Glasgow's oldest spots to drink a hot refreshment. 

The original Willow Tea Rooms were designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for local tea entrepreneur Kate Cranston.

Glasgow Times:

The daughter of a tea merchant, Miss Cranston was an influential figure in popularising Glasgow’s tearooms in the 19th century in what became known as the 'Glasgow Style', which Mackintosh pioneered.

He and Miss Cranston are thought to have first met back in 1896, and much of their relationship was based on a shared love for combining art and socialising; Miss Cranston recognised the concept of the tearooms as a shared place for people to drink tea and appreciate art and beauty.

Glasgow Times: Miss Kate Cranston Miss Kate Cranston (Image: Newsquest)

After many years working together, with Mackintosh commissioned to design the walls of Miss Cranston’s Buchanan Street tearoom and a whole dining room called the White Dining Room on Ingram Street, Miss Cranston submitted an idea to the celebrated architect for a new tearoom at 217 Sauchiehall Street.

Mackintosh and his wife Margaret were given total control over the design and layout of the tearoom, and much like his typical style, the space featured muted pinks, purples and greens on glass, high-back chairs and linear bannisters – all reminiscent of the Art Nouveau style of the early 20th century.

Glasgow Times: Charles Rennie MackintoshCharles Rennie Mackintosh (Image: Newsquest)

The now-iconic tearoom opened to the public in October 1903, and it became not only Miss Cranston’s most popular hospitality venue in the city but one of Mackintosh’s most celebrated architectural accomplishments.

For decades now, visitors from Glasgow and beyond visit this tearoom to enjoy not only a cup of tea and a slice of cake, but a slice of the city’s art history.

The institution has since inspired the similar Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street, which opened in 1997 and is now looking to expand in Edinburgh. The legacy of the Willow was preserved back in 2014 when Celia Sinclair bought the tearoom, preventing its closure and planning to restore it to its original glory.

Glasgow Times:

Speaking to the Glasgow Times at the time, Ms Sinclair said: “I felt – and still feel – very passionate about [Mackintosh’s] work, and about saving it for the people of Glasgow.”

With the help of the National Trust, the tearoom at number 217 was given a new lease of life and had a royal reopening with the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay in 2018. It was then that it would be known as Mackintosh at the Willow.

The new and improved tearooms were a success after that, attracting over 230,000 visitors per year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Glasgow Times:

Visitors flocked not only to enjoy the authentic Art Nouveau décor and tearoom experience, but the museum and shop dedicated to the Mackintosh story and celebrating his designs.

The legacy of Mackintosh tearooms looks only set to continue, as just this year it was cemented in National Trust status.

The group used £1.75 million from its reserve funds and acquisition finances, to secure the property and add it to its list of renowned heritage sites, meaning it will continue to be looked after for years to come.