Alister Gladstone MacDonald

Place of Birth

  • Born: 18 May 189
  • Died: 1993

Alister (or Alistair) Gladstone MacDonald,  ‑ sources differ as to the spelling of his first name ‑ was born in London on 18 May 1898, the eldest of the six children of James Ramsey MacDonald,  Britain’s first‑ever Labour Prime Minister, and his wife  Margaret Ethel Gladstone. Along with his brother Malcolm, he was educated at Bedales School in Hampshire following the death of their mother in 1911, when he was 13 years old. On leaving school in 1915 he declared his pacifist beliefs and in 1916 volunteered as an orderly with the Friends Ambulance Unit. For three years he worked on No 17 ambulance train in northern France transporting the wounded from the trenches back to the coast and thence to England. For much of his life he held an annual party for the “Seventeeners,” his comrades in the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Following the war, he enrolled at London University, where he was a Donaldson medallist at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He married Edith Katherine Hart in 1922, presenting Ramsey MacDonald with his first grand-daughters. To provide an income he worked on building sites including Frank Verity’s Plaza Cinema in London where he acted as clerk of works. It was during this period that he took his only interest in politics, promoting the Ramsay MacDonald government's policies on town planning, traffic and housing in an article published in the Architects' Journal. Alister's decision not to follow his family into politics in order to become an architect was a move not entirely understood by his father. Years later, when he was a highly successful architect with offices in both London and Edinburgh, Manny Shinwell wrote to him AYou could have done work for the party.@

Alister MacDonald became a member of the RIBA in 1926 and was elected FRIBA in 1942. Shortly after commencing independent practice he opened an office at 14 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, possibly as a result of the commission for extensions to the McVitie and Price biscuit works in that city.

In January 1930 Alister MacDonald landed in Manhattan to begin a five‑week inspection of US architecture.  His visit, reported in Time magazine, attracted considerable interest in America, thanks to his dashing good looks and the fact that he was the eldest son of Britain's first Labour prime minister. Visits were planned to New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and then to Hollywood to study lighting and sound insulation on film sets. In what the Daily Mail later described as his Aadventures in Hollywood@ he was to meet many of the film stars of the era including Charlie Chaplin, whom he invited to Chequers to meet his father.

In the early 1930's he also travelled to Italy to study Mussolini's venture in draining the marshes around Rome for housing. There he met Mussolini and was invited to collaborate with Italian engineers in designing a skyscraper in the Piazza Diaz in Milan. Plans were prepared but the scheme never progressed as relations between Britain and Italy deteriorated.

He specialised in news theatres during the boom years of cinema‑ building in the 1930s. Among his designs in England were those at Victoria and Waterloo stations which used back projection and insulation against the noise of the trains. Sadly his plans for a news cinema in Glasgow's Central Station were unrealised but he built a number of conventional cinemas in Scotland, most notably for the Caledonian Associated Cinemas group (CAC), including the Playhouses in Peebles, the Broadway in Prestwick, and cinemas at Montrose and Elgin. He was also responsible for the Empire Cinema and Peace Pavilion for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in 1938. His reputation and skills were clearly held in high regard B when the Architects Journal published a special number on Modern Cinemas in 1936, Macdonald was invited to contribute not only an example of his work on a conventional cinema (the Playhouse Montrose), but also an entire chapter on the complexities of designing newsreel cinemas.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was one of the band of architects who decided that St Paul's Cathedral must be saved. With the encouragement of the Dean, the group set up a fire-fighting vigil, known as the St Paul's Watch, armed only with hassocks and buckets of water.

His interest in children led him to become honorary architect to among others the Nursery School Association, the Sunshine Homes for Blind Babies and Save the Children Fund and he was also involved in the post‑war school building programme. Post war commissions included the Methodist churches at Amersham, Harlesden and High Wycombe, and the memorial wing of the Victory Ex‑Services Club in Edgware Road. He also rebuilt the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts' Vanburgh Theatre and refurbished the Comedy Theatre (1955) in conjunction with Cecil Masey.

 About 1960 the firm became Alister G MacDonald & Partners and at this period he travelled widely, with commissions in Yemen, Mombasa, Cyprus, Malta and in Jordan for his friend King Hussein. Two of his last executed projects were the building of the Churchill Memorial complex for the Sultan of Brunei, and the town centre redevelopment at St Austell, Cornwall.

 Alister Gladstone MacDonald was married twice. In 1922 he married Edith Katherine Hart (two daughters); this marriage ended in divorce in 1936. In 1937 he married Doreen Banaz by whom he had two sons, Richard and Kelvin, and one daughter, Susan G R MacDonald, who was born in 1942. He died at Brighton on 22 March 1993.