Long and tedious negotiations took place before a decision on a suitable site was arrived at. At last, in 1852, at a meeting of subscribers, it was decided to build on a feu of two acres in a field off Nelson Street, generously offered by Sir Michael Robert Shaw Stewart, Bart. The building was designed by Messrs Hay, Architects, of Liverpool, who had previously designed Wellpark Church in lower Lynedoch Street. It was to be in what was called, not inappropriately, the Monastic Style. Building began in May, 1854, but, even before the work was started, it was discovered,—this has a familiar ring,—that the cost would largely exceed the sum at first named—£3,605. The plans were modified to bring the cost within that sum, and the architects—this sounds less familiar, — regretting their miscalculations, afterwards made a donation of fifty guineas to the fund.
When the Academy was built, it had plenty of open space round about it, space for large playing fields, one must reflect regretfully, but this educational development could hardly have been foreseen at the time. On the opposite side of Nelson Street was a large field through which wandered the West Burn, a clear stream in 1855 and frequented by townswomen who there washed and bleached their domestic linen. Later, the burn became filthy and polluted and a menace to public health. Beyond it, in the neighbourhood of the present West Station, was Ferguson’s Sugar House, built in 1847 and destroyed by fire ten years later. This sensational occurrence, like a later fire in Brisbane Street, no doubt caused depleted attendances in the new school. Behind the school stretched a large expanse of fields, with very few buildings to be seen. The most conspicuous were Greenbank House— still standing, though divided, Ford House, so called presumably because of the ford at one time across the West Burn, then much larger,— and the Observatory, on the site of the property known today as Towerhill. The West Kirk had been built in the early forties, but its steeple was not completed till 1854 and the bell not erected till 1859. Ardgowan School was not built until 1896. An interesting feature of the landscape, particularly for Academy pupils, was an orchard at what is now the corner of Inverkip Street and Nelson Street. Academy boys were in the habit of pilfering fruit here during the dinner hour: The owner skillfully transferred reprisals by allowing the boys to climb the trees and then releasing his watchdog, which kept them there until they had to face the penalty for being late.
In such agreeable and interesting surroundings the Academy was opened on Monday, 3rd September, 1855, in the presence of Sir Michael Robert Shaw Stewart, the Provost, the Bailies, Members of the Council and Teachers, together with many Ministers and principal inhabitant of the town.
Debt weighed heavily on the school from the beginning and new measures had to be taken to finance the undertaking and provide for further expansion and improvements. In 1864, a new Constitution was drawn up, making provision for a capital of £7,000 to be subscribed in shares of £10 each. It is worth noting that among the chief shareholders were Thomas Fairrie and William Macfie, who also gave respectively donations of £100 and £1,100 and who founded two Academy bursaries, open to boys in the town and still annually competed for.
The annual revenue from the school was to be allocated for payment of rates and taxes, interest on the debt, repairs, salaries, and additions to the buildings. Any surplus was to go towards reducing the principal of the debt. Any sum then remaining, and this is a phrase which throws doubts on the arithmetic of the period, was to be divided among the shareholders, but only when the debt had been paid off. The shareholders at no time received anything. £2500 had already been borrowed by the Directors and a further £500 was then borrowed, £3,000 being regarded as the limit of any borrowings. By this time, 1864, the northern wing had been completed and five hundred pupils were attending the school.