THE Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh have been restored to their former glory after a £10m revamp. Brian Ferguson went along for a look.
A NEWSPAPER advert for a design competition offering the modest sum of 25 guineas as a prize was the first step in the creation 225 years ago of Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms. But when the wraps come off the buiding in George Street later this month – after a closure lasting two years – almost £10 million will have been spent on its biggest-ever refurbishment.
Those behind the project have no doubt it was money well spent, to restore the landmark to its former glory and create “the city’s flagship event space.” Best known in recent years as a major Fringe venue, the Assembly has also hosted popular ceilidhs and other events throughout the year, and the aim of the revamp is to make it a magnet for everything from gala dinners and award ceremonies to lavish balls and cultural events.
Such occasions were once the norm for the Assembly Rooms, built in 1787 as a gathering place for the well-heeled denizens of the New Town. Its construction, to the winning competition design by architect John Henderson, was actually funded by public subscription, to the tune of £6300.
Since then it has hosted glittering royal occasions, passionate readings by the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, prestigious political gatherings and highbrow musical events, as well as a 30-year reign as a Fringe venue. But officials in charge of the building – which was locked up for almost six months before the restoration project began 18 months ago – say it was tired and rundown even back when planning for a revamp began, in 2006.
The front doors were rarely opened to the public, with the majority of events for a private audience, and some types of events, such as pop and rock concerts, as well as late-night clubbing events, could not be staged there as it was in such a fragile state. It is hoped the extensive overhaul, which has seen the two major ballrooms completely refurbished and restored, will ensure the venue not only reclaims its crown as a gathering place for the great and the good, but helps Edinburgh compete better with Glasgow for major events.
Shona Clelland, the venue’s general manager, who has been overseeing the project, says: “There were two different incidents where parts of the ceiling came down and it was lucky no-one was hurt. The whole building has been completely restored, including all the intricate plasterwork and cornicing, as well as the chandeliers.
“People might remember the horrible colour scheme in the Music Hall or the Ballroom, or the old curtains that blocked out the daylight. The whole place really has been transformed and restored to the full grandeur that it once had. But we also think event organisers will notice a huge difference. For example, in the Music Hall, we’ve got brand new seating in the balcony, flexible staging for all kinds of different events like concerts or theatre, and facilities which allow bands to just plug in and play, for the first time.”
Edinburgh City Council was already planning refurbishment of the Assembly Rooms while completing an overhaul of the Usher Hall, the city’s flagship concert venue. It was less than a year after that revamp was finished that the contractors moved in to the Assembly Rooms, with up to 130 people working on site and more than 250,000 man-hours notched up so far.
However, the run-up to the start of the work was uncomfortable for the council, after William Burdett-Coutts – the artistic director of the Fringe company which had run the venue for three decades – mounted a campaign against the revamp. He was accused of sabotaging a lottery bid for the project, with the council forced to scale back some elements of the revamp to shave almost £3 million off the bill. The focus of Burdett-Coutts’ fury – even before he lost the contract to run festival shows in the venue – was plans to convert two spaces into shop units and turn another into a fine-dining restaurant.
The council struck a vital PR blow when it landed a deal with Jamie Oliver to open one of his Italian restaurants on the site. It will open a few days before the official unveiling of the venue, with a ceilidh in both the Ballroom and the Music Hall, on 21 July, less than a fortnight before The Stand Comedy Club’s founder, Tommy Sheppard, takes over the running of the building as a Fringe venue.
Richard Lewis, head of culture and sport at the council, says the right decisions were made. “We are actually restoring it to what it was originally like. There were shops downstairs for a very long time and Jamie Oliver’s restaurant is opening on the exact site of the venue’s old Supper Room. The main benefit for me is having the venue opened up seven days a week for the first time. You could never really walk in off the street before. The Assembly Rooms was really a place you would only come to during the festival or on Hogmanay, and although it was made to look pretty good if a big event was on, it really has been transformed.”
The project has come to fruition more than 40 years after the venue hosted a meeting to kick-start efforts to save the New Town’s architectural jewels. In 1970, the conference organisers, John Betjeman and Sir Robert Matthew, warned urgent action was required at the Assembly Rooms to preserve “one of the outstanding pieces of town planning on the heroic scale in this or any other country”.
David Hicks, communications manager for the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, says: “The Assembly Rooms are one of Edinburgh’s most important Georgian buildings, and it is tremendous to see them brought back into life once more. The building has often been centre stage at key moments in Edinburgh’s history, and its construction marked the success of the New Town as an expansion of the city. ”
As for Oliver, he says: “What better place to open a restaurant in Edinburgh, what better place than the Assembly Rooms with its rich history and amazing architecture. I’m excited for us to open.”
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