Fire-hit charity converts church

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A CHARITY whose premises were wrecked by the Old Town fire is to take on a historic city centre church and turn it into an arts venue and community centre.

The old Bristo Church in Bristo Place has lain empty since being sold to the National Museums of Scotland three years ago by the Adventist Church.

Now the Edinburgh University Settlement charity has bought the church in the wake of damage to its Guthrie Street premises in the Old Town fire.

The EUS plans to convert the Victorian building into an arts venue and community centre for its programmes, which include its Stepping Stones art and drama therapy workshops for people with mental health problems who are living in the community.

The former church is expected to be used as a Fringe venue, and become the new home of the Forest Cafe, a not-for-profit exhibition space, arts venue and cafe.

Rachel Savage, spokeswoman for the EUS, said buying Bristo Church was an important step forward

as it would give its arts therapy sessions a new permanent home.

She said: "Stepping Stones is for people out of hospital care. It is to build confidence and express their emotions. Some of the art is fantastic, it is really something. We have held a couple of exhibitions."

The charity is considering staging its own performances and exhibitions for the Fringe or leasing out the venue to theatre companies.

Ms Savage said: "We will keep the big open space. It is a great building with some great features, which we want to retain. We want to get the pipe organ restored.

"We were established in 1905 so it will be our centenary in 2005 and that will be at the centre of our fundraising [for work on the venue]. We are very excited and want to make the centre a community resource."

Museums chiefs scrapped plans to turn the listed building into a library earlier this year and instead put it on the market with a 600,000 price tag.

The sale to the EUS has quashed residents’ fears that the building would be turned into a pub or a nightclub. Community and heritage organisations had warned the prospect of a bar or nightclub complex would face huge opposition, as there were concerns the area was getting over-run with licensed premises.

Bristo Church was built for the Evangelical Union in 1899 but was taken over in 1942 by the Adventist Church, which ran it until 2000.

The two-storey red sandstone building includes offices and the main church hall - complete with pulpit and organ - on the first floor, as well as offices, a large meeting hall, a classroom and nursery on the ground floor, plus a kitchen, store rooms and toilets.

Roy Durie, of Ryden, the selling agents refused to disclose the sale price, but confirmed the church had been on the market for 600,000. He said: "It is one of the busiest arterial routes out of the city and is perfect for their use."

Martin Hulse, director of the Cockburn Association, welcomed the scheme for the historic church.

He said: "It is great to see the building being put back into use again. The street needs a bit of light and life so it is good something is going in there. This is a positive development."

But he added: "I am disappointed the library scheme designed by Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser was dropped as that would have been good."

The EUS is backed by organisations including Abbey National Charitable Trust, Edinburgh City Council, East Lothian Council and the Scottish Executive.