Edinburgh’s St Stephen’s Church could be arts HQ

AN ARCHITECT spearheading a bid to save one of the most important Georgian buildings in Edinburgh claims a group of campaigners are on the verge of taking it over.

St Stephen's Church in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford

James Simpson said the taskforce trying to buy the former St Stephen’s Church is “very hopeful” a £500,000 bid will be accepted by Kirk bosses.

It is hoped it would become one of the “finest performance spaces in the country” for live music, dance and theatre, if a buy-out goes ahead.

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Conservation architect Mr Simpson insisted there was enough financial muscle to ensure a viable bid for one of the best-known landmarks in the capital’s New Town.

If successful, the move would see the A-listed building – designed by renowned architect William Henry Playfair – run by a charitable trust as a year-round, 800-capacity cultural centre.

The building, which dates to 1827, would also be put forward for a multi-million pound refurbishment, with the Heritage Lottery Fund expected to be asked to help secure its future.

The Scotsman has learned there have been more than 50 notes of interest in the building, put up for sale last year by the Church of Scotland after being run as a community centre for the previous two decades.

There have been concerns from local residents that the former church would be converted into flats or a bar-restaurant complex. Agents handling the sale for the Church of Scotland have set a closing date and will then advise the Kirk on which bids are the most viable.

However, retaining the building as an arts centre may avoid the need to secure planning permission for a change of use, as it already plays host to shows every August during the Fringe.

Mr Simpson has been appointed chair of the new St Stephen’s Playfair Trust. He said the group was looking to replicate the model which spearheaded the rescue of the former Catholic Apostolic Church at the bottom of Broughton Street, dubbed “Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel” for its celebrated murals by Phoebe Anna Traquair.

Mr Simpson said: “We have instructed solicitors to make an offer which, in general terms, will be to acquire the building for a sum of £505,000, for completion one year after the date of acceptance of the offer.

“The trust will also request a lease, enabling occupation of the building and continuation of community use, from as early a date as possible until completion of the purchase.

“We’re confident of our ability – through community action and professional fundraising – to raise the funds and complete the purchase within a year.

“While no firm decisions can be made until the trust has ownership of the building, the general intention will be to raise in the order of £5 million to undertake the major repairs, alterations and improvements which St Stephen’s deserves.”

A spokesman for Edinburgh World Heritage Trust said: “The building is right on the edge of the New Town, but is one of its real architectural treasures. The priority should be some form of sustainable use that is in keeping with its character.”

A spokesman for property agents Rettie, who are handling the sale, said: “We have had a lot of interest ahead of the closing date – we must have had at least 50 viewings of the building.”

James Jack, chair of the Church of Scotland’s general trustees, which will decide on the sale of the building, declined to comment ahead of the closing date.