Arts philanthropist snaps up St Stephen’s Church

St Stephen's Church was sold well in excess of the �500,000 asking price. Picture: Contributed
St Stephen's Church was sold well in excess of the �500,000 asking price. Picture: Contributed
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A MYSTERY arts philanthropist has snapped up an under-threat Georgian landmark in Edinburgh, The Scotsman can reveal.

The Church of Scotland has agreed a deal well in excess of the £500,000 selling price for the former St Stephen’s Church.

The Kirk’s selling agents say the unnamed “philanthropist”, who is in final legal talks to confirm the sale, wants to retain the venue on St Stephen Street in Stockbridge for community use and run it as a performing arts space.

The deal, confirmed after more than 50 potential buyers expressed an interest in the building, thwarted reported efforts to turn it into private flats or a bar-restaurant complex.

The A-listed building, designed by “Athens of the North” architect William Henry Playfair, is hailed by experts as one of the architectural gems in and around the city’s New Town.

The building, which includes a 160ft tower, the longest clock pendulum in Europe and a terrace boasting spectacular views across the Lothians and Fife, is divided into three levels, including an 800-capacity venue suitable for live music, dance and theatre.

However, the successful bid does not involve the charitable trust that was set up by a group of locals and conservation experts to try to buy the building.

Its backers say they have “no idea” who has bought the building, which was put on the market for offers over £500,000 after being declared surplus to requirements by the Church.

And it is not yet known if the building, one of the key Edinburgh Festival Fringe venues north of Princes Street, will be available for shows this summer.

The building had effectively been run as a local community centre for the last two decades, but its use had declined dramatically in recent years. Its sale had been promoted as a “unique opportunity to acquire one of the most important Georgian buildings in Edinburgh”.

David Reid, an associate at Rettie, the firm handling the sale on behalf of the Kirk, said: “The Church of Scotland discussed the various offers for the building earlier this year and agreed to accept the highest offer.

“We cannot name the successful bidder at the moment, until the sale has been completely finalised, but it is a private individual who has a philanthropic charitable trust.

“The intention is to keep it running as a community and performing arts centre.”

The St Stephen’s Playfair Trust had unveiled plans for a long-term refurbishment and restoration of the building – 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.

Award-winning Edinburgh architect James Simpson, spokesman for the trust, which offered just over the asking price, said its members were “very disappointed” to lose out.

He added: “We have no idea who the successful bidder is, so we’ve not been able to contact them, although we understand the winning bid was significantly higher than the asking price.

“We’ve been in touch with everyone who expressed an interest in working with us, but no-one seems to know who it is.

“All we have heard is that they want the present use of the building to continue and that they have a charitable trust.

“We felt we were in with a 50/50 chance when we submitted our bid, so we’re very disappointed at the outcome, although we don’t think we’re out of the game yet. We would be happy to speak to the new owner about their plans.”

No-one at the Church of Scotland was available for comment.