Down but not out: city's dream for Assembly Rooms hits a setback

The City of Edinburgh Council's ambitious refurbishment plans for the historic Assembly Rooms are being reassessed after it lost out on funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Project leaders aiming to revitalise the Grade A listed George Street events venue are now urgently re-examining the plans following the disappointing news that a £2.7m funding bid to the HLF was not awarded.

Councillor Deidre Brock, Culture Leader, said: "Obviously we're deeply disappointed, although we appreciate there is ferocious competition for funding in this challenging economic climate. The Assembly Rooms is an extremely important venue for Edinburgh and indeed Scotland's cultural and events offer, and there was already substantial financial commitment to the project in place from the Council and other funding bodies. This is also bad news for our core customers, as the impact on them will be greater now than would otherwise have been the case.

"The Assembly Rooms is now however in desperate need of investment and while the full refurbishment proposals may have to be scaled down, we need to press on with improvements to this iconic building. When we have assessed what can be achieved with the funds we have, a plan will be developed; given our determination to have an improved offer for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, this is an urgent necessity."

The importance of the Assembly Rooms to Edinburgh's cultural and economic wellbeing is fully recognised by the leading tourism and marketing bodies tasked with promoting the city at home and abroad.

Gordon Dewar, Chairman of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (ETAG), said: "Edinburgh's tourism sector fully endorses the Council's ambitious vision for transforming and revitalising the Assembly Rooms. This historic and beautiful venue is truly unique - it's the only one of its kind in the UK, it enjoys a fabulous location in the heart of central Edinburgh and it offers a fantastic mix of spaces which makes it highly attractive to conference organisers, events specialists and commercial retail operators alike. The Assembly Rooms is a crucial component of Edinburgh's reputation as an events city so it is vital that all options are explored to retain this remarkable venue in its finest form."

Alan Johnston, Chair of Destination Edinburgh Marketing Alliance (DEMA), said: "The planned transformation of the Assembly Rooms forms an integral part of block four of the City's ambitious String of Pearls investment strategy. This sort of capital investment to create top quality facilities is vital to Edinburgh's continued competitive positioning and economic success, and adds to the city's reputation as a world class place to visit, invest, live, work and study. It is extremely important that the Assembly Rooms secures the investment it needs and deserves so that it can fulfil its role as one of the capital's premier arts and conference events venues."

Assembly Rooms: A History

On 14th May 1783, the foundation stone for the Assembly Rooms was laid. This marked the beginning of an exciting and ambitious project that was to provide the aristocracy with a new establishment in the New Town.

A competition was decided upon as the best method for attracting first class designs for the new building. It did so with John Henderson securing himself a first prize win of 25 guineas. Building was to commence on the site in George Street that had been gifted by the Town Council. Midway through construction, John Henderson died and responsibility was passed to his father, David, a mason who had worked with Adam on Register House.

The Assembly Rooms opened its doors, in an incomplete state, on the 11th January 1787 for the Caledonian Hunt Ball, at a cost from public subscription of £6,300. Through further subscription in 1796, ceiling roses, fluted Corinthian pilasters, drapes, mirrors and the magnificent chandeliers were installed by John Baxter.

Finally completed by the beginning of the 19th Century, the Assembly Rooms exceeded that of the Great Room in Bath in its elegance and "just proportion". The Ballroom comprised of a bow fronted tea-room and two card rooms that were all reached through side entrances on the east & west of the building. Two principal staircases lead into a central square salon, known today as the Crush Hall.

The first Edinburgh Music Festival in 1815 was housed in the Ballroom, and a year later Sir Walter Scott "supervised" a banquet bestowed on the Black Watch. In 1827, the Assembly Rooms played host to the annual dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund Association during which Scott chose to reveal his identity as the "The Great Unknown" author of the Waverley Novels.

Further Development

Realising that the role of the Assembly Rooms was subtly changing, it was recognised that a change and a second major phase of redevelopment was necessary. Two of the great figures of 19th Century Scottish Architecture, William Burn and David Bryce became involved and so the second phase began.

Opening to acclaim in 1843, the Music Hall held a week of performances that included Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Any hopes of money-making the Directors had were dashed, possibly due to poor ticketing arrangements, when a loss of up to £600 was reported. By now, the Assembly Rooms had established itself as a venue that, whilst still catering for both public and private balls, was now equipped to accommodate public meetings, concerts, recitals, music festivals, dinners, banquets, Royal occasions and public readings by celebrated authors such as Dickens and Thackeray. The Assembly Rooms was now a principal performing arts venue vital to social and artistic life within the City.

The Way Forward

Over the years the building has undergone further developments and improvements such as:

1833 Gas lighting introduced

1865 The extension of the existing portico for a new band platform in the Ballroom and the shell headed doorway was created based on a previous design by Bryce in 1857

1879 Alterations made to Music Hall stage and room redecorated

1883 Gas lighting converted to electricity and a vestibule was created at ground floor level with depressed arches

1907 Redevelopment of the Supper Room and the addition of the East & West drawing rooms above the lanes

1922 The Music Hall organ and the gallery columns were removed

1950 Redevelopment of the foyer with the removal of the two shops and redecoration of the Ballroom and West Drawing Room


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