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Issue 65 - An Icon Preserved

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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An Icon Preserved

The architectural heritage of the city of Edinburgh is known the world over, but few know that the Scottish capital is home to the one of the two surviving original Assembly Rooms in the United Kingdom.

The architectural heritage of the city of Edinburgh is known the world over, but few know that the Scottish capital is home to the one of the two surviving original Assembly Rooms in the United Kingdom. Following a £9.3m restoration project, this centuries old venue reopened its doors and revealed the results of a magnificent refurbishment that has seen the building restored to its 18th century splendour.

Built during a period of four years, the A-listed building opened with a grand ball on 11th January 1787 and was described by the local paper, the Edinburgh Evening Courant as “exceeding the Great Room in Bath in elegance and just proportion.” In the late 18th century, Bath was the destination for noble society to rest and relax outside of the hustle and bustle of London. The building of the George Street Assembly Rooms positioned the city of Edinburgh as a noteworthy city and an attractive venue to visitors.

During the years, Assembly Rooms Edinburgh has hosted visits by the Queen and other members of the Royal family from the Coronation Tour to the present day. Literary figures from Scottish author Sir Walter Scott and English novelists William Thackeray and Charles Dickens all held readings in its rooms.

Known as the grande dame of Edinburgh, the need for this landmark of George Street to have a full and extensive renovation was apparent for many years. Other than some redecoration in 1997 when the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Edinburgh, the last major work on the building was in 1950.

General manager, Shona Clelland was a big supporter of the refurbishment going ahead: “The building was in a state of disrepair from the roofing to under the floorboards. The structural integrity of some areas needed to be seriously considered as well as the general visitor experience. Some seats had so little stuffing left in them, they simply weren’t usable anymore.” Through detailed and conscientious research, a full conservation plan portrayed the extent to which the building had changed over time. In terms of the decoration alone, there was evidence of at least 14 different decorative schemes in parts of the centuries old building. The study and subsequent more detailed exploration of the fabric of the venue revealed the extensive state of disrepair. In light of the conclusive findings, the City of Edinburgh Council closed the venue in January 2010.

Successful restoration

More than 18 months and 250,000 man hours went into the project, seeing plasterwork restored, ornate finishes repaired and 25 chandeliers reconditioned. The entire Assembly Rooms building has been renovated, with many local skilled craftspeople employing traditional methods to recreate and revitalise the iconic Georgian features which make the venue so well-loved.

Funded by the City of Edinburgh Council, with contributions from Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland, the work is in keeping with the history of the building as captured in the Assembly Rooms’ Conservation Plan.

Some 6000 books of replacement gold leaf highlight the building’s period features on lofty ceilings and cornicing. Half a million newly cleaned crystals are in their rightful place on the original lighting frames which have survived the ages of candlelight, gas and electricity.

With a total of 25 chandeliers throughout the venue, both traditional and modern skills were needed to restore the frames and the crystals. Three of the beautiful chandeliers feature predominantly in the Ballroom, set against a delicate palette of soft and light greys and dusky whites, and with lovingly restored floor-to-ceiling infinity mirrors at each end, the room appears to go on forever.

In the Music Hall, where the windows were partially obscured by pelmets and heavy dark curtains, natural light now floods the space from ceiling to floor with arched windows on display framed by handmade Zoffany damask curtains.

Challenges will always be presented when working on architecturally sensitive buildings. One of the most exciting aspects was the restoration of four important 18th century Coade stone statues.

The beautifully sculptured female figures had been heavily painted over the years and, when the layers were stripped away, not only was the true beauty of the original Coade revealed, but also that one was a poor plaster copy. Through a dedicated conservation project and detailed research, the fourth statue has been recreated in high quality acrylic resin and the quartet of classical beauties is back taking pride of place in the venue’s Crush Hall.

“Assembly Rooms Edinburgh is central to the social and cultural life of the city and this restoration is an incredible investment for the future;” explains Clelland. “Its grand and elegant rooms with glowing gold leaf and decorative rosettes look absolutely stunning. The architectural detail has been wonderfully restored.” As part of the refurbishment, acres of new technical infrastructure have been added to make the venue fit for contemporary purpose. As well as substantial acoustic and lighting improvements, considerable investment has also been made in technology introducing state-of-the-art sound systems and flexible seating to enable the venue to host a much broader range of events.

A New Chapter

Now fully restored as an events venue, Assembly Rooms Edinburgh is beginning a new, exciting chapter in its fascinating history.

The former Supper Room and Edinburgh Suite is now home to chef Jamie Oliver’s latest ‘Jamie’s Italian’ restaurant. In keeping with the rest of the building, and being careful to remain faithful to the Assembly Rooms’ 18th century architecture, the restaurant's designers have retained original features, while also adding some modern bespoke lighting echoing the chandeliers of the venue, and culinary magic, with an ‘antipasti island’ and open kitchen.

Assembly Rooms Edinburgh also has two new boutique outlets to complement and enhance the retail opportunities on Edinburgh’s George Street.

Returning the spaces to their former use on Edinburgh’s most stylish street – historically, these units were used for retail purposes up until the 1950s – sought after New York skincare brand Kiehl’s has opened its largest standalone store in Europe, and Scottish jewellers Rox is set to open in the autumn.

“The venue has not only been renovated and brought up-to-date but it has been made to last for generations to come,” explains Clelland. “No other building of this kind exists in such a complete state in the British Isles in public ownership. New life has been breathed into it. The city has protected a piece of the rich historical fabric of Edinburgh for many more generations to enjoy.” There is no doubt that Assembly Rooms Edinburgh has been reborn and it has come back in real style.