St Stephen’s Church is one of the key public buildings of Edinburgh’s New Town and World Heritage Site – which makes it a building of international importance.
Its architect, William Henry Playfair created two of Edinburgh’s greatest set-piece vistas: the axial view from Hanover Street to the Galleries on The Mound and the towers of New College beyond, and from Frederick Street and Howe Street to the tower of St Stephen’s. It was built by the city for public worship in the late 1820s and passed to the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland under the 1925 Burgh Churches Act.
Playfair’s buildings were always beautifully built and St Stephen’s, which is Category “A” listed, is no exception. Despite its horizontal subdivision in the 1950s, the top-lit octagonal church interior remains a large and extremely handsome space: one of the finest, yet least known, “great public rooms” in the city. It has an excellent acoustic and also happens to possess one of the finest organs in Scotland: it has the potential to be a first class concert hall, as well as a venue for drama, conferences and other cultural and social events.
Beneath the main public space are two levels, the upper of which has been a centre for community and cultural activities for half a century, known for the last 20 years as the St Stephen’s Centre. For nearly 200 years, St Stephen’s has been a public building, serving the community of the northern New Town, Stockbridge and Inverleith.
When the Church of Scotland decided to sell the building, it was decided to form the St Stephen’s Playfair Trust as a charitable company limited by guarantee, in order to acquire the building, to raise funds for its repair and restoration and to establish it on a permanent, sustainable basis as a community and cultural resource for the city.
St Stephen’s must not be privatised: the potential of its “great room” for cultural and social events should be realised and its two lower floors should be used for a combination of community activities and income generation, on the basis of a proper business plan. Please come to the public meeting in the building on Thursday, February 6 at 7pm and help to save St Stephen’s as a building for the community.
• Dr James Simpson is a member of the St Stephen’s Playfair Trust