After an 18-month refurbishment, the grand old lady of George Street is ready to reopen. Richard Lewis welcomes the long-awaited return of the Assembly Rooms
Occupying a prime spot in the very heart of Edinburgh’s famed New Town, the Grade A-listed Assembly Rooms has long been the grand old lady of George Street, with her opulent ballroom and grand music hall setting the scene for hundreds of years’ worth of social events, dances, fairs, dinners and cultural occasions.
Built in the late 1780s at a cost of just £6300 from a public subscription, it is the place where Sir Walter Scott unmasked himself in 1827 as the author of the Waverley novels, where Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol at a public banquet in his honour in 1841 and where the first Edinburgh International Festival took place in 1947.
It has hosted monarchs, foreign dignitaries and prime ministers, from King George IV and William Gladstone in the 19th century to the then Princess Elizabeth and her fiancé, Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN in the 20th.
The Assembly Rooms was also the principal recruiting office for Edinburgh and the east of Scotland during the First World War from 1914-18.
These are, of course, just snapshots of the building’s illustrious 225-year history, but they paint a picture of a venue accustomed to being at the epicentre of social and public life in the city.
Roll back the clock to just over 18 months ago, however, and this historic gem had become scuffed and lacklustre – still much loved but in desperate need of some proper care and attention, to say nothing of the critical structural repairs needed to make it fully safe and secure.
Like countless others who grew up in Edinburgh, I have clear memories of visiting the Assembly Rooms on particular occasions like school events, Fringe shows or Hogmanay ceilidhs. Outside of these times, though, it often seemed as if the building was “closed off” – there was no or very limited public access and the closed doors on to George Street lent the venue a rather forbidding air.
Well, that’s all in the past. Tomorrow’s official reopening marks the start of a brand new chapter in the story of the Assembly Rooms.
The building has been lovingly restored to its former splendour in an extraordinary refurbishment, led and chiefly funded by the council with support from our partners.
The jewels in its crown, the music hall and ballroom, are back to their breathtaking best. Their chandeliers have been fully restored piece by painstaking piece and their ornate cornicing fully renovated and beautifully decorated – paying historically accurate homage to the heritage and significance of the building.
Significant structural work has been carried out to the ceilings of the west drawing room and ballroom, where large chunks of plaster had come down in the weeks before the Assembly Rooms’ closure.
This sensitive restoration work has simultaneously brought these prime events spaces up to 21st-century specifications, with the kind of versatile seating and staging capabilities, lighting effects, “plug and play” acoustic set-up, soundproofing and accessibility which makes the Assembly Rooms ideal for all manner of events.
None of this work would have been possible without the introduction – or, particularly in the case of the ground floor, reintroduction – of a commercial element to the building, with rental income facilitating the council’s financing of the bulk of the restoration thanks to the prudential borrowing scheme for public bodies.
Jamie’s Italian opened in the Assembly Rooms’ original supper room on Sunday and is already winning a loyal clientele, as well as helping to revitalise that section of Rose Street.
Meanwhile, skincare specialist Kiehl’s has taken up residence in one of the two original shop spaces on the ground floor, bringing a taste of the Big Apple to George Street. It will be joined in the autumn by one of Scotland’s top jewellery companies, Rox.
Perhaps the biggest change is to the ground-floor foyer area. From being closed off most of the time and offering what had become at best a somewhat dingy access point to the upper floors for events, this space has been completely transformed.
Whether you are coming in to meet friends for lunch or dinner at Jamie’s, for a browse at Kiehl’s or Rox, or to pick up information about what’s on at the Assembly Rooms, you will be guaranteed a warm welcome all year round.
As part of the relaunch, we’ll be carrying out a Living Memory project to collate people’s photographs and recollections of visits to the Assembly Rooms in years gone by. Now that the Assembly Rooms has been restored, there are countless special memories just waiting to be created here in the next chapters of its history.
• Councillor Richard Lewis is convener of the city council’s culture and leisure committee.