Purchase of St Stephen’s Church hailed

The interior of St Stephen's Church, which has been bought for community use by Leslie Benzies. Picture: contributed
The interior of St Stephen's Church, which has been bought for community use by Leslie Benzies. Picture: contributed
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HERITAGE groups have hailed video game tycoon Leslie Benzies “the sort of benefactor we needed” after the multi-millionaire vowed to preserve St Stephen’s Church as a community hub.

The News revealed yesterday how Rockstar North president Mr Benzies – the driving force behind billion-pound franchise Grand Theft Auto – had purchased the Stockbridge landmark from the Church of Scotland in a deal thought to be worth well in excess of £500,000.

The 43-year-old philanthropist has pledged to refurbish the historic building and transform it into a community hub and performing arts centre.

Plans are at an early stage but Mr Benzies has announced his intention to meet the local community – including the St Stephen’s Playfair Trust which submitted a rival offer for the building – to recruit a board of trustees.

Today, Mr Benzies’ intervention, which thwarted prospective bids to turn the Georgian church into flats or a restaurant complex, was described as “thrilling news” for the Capital as a whole.

Architect Dr James Simpson, chairman of the St Stephen’s Playfair Trust, said it was “excellent” a wealthy businessman had resolved to protect the A-listed building.

“I think it’s very hopeful that Mr Benzies is going to do good things with St Stephen’s,” he said. “There is very strong interest in the future of the building in the community and we have been promised by his agent Philip Johnston that once the missives were signed, they would bring us into their confidence.

“We are very much looking forward to constructive engagement, and being able to support what Mr Benzies intends to do.”

Dr Simpson, who previously called for the venue to be retained as a community centre, added: “This is the sort of benefactor that we needed.”

Heritage groups have welcomed the interest of Mr Benzies who lives within half-a-mile of the church.

Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “We are pleased that the building is in the hands of a local who would reportedly be interested in maintaining it and looking after it. It’s a spectacular building, and certainly one that is worth looking after.”

St Stephen’s Church was designed by “Athens of the North” architect William Henry Playfair, and is seen as an architectural gem in the heart of the New Town.

The three-storey building, which was put on the market for offers over £500,000 last April, features a 160ft tower, the longest clock pendulum in Europe and a terrace with views across the Lothians and Fife.

Its vast interior includes an 800-capacity venue suitable for live music, dance and theatre.

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage said St Stephen’s was a “major landmark” for the city and designed by one of the Capital’s foremost architects.

He said: “We are thrilled to hear that St Stephen’s Church is to have a suitable new use, with a beneficent new owner at the helm.

“For locals this will provide a great community resource, and investing in the city’s extraordinary built heritage in this way actually benefits the city as a whole.”

kaye.nicolson@edinburghnews.com