University lines up major revamp of graduation venue

An artist`s impression of the new McEwan Hall, Bristo Square.
An artist`s impression of the new McEwan Hall, Bristo Square.
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A HUGE overhaul of Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall is set to get under way later this year in a bid to attract more events to the landmark.

Specialist contractors will begin the first phase of a £3.4 million project to restore and preserve the exterior of the graduation hall in October.

The two-year project, scheduled to run until summer 2014, will focus on erosion of the building’s soft sandstone along with repairing decorated leaded windows.

A separate refit will then begin, with major changes being made to the interior of the hall.

Architects are still drawing up the proposals, which will have to be approved by city planners, but key aspects are understood to include bringing the currently unused 
second tier back into use, providing hundreds of extra seats by building a new internal staircase.

University chiefs are also considering opening up the sprawling basement beneath the main hall and building a new entrance to access it from Bristo Square – similar to the new National Museum of Scotland entrance on nearby Chambers Street.

The Italian Renaissance-style main hall interior will also be subject to restoration.

The university, which advertised the project to prospective contractors this week, will ensure the work is carried out in phases to allow McEwan Hall to open for summer graduations and the Festival.

The venue has proved an increasingly popular attraction and, in 2010, hosted comedian John Bishop when he became the biggest-selling artist in the history of the Fringe, attracting 29,000 fans during his run.

McEwan Hall, named after William McEwan, the 19th-century brewing magnate who paid for the university’s graduation hall, dates back to 1897 and is regularly used for lectures, concerts and exams. It is thought the university intends to expand its use to the wider community.

Euan Leitch, assistant director of the Cockburn Association, which has been consulted by the university’s architects, said the heritage group was supportive of the project. However, he said there were some concerns that the basement doors could become the main entrance.

He said: “I understand enlarging the basement will give greater capacity for 
robing and taking photographs, and that Bristo Square would require to be altered to allow the changes to take place.

“We’re accepting of all of that, but the one thing we were concerned about is that the current main door remains the principal means of access to the main hall.”

“We were disappointed the main doors of the museum on Chambers Street remain closed and we are concerned the same thing could happen here.”

A spokesman for Edinburgh University said: “It is anticipated that the hall will remain open for graduation ceremonies and festival activities while the programme of work is being completed.

“Plans to carry out an internal refurbishment are at a very early stage. We hope that internal work will begin once the external maintenance programme has been completed in the summer of 2014.”