New beginnings: After a multi-million refurbishment the Assembly Rooms is ready to re-open

The refurbished Assembly Rooms will open to the public on Saturday
The refurbished Assembly Rooms will open to the public on Saturday
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IT HAS been a long and painstaking task, involving everything from large-scale building work to the delicate hand-polishing of more than 500,000 pieces of cut crystal.

On Saturday, the newly refurbished Assembly Rooms will open its doors to the public for the first time in 18 months, giving them a chance to see the new-look venue as it hosts a Ceilidh Stomp.

Picture: Greg Macvean

Picture: Greg Macvean

Ahead of the launch, bosses said the refurbishment was aiming to bring the venue into much greater use, and said promoters and performers were already lining up to use it.

The 18th-century theatre and concert hall at the heart of the New Town has just undergone a £9.3 million refurbishment to transform it in time for this year’s Festival.

Over the past year and a half 250,000 man hours have gone into the project, which has seen plasterwork restored, ornate finishes repaired and 25 chandeliers reconditioned.

Venue managers were keen to point out that local skilled craftspeople employing traditional methods had been closely involved in the project to recreate and revitalise the iconic Georgian features.

Shona Clelland and Richard Lewis hope residents will enjoy the venue

Shona Clelland and Richard Lewis hope residents will enjoy the venue

Greater emphasis has now been placed on the experience of visiting a theatre venue and not just on the individual performance, according to new city culture leader Richard Lewis.

“In the 18th and part of the 19th century a visit to the theatre was about experiencing the environment. The architecture and surroundings were just as much a part of the experience as the performance,” said Councillor Lewis, a highly-regarded conductor with a background in music in Europe and further afield.

“Having light blacked out and the spotlight on the stage is a relatively recent thing. Before then, theatre-goers wanted to look around to see who else was in the audience, who were in the boxes, and to admire their surroundings.”

One of the biggest tasks facing the workmen has been the cleaning and restoration of the venue’s grand chandeliers, under which Sir Walter Scott strode through the high society crowds 200 years ago.

A handful of experts faced the daunting challenge of taking apart the 500,000 crystal droplets and spent the 18 months which followed gently buffing each item, before reassembling them in a large jigsaw puzzle.

The results were glass masterpieces illuminating the grand halls of the city’s finest landmarks. “The detail of the work that has been done is incredible,” said general manager Shona Clelland, as she admired the main chandelier in the music hall, comprised of 9000 individual crystals.

In the grand ballroom, the scale is even more apparent, with three more lighting structures together holding 36,000 crystals. Gone are the green walls, thick deep red drapes and faded seats, replaced with a light magnolia and light grey setting more akin to a Viennese palace.

Embroidered grey Zoffany damask curtains hang from the 40ft windows of the main hall, and gold leaf has been carefully applied to the faded decorative cornicing along the edges of the ceiling.

It is not just the grand ballroom and music hall which have been subject to careful restoration. Four 18th-century “Coade stone” statues believed to have graced the original Regency side entrance to the “Music Hall and Assembly Rooms” were rediscovered but had been covered in emulsion around 12 times over the years, with many of the features lost.

Paul McAuley, a museums collections expert with the city council, spent months restoring them so that they could be displayed in the crush hall leading to the main ballroom.

Edinburgh City Council funded £8.25m of the £9.3m project costs and the refurbishment is expected to lead to far greater use by major corporate clients and events for the public.

Outside the Festival the Assembly Rooms are only currently used on occasion, but soundproofing will now allow several events to be held at the same time.

This week’s launch of Jamie Oliver’s new restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, is also expected to increase the number of 
visitors to the venue, particularly as diners must walk through the main foyer of the Assembly Rooms to reach the entrance.

Ms Clelland said: “People will come to the theatre and realise there’s a Jamie Oliver restaurant here and at the same time diners will realise there’s a theatre here with a whole range of events on.

“We’ve already been hearing from comedy promoters and theatre agents we’ve not dealt with before, along with corporate clients interested in holding events here.

“Everyone involved hopes that the people of Edinburgh are as delighted as we are to have the venue back.”

Cllr Lewis added: “Edinburgh is unique in that it has an 18th-century landmark such as this in public ownership.

“It is our duty not only to look after this venue, which we must because it’s an A-listed structure, but because it is an asset for all of the city’s residents to ­experience.

“The Assembly Rooms has been restored not just to its former glory but to where it belongs – at the very heart of Edinburgh life, all year round.”

Painstaking process

THE refurbishment of the Assembly Rooms has been a long and controversial process.

The work was originally drawn up to preserve the crumbling building’s future as a major city venue – but fears over the effect of its long-term closure on the Capital’s Fringe festival saw campaigners mount a major protest.

Nearly 8000 people backed an online campaign warning the redevelopment would have a major impact on the Fringe, but after Historic Scotland did not call in the plans the project was given the green-light and works started in January last year

The refurbishment of the building saw all the major spaces, including its famous ballroom and music hall, restored while also creating space for the £2 million upmarket restaurant being run by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Historic Assembly

The Assembly Rooms first opened its doors on January 11, 1787, to provide a place of entertainment for the wealthy residents of the New Town.

It was named after the historic assemblies which were a symbol of civility for communities and provided a focus and forum for community life. Its first event – held while the building was still incomplete – was the Caledonian Hunt Ball.

The building, costing more than £6000, was funded by public subscription, while the site was donated by the town council. The A-listed building had been designed by local architect John Henderson, who died shortly after it was completed.

Over the years the structure was added to – in 1818 a portico was added by William Burn, who also designed the Music Hall in 1843.

And in 1907, new side wings were completed to designs by Robert Rowand Anderson and Balfour Paul.

In 1947 it hosted acts as part of the first ever International Festival, and since then has become more closely liked with the Fringe.