Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms: A Potted History

Submitted by edg on Thu, 30 Dec '10 9.09pm

In 2011, Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms will be closed for a controversial, but long-planned, £9.5 million refurbishment which will see its ground floor converted into a shopping space with a "fine dining" restaurant to the rear of the building.

Edinburgh City Council defends its plan to introduce the retail and restaurant element on the ground floor as necessary to "largely finance" the refurbishments of the Assembly Rooms' events rooms - the Ballroom, Music Hall, Crush Hall and the East and West Drawing Rooms.

Culture Leader Cllr Deidre Brock also points out that the project will see the ground floor of the building returned to its "original use".

"Shops were there until as recently as 1950, and the Supper Room will go back to its original dining use (the clue being in its name!), creating a new entrance on Rose Street," she says.

However, the Council's plans to commercialise this hub of artistic activity has been greeted with howls of protest, in particular from its most prominent tenant Assembly Festival (see Save the Assembly Rooms video).

The Edinburgh Fringe's most recognisable brand grew out of the building and has raised the profile of the venue more than any other user since Walter Scott entertained King George IV on his celebrated Edinburgh visit in 1822.

However, Assembly says it sees "no provision" for its festival operation in the Council's revamped venue.

A history of the Assembly Rooms

On 14th May 1783, the foundation stone for the Assembly Rooms was laid. This marked the beginning of an exciting and ambitious project that was to provide the aristocracy with a new establishment in the New Town.

A competition was decided upon as the best method for attracting first class designs for the new building. It did so with John Henderson securing himself a first prize win of 25 guineas.

Building was to commence on the site in George Street that had been gifted by the Town Council. Midway through construction, John Henderson died and responsibility was passed to his father, David, a mason who had worked with Adam on Register House.

The Assembly Rooms opened its doors, in an incomplete state, on the 11th January 1787 for the Caledonian Hunt Ball, at a cost from public subscription of £6,300. Through further subscription in 1796, ceiling roses, fluted Corinthian pilasters, drapes, mirrors and the magnificent chandeliers were installed by John Baxter.

Finally completed by the beginning of the 19th Century, the Assembly Rooms exceeded that of the Great Room in Bath in its elegance and “just proportion”.

The Ballroom comprised of a bow fronted tea-room and two card rooms that were all reached through side entrances on the east and west of the building. Two principal staircases lead into a central square salon, known today as the Crush Hall.

The first Edinburgh Music Festival in 1815 was housed in the Ballroom, and a year later Sir Walter Scott “supervised” a banquet bestowed on the Black Watch.

In 1827, the Assembly Rooms played host to the annual dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund Association during which Scott chose to reveal his identity as the "The Great Unknown" author of the Waverley Novels.

Further Development

Realising that the role of the Assembly Rooms was subtly changing, it was recognised that a change and a second major phase of redevelopment was necessary. Two of the great figures of 19th Century Scottish Architecture, William Burn and David Bryce became involved and so the second phase began.

Opening to acclaim in 1843, the Music Hall held a week of performances that included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Any hopes of money-making the directors had were dashed, possibly due to poor ticketing arrangements, when a loss of up to £600 was reported.

By now, the Assembly Rooms had established itself as a venue that, whilst still catering for both public and private balls, was now equipped to accommodate public meetings, concerts, recitals, music festivals, dinners, banquets, Royal occasions and public readings by celebrated authors such as Dickens and Thackeray.

The Assembly Rooms was now a principal performing arts venue vital to social and artistic life within the City. In particular, in the last thirty years, as home Assembly Festival during the Fringe.

Edinburgh Assembly Rooms Upgrades and Changes

Over the years the building has undergone further alterations such as:

  • 1833 Gas lighting introduced
  • 1865 The extension of the existing portico for a new band platform in the Ballroom and the shell headed doorway was created based on a previous design by Bryce in 1857
  • 1879 Alterations made to Music Hall stage and room redecorated
  • 1883 Gas lighting converted to electricity and a vestibule was created at ground floor level with depressed arches
  • 1907 Redevelopment of the Supper Room and the addition of the East & West drawing rooms above the lanes
  • 1922 The Music Hall organ and the gallery columns were removed
  • 1950 Redevelopment of the foyer with the removal of the two shops and redecoration of the Ballroom and West Drawing Room
  • 2011 £9.5 million refurbishment introduces shops and restaurant on ground floor