Edinburgh World Heritage

Assembly Rooms - The Buildings Beginnings

On 13th January 1787, the doors of the Assembly Rooms opened to the public for first time, on the occasion of the Caledonian Hunt Ball.

Although the building was not yet complete, the opening was a magnificent event.  Two days later, the Edinburgh Evening Courant provided a vivid snap shot:

“….The dresses of the Ladies were in the highest stile of taste and elegance.  The gowns were chiefly of different coloured sattins (sic), covered with crape, and ornamented with flowers; the prevailing cap was the turban, decorated with feathers, and some few with pearls and diamonds.  Several ladies wore pink coloured Spanish hats, which had a very pretty elegance…”

Six years earlier, the Town Council, had held a competition, inviting designs for the construction of new Assembly Rooms. The existing Assembly Rooms off the High Street were “neither elegant nor commodious” and the Town Council wanted a place of public entertainment which was worthy of Edinburgh’s elegant New Town. Participants were given a month’s deadline over Christmas 1781 and the incentive of a handsome 25 guinea prize.  

The winner was John Henderson, a young, relatively unknown local architect who had been in practice for three years. He had studied in Rome and returned, heavily influenced by classical ideas. Possibly through inexperience, Henderson ran over budget.  He angered the council, by creating insufficient headroom for the supper room beneath the ball room, and was required to raise the level of the ball room by eight feet.  The final cost was in the region of £ 8000, a third higher than anticipated.

In the late 18th century, the Assembly Rooms were reached by two staircases, leading from entrances in adjoining side lanes. William Burn added the portico in 1818 but the main George Street entrance was not used until the completion of the Music Room in 1843.

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