Edinburgh World Heritage - News Article


EWH grant helps to regenerate hidden Georgian gem

EWH has awarded a grant of £100,000 towards the restoration of St Cecilia’s Hall, Scotland’s oldest purpose-designed concert hall.

Feb 24, 2015

The category A listed building dates to 1763 and was designed by architect Robert Mylne. When it was first opened the building made quite an impact on Edinburgh society, with one observer commenting, “I have seen no concert room equal to it either in London or Paris”.

Today the building is owned by the University of Edinburgh, and houses its world-class collection of historical musical instruments. However later additions to St Cecilia’s have left the original Georgian concert hall hidden from view at the heart of the building. The University’s vision is to restore and renovate the building and its facilities in order to preserve its collection and broaden its appeal to a wider public.

The new project looks to turn St Cecilia’s Hall into a new centre for excellence for the study, display and enjoyment of historical musical instruments, and to be a place where public exhibition, research, performance, teaching and learning intersect. Along with the new exhibition, improvements will also be carried out to oval concert room with tiered seating and staging platforms.

Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage said: “St Cecilia’s Hall is one of the city’s gems and really deserves this chance to shine. Its conservation, revitalisation and the opportunity to re-present the extraordinary instrument collections will help change our perception of Niddry Street as the back of the South Bridge, and will encourage residents and visitors to further explore the city. We are thrilled to be supporting this initiative for an important and living part of this city’s musical heritage, and are excited by how it links with other initiatives to lift the Royal Mile and Old Town, such as the recent works to the Scotsman Steps, or the work of the Canongate Holyrood Initiative.”

Jacky MacBeath, Head of Museums at the University of Edinburgh said: “This is a hugely significant grant for the St Cecilia’s Hall Project, and we are immensely grateful to Edinburgh World Heritage. Conserving the 18th century building is integral to the success of the whole Project, and it is great to have such a generous gift from EWH towards these works. We’ve also benefitted hugely from advice and expertise from this supportive local trust.”

The EWH grant will help fund conservation of the historic stonework, enhancing the historic features of the building. It will particularly focus on the original Georgian Niddry Street, which was once the main entrance to the building. The work will consist of stonework repairs, repointing in lime mortar, slating and leadwork to the roof.

Work to the exterior will start next month and is due to be completed in September 2016.

History of the building
Today the concert hall is fairly anonymous, but in the 1700s it would have made quite an impact. The main entrance was decorated with a classical portico, and had a private courtyard for parking sedan chairs. Most of this has now unfortunately gone, but if you look closely you can still see the original doorway. Inside was a screen of gilded and painted columns, with a grand sweeping staircase. Its acoustics were carefully planned, with a cupola in the ceiling providing natural light rather windows, and tiered seating firmly fixed to the floor.

However this glittering new venue faced a serious challenge when the South Bridge was built in the 1780s. Not only did it lose its portico and courtyard, but also of course the noise from building works made concerts impossible. St Cecilia’s became first a Baptist church, then a Freemasons Hall, and from 1845 it was a school. In later years the ground floor was separately leased out as shops and a pub. Then in 1933 the concert hall was transformed into the Art Deco elegance of the Excelsior Ballroom. It was hugely popular with both Edinburgh folk and servicemen on leave, and was renowned for having a strict code of respectability.

As the fashion for dance halls waned, it was the University of Edinburgh who next stepped in to save St Cecilia’s. In 1959 they bought the entire building as place to house a unique collection of early keyboard instruments it had recently been gifted.

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