JOYCE MCMILLAN on SAVING ST. STEPHEN’S for Scotsman Magazine, 15.2.14.
IT’S MANY YEARS since it was in regular use as a church, and now its handsome frontage bears a large For Sale notice; but still, St. Stephen’s Church at the foot of Howe Street is one of the great landmark buildings of Edinburgh’s new town, designed by the great Georgian achitect William Playfair to dominate the magnificent vista from the summit of Frederick Street, down across North Edinburgh, to the Firth of Forth and the hills of Fife beyond.
St. Stephen’s was built by Edinburgh Corporation as a burgh church, and only passed into the ownership of the Church Of Scotland in the 1920’s; in the 1950’s, it was divided horizontally to create an octagonal upstairs Great Room at balcony level, with two floors of smaller spaces below. And for the last 15 years it has been run by the combined Stockbridge parishes as the St. Stephen’s Centre, used for a variety of community purposes, and as a Fringe venue during the Edinburgh Festival in August.
And it’s because of St. Stephen’s glittering history as a Fringe venue, as well as its value to the Stockbridge community, that ripples of concern are running through the dance and theatre community, following a recent decision by the Church of Scotland to put the building up for sale. During the Edinburgh Festival of 2001, St. Stephen’s was adopted by the young German performer and producer Wolfgang Hoffmann as the Edinburgh home of Aurora Nova, a company that presents cutting-edge visual theatre and dance from across the world; and for several years, the Great Room at St. Stephens became a world-famous space, a key destination for audiences who loved the thrill of watching the world’s most innovative dance companies, and for international promoters visiting Edinburgh.
Aurora Nova left St. Stephen’s in 2007; but since then, the lower rooms have been used by the Arches Theatre in Glasgow as a free-flowing festival base, and – since 2012 – by Northern Stage from Newcastle, who have quickly built up an enthusiastic audience for their award-winning work from across the north of England. So the loss of St. Stephen’s as a public buiiding would be a huge blow both to the physical and psychological landscape of the New Town – one of Scotland’s World Heritage Sites – but also to the international theatre scene, which has come to value the building as one of the leading venues in the western world’s greatest arts festival – and a venue, too, which helps to counter the Fringe’s increasing drift towards the student centres on the South Side.
The good news, though, is that St. Stephen’s has a strong chance of being saved for public use; firstly because its Grade 1 listed building status, effectively forbids residential development and many commercial uses, and secondly because a powerful group of local residents, led by architect James Simpson, has come together in a new organisation called the St. Stephen’s Playfair Trust, to try to raise money to buy the building at the current asking price of £500,000, to upgrade the building and its facilities, and to seek to run it on the same basis as the majestic Mansfield Traquair Church at Mansfield Place, as a historic public space available for community, cultural and other events, funded by commercial office space on one of the lower floors. The closing date for the purchase is 20 February, and the Trust is hoping that if its bid is successful, it will be allowed to lease the building for one year, while it raises the money; in which case, Northern Stage will be back at St. Stephen’s this year, and the various community uses of the space can continue.
There are many hurdles still to be overcome; the deal will, for example, need a final nod from Edinburgh City Council, which retains a right of refusal on the building as the original owner. Since the sad closure of the Theatre Workshop on Hamilton Place, though, Stockbridge and north-west Edinburgh is an area that needs to cultivate its remaining public and community spaces. James Simpson is convinced that given the right care, investment and promotion, the Great Room at St, Stephen’s could become one of Edinburgh’s great music and performance venues, all year round. And if there is any community in Edinburgh capable of finding the resources to support such a grand and life-enhancing project, then surely the community of Edinburgh’s New Town and Stockbridge must be the one; provided Dr. Simpson and his Trust colleagues can help it find the energy, the determination – and of course, an essential measure of good luck.
For more information, contact the St. Stephen’s Playfair Trust at , and on social media.