‘The Assembly’ was, in a sense, a club open only to those of a certain rank. Edinburgh’s first Assembly Rooms was situated on the West Bow, a winding street leading from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket. The first assemblies were organised for profit, but they soon came under the direction of a company of philanthropic titled ladies – the Lady Directresses.
These philanthropic ladies donated the proceeds to various charities, like the founding of the Royal Infirmary in 1729. Under their guidance, a public subscription was begun in the early 1780s, which eventually raised the princely sum of £6,300 for the creation of purpose-built Assembly Rooms on George Street.
Design and construction
In December 1781, adverts appeared announcing the competition to design the new building and offering a prize of 25 guineas. John Henderson was chosen as winner in 1782, and while plans where revised three times before the foundation stone was laid in May 1783, they formed the basis for the building we see today.
Even as the foundation stone was laid, plans were under way for more alterations to Henderson’s design. A supper room was proposed for below the ballroom. In 1796, another fundraising campaign paid for the addition of ceiling roses, Corinthian pilasters, drapes, mirrors and crystal chandeliers in the Ballroom.
The grand portico entrance was added in 1818 to create a greater sense of splendour as guests arrived. And the Music Hall opened in October 1843 – the directors felt the addition would ‘materially increase the prosperity of the concern’.
In the 1880s more decoration was added to the Ballroom, including the chimney pieces and mirrors, and in 1895 the additional mirrors were placed across the main stairs, the closing off the windows and forming discreet service passages.
The 20th and 21st centuries
The East and West Drawing Rooms were added in 1906, along with the long-awaited Supper Room – this addition involved relocating the kitchen to the east side of the building. Sixteen years later the Music Hall underwent extensive alterations, which included removing the organ and changing the whole front of the stage. The gallery was also rebuilt to increase capacity.
In 1945, the building was donated to the City of Edinburgh Council, and by the 1950s it was being used as the Festival Club by Edinburgh International Festival. Thirty years later, in 1981, the Assembly Rooms became a key venue for the Edinburgh Fringe – and has remained so ever since.
2011 saw the beginnings of an extensive, 18-month, refurbishment project, which restored the main rooms to all their beauty and added the superb technical infrastructure that has made Assembly Rooms one of Scotland’s premier venues for contemporary events.