New Life for Old Church

We may have reverted to being a pagan country if less than 50% of the population actually go to worship on Sundays, but that doesn’t mean that we can not appreciate the finer points of many of our old churches and to wish to see their beauty preserved. One such building, which is due to find another use, is the Glasite Meeting House in Barony Street, currently the home of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.

Designed by Alexander Black and built in 1835-6, a period of great significance in the religious history of Scotland, it was the Edinburgh meeting house of the followers of John Glas. It is not a unique survival, but one of very few. Within a few minutes’ walk, the Mansfield Traquair Centre (formerly the Catholic Apostolic Church) further down Broughton Street, has had a somewhat parallel history, falling on hard times in the 20th century, but recently enjoying a resurrection through repair, conservation and skilful adaptation for a variety of contemporary uses.

main hall pulpit of Glasite Meeting HouseThe ‘Edinburgh’ volume of the Buildings of Scotland series refers to the two-storey street elevation of the Glasite Meeting House as ‘very severe’ and the interior as ‘almost unchanged, like a faded Victorian photograph’. The main space is the Meeting Room itself, with blind-arched walls, box pews, and a dominating pulpit designed by the much more famous David Bryce, 1873. The Meeting Room is lit from above through a low octagonal glazed dome. (Photographs by David Fleetwood).

cupolaThe other room of consequence is the former Feast Room (now named in commemoration of Colin McWilliam and his singular service to the architectural history of Scotland). Adjoining and below it is a series of small rooms which provide office accommodation for the Architectural History Society of Scotland and several tenants. Below the whole building is a basement or crypt whose condition might be described as variable.

Essential repairs required
The Glasite Meeting House has not yet undergone its resurrection, but is arguably at the ‘point of no return’. A recent Report has made it clear that a considerable sum of money needs to be spent to catch up with essential repairs, particularly to the stonework, and also in order to comply with fundamental health, safety and security considerations, and to comply – urgently – with access legislation.

At the same time, the Society and its tenants find themselves struggling against the grain of a building designed with quite other purposes in mind. Not only the Mansfield Traquair church, but many other churches in Scotland’s cities have been adapted with varying degrees of success to serve the contemporary community. Still others, such as Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields, in London, have been not only repaired and conserved but returned to a level of authenticity and at the same time adapted to serve contemporary needs.

What such programmes always require is a combination of vision and commitment with deep understanding of the significance of the building, plus access to or a determination to raise adequate funding. To follow a similar course, the Glasite Meeting House Committee are looking for opinions, constructive suggestions or support in kind.

The Committee’s vision is that the Meeting House be repaired in such a way that it will be relatively easy to maintain thereafter. Its dignified exterior should be retained but with the addition of signage, lighting and better access facilities. Internally, the Meeting Room should be adapted so that it may host large and small meetings, concerts, conferences, exhibitions, and other events. The pulpit will be retained, while the pews will either be adapted or put in store.

AHSS office in Glasite Meeting House

The Feast Room shown above (c Landlines Heritage) will be redecorated and improved to reflect the gracious character of its design, and made fit for its original purpose, namely entertaining (and occasional office use). Rooms presently used for offices, and the services to support them, will be upgraded. All appropriate steps will be taken to make the building as a whole as accessible as possible. In addition to these physical measures, the history of the building will be thoroughly researched, and will be interpreted and explained.

The result of these improvements will be a building in sound condition, sustainable in every sense, which will be a welcoming headquarters building for a national organisation and for its tenants. The Society would also aim to create and foster a headquarters for several of the NGOs working in the cultural and historic environment sectors and a place to which members would naturally turn for meetings, conferences, advice, opportunities to participate, occasions of celebration, a sense of identity and common purpose.

The building would also be available as a venue during the Edinburgh International Festival, and for other appropriate cultural or social purposes throughout the year. In short, the vision envisages a future for the GMH as a new ‘landmark’ building in the city, welcoming to all, and increasingly useful to as many sectors of society as possible.

True significance of the building
Our challenge, therefore, is, amongst other things, to understand the true significance of the building. To do this, it will be necessary to commission appropriate consultants for repair, conservation and design work, to commit to raising the necessary funds, to carry out the major works envisaged, and to create a framework within which the building can be sustainably managed and maintained into the long-term future.

A major repair programme will then be undertaken, following which the building will be able to serve its present and proposed extended uses with conspicuous success.

Without this vision and purpose the Glasite Meeting House would be, in effect, simply a redundant church building – one of many – and, inevitably, a decaying building which would serve the few rather than the many.

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