In the heart of Edinburgh is one of its premier arts venues - the Usher Hall nestles between two of the city's best-known theatres, the Traverse and the Lyceum, and is readily accessible from Princes Street. But you may be surprised to learn that the concert venue very nearly ended up a little further along Lothian Road...
In 1896 Andrew Usher gifted the city a sum of money equivalent to over £10 million today, for the construction of a venue to bear his name, in much the same fashion as William McEwan had done previously. The McEwan Hall, also funded by the profits from the family brewing and distilling business, still stands at the heart of Edinburgh University's city centre operation on Bristo Square. But a similar plot of land was proving difficult for officials to find for the Usher Hall.
Usher's money was specifically for an entertainment venue of at least 3,000 seats that could be accessible by the whole city - the size of building this would need couldn't be readily accommodated in an already over-developed city centre.
Luckily Edinburgh has always had a significant amount of open green space in and around it, and the land on the Meadows had already previously been used for a great exhibition in the 1880s. Although that building had been a temporary one, perhaps space could be set aside for a more permanent structure?
Plans from 1898 show the circular layout of the Usher Hall sited at the west end of the Meadows, near the junction with Brougham Place. Roughly here:
Andrew Usher, then in his seventies, died in 1898, never seeing the plans for his building being confirmed. It was unlikely ever to have been granted planning permission for the Meadows site, however, as the land was protected then (as it still is today) by an act of parliament forbidding any permanent construction on its green expanse.
The Usher Hall project sat in limbo for over a decade, while alternative sites were considered. In 1910, a school building off Lothian Road was closed down, and the demolition of the structure left a large open space in the shadow of the castle rock itself. In 1911 the site was confirmed as the location for the proposed Usher Hall, with the foundation stone being laid by King George V in July of that year.
And so the small accumulation of buildings, sometimes touted as Edinburgh's theatre district, began to take shape. The Lyceum has been open since the 1880s, although the 'new' Traverse theatre wouldn't open until 1992, having previously been housed in spaces off the Lawnmarket and the Grassmarket since the 1960s.
The grand circle frontage of the Usher Hall is today complemented by a glass extension opened a few years ago, combining the classical stone work with a contemporary feel that truly celebrates the building's position in Edinburgh culture for over a century.
It remains a popular venue for concerts and comedy, and even hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1970s! The hall's immense organ remains the centrepiece of its stage, an instrument which cost an impressive £4,000 in cash when it was installed.
Find out more about the Usher Hall and other historic buildings in the city with my Up-Close and Personal private tours - contact me for more information!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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