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Edinburgh World Heritage grant for Playfair's Surgeons' Hall

30 January 2015

The conservation work forms part of the Lister Project, a £4 million re-development of the historic building by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The project will see a re-interpretation of its museum collections, access improvements to buildings, the conservation of its archive and work to help preserve its exterior.

The building was constructed to replace an older hall in Surgeon’s Square, and its design is inspired by the temples of ancient Greece. Facing the street is an impressive scaled portico, with six tall ionic columns supporting a pediment. Across the top of the building is an intricately carved frieze of honeysuckle and lotus. Surgeons' Hall ranks along other Greek Revival buildings such as the National Monument, the Royal High School and the Royal Scottish Academy, in earning Edinburgh its epithet ‘the Athens of the North’.

The EWH grant of £60,000 will help with the external conservation of the building. A series of repairs have been carried out over the years, but a more comprehensive conservation of the stonework is now required to the 180 year old building. In places the stonework is beginning to flake or ‘spall’, and some of the upper scrollwork is now badly damaged.

The work consists of some new stone indents, consolidating areas of flaking stonework, and adding lime mortar to repair cracks and joints. Specialist stone conservators have been brought in to work on the building’s decorative frieze. The conservation work began last month and is expected to complete in February.

Once the whole project is complete, a new external trail for Surgeons' Hall will be launched explaining its architecture for visitors, and using the original archive drawings.

Above: A conservator at work on the Surgeons' Hall frieze.

William Playfair

William Playfair was born in London into a very distinguished family. His father was an architect and his uncles were the mathematician Professor John Playfair, and the engineer and economist William Playfair.

He returned as a boy to his family home in Edinburgh, and as a young man set himself up as an architect. Playfair was awarded many important projects around the city such as the Royal Academy and National Gallery on the Mound, the New Observatory and the quadrangle of the university’s Old College. He also produced a masterplan for an extension of the New Town, in the area to the north of Calton Hill.

Surgeons' Hall
As Edinburgh’s reputation in teaching medicine grew throughout the 1700s, so the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh needed larger premises to teach students and to house their specimens and anatomical examples.  In 1822 Playfair was appointed to look at the problem, and the site on Nicholson Street was chosen as offering ample space for the new hall.

The building was to include museums, a grand hall to accommodate 100 people, a library, meeting rooms, and a class room for 250 students. Playfair’s design makes a clever use of the available space, with a screen wall in front of the building adding to the grandeur of the street façade. The hall opened on 7 July 1832, and cost the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh the grand total of £15,153 15s 5d. 

This article originally appeared on Edinburgh World Heritage Trust's website on 29th Janurary 2015

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