L Ron Hubbard religion's bid for Edinburgh landmark sank by French Consulate

The Herald, Scotland/February 1, 2017

By Brian Donnelly

It is the Athens-inspired prime site venue where thousands of couples have exchanged vows before stepping out onto the cobbles of Parliament Square in wedlock for the first time.

Now the halls of one of the most prominent buildings in the Scottish capital will echo with the language of love as it is transformed into the new home of the French Consulate.

However, in an a bizarre twist, the 200-year-old B-Listed Lothian Chambers could have reverberated to the preachings of L Ron Hubbard, with the French seeing off a bid from the Church of Scientology to move in.

The religious group also went up against a casino and a major store as Edinburgh City Council moved to save £173,000 a year on running costs as it relocates its 15 staff who occupy the under-used building to nearby offices.

The registry office that was home to the records of the city's hatches, matches and dispatches dating back decades has seen a shift in the numbers of people being wed there, and the 16 events a week are only a fraction of those five years ago when it was around 16 a day.

At the same time there has has been a rise in the registrars leaving the chambers to undertake outdoors weddings, with around 500 over the last year, with offices also at Leith and South Queensferry.

It is understood the US-based religious group, whose famous adherents include Tom Cruise and John Travolta, was considered not to be a suitable partner to move into the building, neither would the site at the High Street and George IV Bridge crossroads have been suitable for one of the interested gambling organisations.

A source outwith the council said the Scientologists, currently based at South Bridge, had been interested in the property for some time.

Instead the French Consulate has taken out a 125 year lease on the building and its halls will be used a cultural centre.

The Consulate proposals for the building include a 100-seat auditorium, with an extensive programme of theatre, music, dance and artist residencies planned to support as well as showcase performances from Scottish, French and international artists.

It will also have a 20,000 book and multimedia library, offering a variety of lectures, reading groups and youth activities, an art gallery and a Scotland Centre for Photography, a French and European language school and an information and support centre for French and European citizens.

Emmanuel Cocher, French Consul General, said: “True to the Auld Alliance as well as our European bonds, France wants to invest in Edinburgh and Scotland.

"The Lothian Chambers are set to house an enhanced programme of international and Scottish cultural activities, relevant to all audiences which bring people together.

"We are conscious of taking over a central element of the civic heritage in the capital of Scotland and, in doing so, we commit ourselves to nurturing the spirit of creation and Enlightenment and cross-cultural exchanges that have made Edinburgh the ‘world art beacon’ it is known as internationally.”

Weddings that are booked will be honoured and it is expected that the wedding venue will be available for hire from the French Consulate, which is moving from Randolph Crescent in the West End.

As well as an outsourced café offering refreshments and light catering the Embassy said there would be space rental for receptions, weddings and civic occasions.

Gavin Barrie, Edinburgh's economy convener, said: “If we are able to maximise the use of these buildings, relocate staff and services efficiently and make considerable savings on running costs; it makes absolute sense to do so.

“If taken forward, the French Embassy’s proposals would give the Lothian Chambers a new lease of life and provide residents and visitors with fantastic opportunities to enjoy public access to the property.”

The Consulate hopes to relocate this year to tie in with the 70th anniversaries of both the French Consulate in Edinburgh and the Edinburgh International Festival.

The original County Hall was built between 1816 and 1818 with the design based on the Acropolis at Athens, and 1892 plans were made for the extension and rearrangement of the rooms which created the building as it is today.

The council is also expected to approve a move for developer Chris Stewart to revamp its offices near the council chambers into serviced apartments, with 58 staff being relocated.

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