The transformation of Downhill Church into Cottiers Theatre.

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The restoration of the former Dowanhill Church has been undertaken over many years and over many phases of work. Many people have remarked that they enjoy the internal appearance of the building as a work in progress and this holds good as long as the basic wind and watertight nature of the fabric is preserved through regular maintenance.

In the mid 1980s this was far from the case. The impressive hammer beam roof structure had decayed to the point where sections of timber tracery were on the move due to the weakening effect of rot. Within upper rooms of the former church hall, now Leiper’s Attic restaurant, whole sections of floor where they joined the staircase had fallen away. Water was coming in throughout the building complex due to perforations in the leadwork and the deterioration of the slate coverings.

By 1990 sufficient funds had been raised to make a start and in the first phase the former halls were substantially repaired and the rotten timber in main roof structure of the church was removed and replaced by the resin and stainless steel rods, a method that could be afforded and has remained effective.

The condition of the part of the building that is now the bar and restaurant as it was in 1987 with windows broken and the roof leaking chronically
The same building in 1995 after conversion to Cottiers Bar and Restaurant. Once established, this facility, which is owned by the trust and operated by its trading company has provided the revenue income to sustain the project.

At this time stringent efforts were made to record the Cottier decoration that has survived on plaster that was falling down and had become dangerous. Fortunately, there were sufficient areas left to investigate to prove and record the scheme and wherever possible plaster was retained with a view to future decorative restoration.

Conversion of the church hall was completed by 1992 into what became Cottiers bar and restaurant with an interior inspired by the decoration found in the church. This was followed by the laying out of terraces of reclaimed stone flags around the building including an extended second terrace to the west. Second hand Yorkstone proved to be a very sympathetic historic material for this purpose and these terraces are well patronised in summer months.

The roof leaks at the gutters had been cured but the main roof had still not been re-slated. There was no permanent heating installation in the church. This did not prevent it from becoming a performance venue from 1991 when Test Department performed “The Soul Machine”. After that The Cottier Theatre became a popular if rustic performance venue housing everything from opera to stand-up comedy. Early in the history of the performance venue the BBC filmed a series called ‘No Stilettos’ with acts including the Dubliners and the reputation of the venue got off to a flying start.

Around 1995 the stone work of the main church was repaired and from 1996 the trust embarked on a major lottery application to both the arts and heritage lottery funds.

This met with problems in particular with the arts element and in 2001 the then Heritage Lottery Fund broke the deadlock by offering a grant to restore the steeple as a discrete phase of work. Other funding partners including Historic Scotland and Glasgow City Council joined in and the steeple was restored including the magnificent bell and open bell chamber. Throughout these works the main body of the church continued to hold concerts and other events unabated.

Finally, in 2004 a major lottery grant was awarded. Again the work was phased to minimise disruption and risk to the business which has always been the source of revenue funding for the trust and the building since Cottiers opened. The theatre had to be closed and a great deal was accomplished including the full roof and ceiling repairs, a heating system, conservation of the stained glass, complete restoration of the exceptional Father Willis organ, basement accommodation to support the business operation and a pilot scheme of decorative conservation which can be seen surrounding the organ on the upper gallery.

The theatre space could not be reopened until 2010 before the ceiling itself was repaired. The loss of revenue from the theatre coupled with the recession meant that the use of the building had to be restarted even while conservation work was being undertaken above with a crash deck over-sailing the audiences. By 2012 the capital funding contributions had been exhausted.

Steadily since 2012 the uses have been transformed thanks in no small measure to having the heating installation and the ancillary accommodation in the basement. The building has now become a major wedding and events venue while retaining a role in the arts, primarily for music due to the exceptional acoustic found in the interior.

One of the most exciting and interesting phases involved the wall and ceiling decoration at the organ end. Following the removal or the organ to the workshop untouched decoration was found behind the organ which had been installed 11 years after the church was built in 1865-66. These were Daniel Cottier’s original distemper colours unaffected by subsequent schemes of overpainting in oils in the 1890s and the complete plain overpaint scheme of the 1960s. The walls were not otherwise capable of being revealed except for sampling and thanks to these colours being uncovered it was possible to reconstruct the wall painting accurately around the organ. The ceiling here was never painted over in oils only by varnish and emulsion. As a result of expert conservation techniques the colours seen on the ceiling above the organ, which use a different palette, are the original Cottier colours which it was possible to uncover rather than having to reconstruct the scheme afresh.

The remaining four main ceiling bays still have Cottiers scheme of gold stars and planets under the 1960’s turquoise emulsion waiting to be revealed.